The Westcliffe Guest House in Blackpool - the UK’s first knitting themed hotel
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Paula Chew swapped archaeology for a purler of a job, running the UK’s first knitting themed hotel in Blackpool
As 40th birthday presents go, Paula Chew's has to be up there with the more unusual. It was back in 2004 and rather than throw a big party or splurge on bucket-list type experiences, she bought the Westcliffe Guest House in Blackpool. She admits it was a little out of 'boredom' - she wasn't working at the time. And after a year of running it, business wasn't exactly booming at the North Shore guest house.
'It was a real struggle when we first opened our doors - it just wasn't working and we weren't getting the guests we needed to make it viable,' admits Paula.
'I had always been a keen knitter, so we tried organising a knitting holiday package.'
The idea was an instant hit and, after trying a few more, she dedicated the business to guests who wanted to 'get away and knit'.
'It was absolutely the best decision to make and it gave us the opportunity to make our business niche and different to other guest houses in Blackpool,' Paula adds.
By doing so, she had set up the first ever guest house devoted to all things knitting, wool and yarn across the UK.
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It was a masterstroke by Paula, who runs the business with husband Simon and youngest daughter, Ruth. Unlike other hoteliers and small business owners, the Westcliffe hasn't been as affected by recession - something she puts down to those Knitaways that are often booked months in advance.
Guests can bring their own projects and tap into Paula's experience and the visiting tutors she brings in. They are also able to try out different equipment she has available at Westcliffe.
'We have between eight and ten people on every Knitaway. This gives everyone the opportunity to get the attention and help they might want,' says Paula. 'To fuel them up, we give the guests a hearty three course English breakfast and a four course evening dinner during their stay.'
Paula jokes her guest house has become well known by local taxi drivers picking up knitters from the railway station. She's attracted many fans too - including former Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans who described Paula as his 'best ever guest'. But Westcliffe has also provided a place to escape, recover and meet new people for many of her guests. 'We have a lot of single people come to stay with us. Perhaps they have been widowed or a carer to a loved one,' Paula explains. 'But they have often come here on their own and ended up making new friends and stayed in touch with the people they have met.
'It can be a great way of bringing people together and is a really nice way for people to bond and make lasting friendships.'
It's not just guests from the UK, but also from France, Italy and other parts of Europe who visit as well as others who wouldn't have considered Blackpool as a holiday destination.
The guest house is a far cry from Paula's previous career as an archaeologist where she worked as a Finds Illustrator on excavations including a Roman dig in Yorkshire. But when Simon got a job in Blackpool, working on a project which made artificial eyes, they made the move to Lancashire.
Supporting other small businesses and the wider community is something Paula is keen to foster. As part of her Knitaways, she invites the owners of Fleetwood-based Coastal Colours who bring an assortment of their hand dyed yarns for guests to look at and buy. They also go to the popular Mrs Johnson's Emporium - a huge wool and haberdashery business in South Shore -and a veritable Aladdin's Cave for knitting and yarn lovers. Like the Westcliffe, the Emporium is also a family-run business which is important to Paula. And it is because of family, there is one local charity that is particularly close to Paula's heart - the RNLI.
'My dad used to work on the lifeboats in Yorkshire and I am very proud of that. When we moved to Blackpool I wanted to do something to support them. We have raised more than £2,000 for them from just having a small donation box which guests have contributed to over the years.'