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Wales Online
Wales Online
Laura Clements

The man who made Bluestone unveils the newest part of his resort

The man behind Bluestone Resort is smiling like a Cheshire cat as he stands in the latest addition to the holiday park in Pembrokeshire. Black Pool Mill has cost him £3m, two years of building and a lengthy planning battle but finally the restaurant is ready to open not just to paying guests but the general public too.

The impressive building, first built in 1813, spans four floors and its original iron cogs, wheels and milling equipment are a striking backdrop to the plush restaurant that doesn't hide its industrial past. William McNamara, Bluestone's founder and boss, was on his hands and knees singlehandedly oiling the old mill machinery a couple of weekends ago, he said. He's been there seven days a week getting it ready for opening. The 66-year-old is rightly pleased with how the old disused, grade two listed building has been restored to its original architectural glory. On Friday it opened as a new restaurant offering a "unique heritage dining experience".

In fact, the man who turned a working farm into the much-loved Oakwood theme park in his late twenties before moving onto Bluestone 15 years ago, shows no sign of slowing down or resting on his laurels. He's just spent £30m in a massive investment in Bluestone, including 80 brand new luxury Platinum lodges.

"This business is my passion," he said, taking a seat in the restaurant at his favourite table next to a large window overlooking the Eastern Cleddau estuary. "I love it and I love making people happy." He stops to point out a duck and her six ducklings scooting across a small island in the water. "I've been watching them over the weeks," he said. "Isn't it lovely? I love the upper reaches of the Cleddau."

William is a quietly-spoken man, not one for superlatives nor boasting about his considerable achievements. He stops to greet everyone working on the site with a personal hello and knows all their names. He's Pembrokeshire born and bred and grew up on the family farm in Burton spending his childhood on the banks of the Cleddau Estuary growing the famous Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes.

After attending agricultural college, William started farming with 400 cows at Newton North Farm in Canaston Woods which ended up becoming Oakwood Theme Park. But in 2001, William embarked on a new challenge to build a large-scale resort without knowing a thing about the accommodation sector. More than 20 years later, Bluestone is the success he always dreamed of yet it's clear that his business - which turns over £40m each year - is about more than simply making money.

The Mill is testament to that pride in Pembrokeshire: "I just love it and I want people to be able to enjoy it too," he said. "I think a lot of people have a fondness for this building and there's a great interest in it."

The nineteenth-century Black Pool Mill (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
The view of the Cleddau Estuary from the dining room (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Owned by Sir Edward Dashwood, Bluestone has a 100-year lease on the building. Developing the crumbling mill was an idea that popped into William's head three years ago and he's "very pleased" with the end result. We're talking on the day before opening day and his excitement is almost palpable. Friday evening saw the first dinner service from the kitchen which takes up the entire second floor and is headed up by executive chef Paul Owen. William is keen to show off the man he handpicked to run the kitchen which focuses on local ingredients, seasonality and freshness as much as possible.

Inside the kitchen, headed up by chef Paul Owen (left) (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
The restaurant has kept an industrial feel (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

"It's very high quality food but we're not pretentious," said William. "We're not trying to be something we're not." Paul, who left the Mansion House in Llansteffan and trained at the Ritz in London, said: "There's nothing like being open to the public. I just love cooking." It's that almost-childlike excitement which William looks for in his staff.

"What's very important to me is the whole team enjoy coming to work," he said. "The job needs to be fun." He looks for "aptitude and attitude" and Paul has them "in bundles", he added. So too does restaurant manager Sarah Davies, who already worked for Bluestone. She's excited about opening too and is entranced by the building: "I just find it magical," she said.

Restoring the Mill was no mean feat - there were 53 windows which had to be replaced with handmade frames, costing £120,000 alone. Everything inside the mill is listed, as well as the building itself. None of that history has been lost while transforming the mill, which has lain empty for 20 years, into a restaurant.

William McNamara (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
One of the original mill stones in the restaurant (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

A "huge amount of money" has been spent on installing the plumbing and heating as well as a misting system instead of sprinklers for fire safety. Sprinklers would soak and destroy everything, whereas misters don't, William explained.

There are two plush rooms - the River room and the Miller's room - offering private dining spaces with views over the estuary and a dedicated serving team.

Right at the top of the mill, two floors have been turned into one big open space reaching high into the original 210-year-old rafters. They are some of the only remaining examples of king trusses in the UK, William said. It's quite something, to stand on the original floor and see the skilled craftmanship that went into such an old building. The hatches, which would have been where the grain poured down to the grinding stones, have had to be filled in for obvious reasons, but much of the original floor remains too. It will be a banqueting area, he added.

Black Pool Mill in the early 1900s (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
The original king trusses (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

The mill stones are still in situ and it's they which inspired the logo, said William, with evident delight in workmanship. He shows us a small wooden disc inlaid with the logo pattern and explains it's inspired by the grooves in the underside of the massive grinding stones which brought the freshly ground flour to the edges.

"Even these important listed buildings have to end up with a commercial use," he continued. "We've spent £3m on this building and no one was going to do that to turn it into a visitor centre and not make any money on it. This has to make £1-2m every year in order to pay back. What we've done is set it up for the next 100 years."

The mill was built on the banks of the Cleddau in the 19th century and for the first 100 years it operated as a working flour mill, powered by a waterwheel from the leat (an open watercourse) which still runs in front of the building today. But it "languished" for the next century.

The Miller's Room (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
The original iron cogs and wheels and milling equipment are a striking backdrop (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

"This is quite special," said William looking around. "It's part of Bluestone and it's quite special to me. A lot of what we've done is very unique: the Serendome, the lodges, it's all very special.

"This is allowing a lot of people from Pembrokeshire who have fond memories of the mill to now have full access to it. It has so much provenance embedded in it. It's been a hard balance to retain the old. We could have covered up the floors but they've been worn for 200 years and to me it was very important to retain it. Everything we could have kept and retained, we have."

He says his investment shows a confidence in and commitment to "quality tourism" in Pembrokeshire. "When I set up this business it had to operate all year round," William said. It's undoubtedly working, with an average occupancy rate of 96%. The new top-of-the-range lodges will increase the resort size from 1,865 guests to more than 2,000. Today, Bluestone employs more than 800 people and more than £7m worth of business goes to a wide range of suppliers across Wales each year, with 65% of that total (£5m) being retained within Pembrokeshire.

William at his favourite table (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Was the mill restoration a bigger, more complex project than he expected, I ask. "I've often said that in my journey through business naivety has been one of my greatest assets," he grinned. "If I had known then what I know now, would I have done it? It's the same for Oakwood and Bluestone and the Mill." He leaves the question unanswered and yet there's no hint of regret or doubt in his face as he smiles. He loves it really, every single bit of the challenge and pressure.

"It's been flat out," he admitted. "But I love that pressure. I couldn't live without it. I don't know what chill out means." It's been a long journey to get to the point of opening, which was delayed a week to make sure everything was perfect. William is nothing if not a perfectionist. "You're always anxious because you want to get it finished," he added. But it was important to him that his staff felt ready too. "It's a lovely business and we've got a lot of staff who really care," he said.

There will be a period of consolidation now as Bluestone works to get the new lodges on line and starts a programme of refurbishment of the original lodges and the aquapark. There have been questions about reopening it to the public in recent weeks and William said: "We are sensitive to the issue and we are looking at it. Nothing is ruled out."

The new Platinum lodges (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

The Platinum lodges are certainly high end and incorporate the latest sustainable measures including air source pumps. "Sustainability is something that's very very important to me," William said. "I've always said, in crude terms, you don't take from today what you need tomorrow." The resort is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2040 and has just switched its entire fleet of vehicles to electric. It has also invested in a biomass boiler and a solar farm and William would like to see wind power "before too long". They've just planted thousands of new trees too.

The Platinum lodges are a "step up" in terms of size and presentation and guests will have their own separate check in and the use of the park buggies are included. It's taken just over a year to build them at a cost of £24m. "The numbers are big," William allowed. "But it's the same logic with just a few more zeros on the end."

Inside one of the new Platinum lodges (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
Inside one of the new Platinum lodges (WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Back at the Mill, William is keen to stress that the new restaurant isn't just for Bluestone guests. Open seven days a week offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, it's open to everybody. Judging by William's tangible pride and excitement, he'll be a regular.

"It's a beautiful building and a very interesting building inside," he added. "And when you step outside and look at the estuary and the setting, I think it's extraordinary."

Black Pool Mill opened as a restaurant at 10am on Friday, May 19 and bookings can be made now via Black Pool Mill’s website:


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