Spotlight: Jeake's House
While we have many wonderful businesses in town, there is a handful that capture an essence of everything that the town is about and always has been – its rich history, extraordinary architecture, the famous writers and artists who’ve lived here, its reputation as a welcoming place to visit. One of those places is Jeake’s House, a treasure that falls into a category all of its own.
1. Pleasure to talk to you, Jenny! Could you describe your business to us?
When we were given the Good Hotel Guide Cesar Award, they described us as ‘quirky’ but I’m not a big fan of that word – had they said – ‘wildly eccentric’ I’d have been delighted!
On our website, we describe Jeake’s House as ‘elegant accommodation in Rye’.
We’re unusual for a guest house in that we also have public rooms so guests can enjoy relaxing in our honesty bar, or in the parlour. Our breakfasts are served in the galleried half of what was once a Quaker meeting house and later a Baptist Chapel – you’ll see that the windows are high up – designed to prevent the congregation from getting distracted!
2. When was your business founded?
Well, there are two stories here – the first is the incredible history of the building itself, and the second is how I came to it.
It was built in 1689 as a wool store by Samuel Jeake, a strict Puritan. The building next door, known as Quaker’s House, was sold to the Baptists in 1753 but it was in such a state it was pulled down to make way for the present chapel. In 1853 Jeake’s storehouse was converted into a school by the Baptists, but in 1909 it was sold and converted into a dwelling, while the chapel became St Mary’s Men’s Club. Fast forward to the 1920s and Conrad Aiken – the American writer - bought the property and was visited here by many famous contemporaries including TS Eliot, EF Benson, Paul Nash, Malcom Lowry and Radclyffe Hall. Each of our rooms and suite are named after the famous creatives that our town is so strongly associated with.
I feel very strongly about keeping the history of the building alive – we’re custodians really.
We arrived in 1985. Back then it was three separate properties – the store, the chapel and the neighbouring Elder’s House and was in a pretty derelict state. There was no plumbing and no central heating. We knew it was going to be a massive undertaking – my then husband was working elsewhere, and we just had one builder/carpenter, so I was his builder’s labourer doing everything to help! Of course, we lived here too – on the top floor while all the work was going on below. I can remember sitting in one of the big fireplaces painting it and my husband bringing me a G&T – and it was so cold in the building it froze! I used to have to follow the builder around with a little heater to keep him warm.
Major renovation projects of old buildings are all the fashion these days and people love to follow them on social media – but back then it was a different story. I used to collect William, my son, from school in my dungarees with my hair tied up in a scarf having emerged straight from what was a building site - he’d be so embarrassed by me! He was only six and on Mondays they used to have ‘show and tell’ at school and he got a reputation for telling tall tales about what was going on at home – in fact he was always telling the truth – like when he told the teacher there was a cement mixer in his kitchen! Or the time he told the class his mum had found ‘a swimming pool under the floor’ – in fact we’d discovered the old baptistry under the floor of what is now our galleried breakfast room. His teacher eventually called us, so we set the record straight!
Within a year of moving in we had two rooms ready to use, I decorated them myself and made the curtains on the granny sewing machine. Today we have 11 rooms/suites.
3. What is your background – how did it lead you to this business?
Jenny from Jeake's House
I’d had no background in hospitality - far from it, I had been an opera singer! I was born in Wales where my family had been evacuated in the war, but at around 18 months old we moved back to Rye, where my father was from. To begin with, we lived at Rye Harbour – my father was the writer John Burke, and he was Rye born and bred – they say you have to be born within the town walls to be a true Ryer, and he was, so I’m not quite that – but very nearly!
I went to Rye Grammar School and before moving to Jeake’s house we lived at The Grove, where for a while we fostered troubled teenagers.
4. What do you think makes your business unique?
I think it’s a combination of things. Our eccentricity of course; our sense of history certainly, and the fact that there is always lots of laughter here – we’re very welcoming and guests feel very at home.
5. What are your business values?
Having happy guests and happy staff.
I love watching our girls flourish. One of our current team was incredibly shy when she first began here and didn’t have the confidence to wait tables at breakfast time but recently, I’ve been out of the loop with back problems and she’s risen to the challenge - just last week we had a thank you note from guests who named her as being particularly lovely and helpful to them during their stay. It’s really heartening to see staff develop their skills and their confidence and a love of their job.
Some of our staff started their careers with us, then moved on to do something different or to raise a family but have later re-joined us – they’ve come full circle and that’s really special to us too.
It’s always about learning. You have to like learning so you can keep growing and evolving with your business. Of course, you have to like people too – I’m definitely a people person. We’re lucky that we have a lot of repeat guests, and many of them have a favourite room or suite they like to return to. We’re glad to see the return of our European guests post-Covid – we have lots of visitors from the Netherlands and Germany.
6. What are your plans for your business in 2023 – what are you focusing on?
Everything is a work in progress! It’s the nature of the business given the age and historical significance of our premises that we’re always doing something to keep things looking their best.
Environmentally we’ve made big changes in recent times – for example we have no plastic bottles in the business now. We give guests filtered tap water in their rooms. So we’re always looking at making changes where needed.
We have a ‘Who Cares? We Do!’ form which we leave in guests’ rooms. As a small business with owners who live on site and are very present, we’re conscious that guests might not always feel comfortable giving feedback directly to us while they are here but we’d much rather they shared their thoughts and experiences. The form offers them a discreet way of providing feedback which is enormously valuable to us, because of course we always want to be providing the best level of service to our guests.
7. What are the challenges your business faces this year?
Covid was a massive challenge as it was for so many businesses, but even that has taught us new things. Some of the changes we made to operate within social distancing rules at the time, actually worked better for us – for example how we time our breakfast service - so we’ve continued with them. You have to always look at what an experience can teach you for your business.
I think Air B’n’B is a challenge to the hospitality industry generally but increasingly so in Rye. There needs to be a level playing field, particularly when it comes to things like health and safety issues and fire regulations.
8. What are you most proud of in your business?
Well, I think it’s an achievement to still be here and still be busy! As I’ve said, I think that learning is key – you’ve got to enjoy learning in order to keep growing and shaping your business. We’ve always moved forward and evolved but not at the expense of our values. You can grow and adapt and stay relevant without losing the sense of history that is firmly part of our offering. I’m also incredibly proud of my family.
9. If there was one piece of advice you wish you’d had been given when you opened your business what would it be?
I’d have loved to have someone I could go to and share business problems with and for them to give me unbiased advice. I think that everyone can benefit from having a business mentor. I’m always happy to support those starting out on their business journeys by opening our orders and showing them around and answering their questions.
10. What's the biggest change you’ve seen in your business or your business sector since you started?
Definitely the digital stuff! I was horrified when I had to learn to use a computer!