The story began at a house party in the October of 1968, when Peter Bretherton, John and Rita Gardner and a couple of friends happened to mention that the Arden Grill was up for sale. The Arden Grill, as the name implies, was a road side cafe with 6 bedrooms. The friends agreed that they would meet at the Grill the following morning. Come the morning, having enjoyed the night before, only Peter, John and Rita managed to meet up. Liking what they saw, and instinctively seeing the potential, they put down a deposit with the vendor, a gentleman called Peter De La Lorenzo there and then. John actually had to lend Peter a £1 to cover his share of the princely deposit, and to this day still argues he’s never had it back!
The price of £14,000 was agreed and on 4th October 1968 the deal was completed and the partners took possession. At the time the Arden was an outpost in the countryside located on the main road between Birmingham and Coventry. It was surrounded by open fields and forest. In the morning you could see the deer retreating back into the forest for cover. There was no NEC, motorway nor railway station. The advent of mass overseas tourism had yet to happen and so Elmdon Airport (as it was known then) was basically an airstrip with a very small terminal and very few flights. On the face of it, the partners had acquired a road side cafe with 6 bedrooms , which sold bacon butties for 2 shillings (10p) with little prospect of significant growth. In fact they had encountered serious problems in raising the money as many banks thought they were paying too much! But somehow they had a ‘gut feeling’ about the location and set about renovating the tired cafe and building the business. By 1969 the business had grown enough to consider expansion and they had the first of many planning skirmishes with the local council when an application for 24 bedrooms was rejected. However the landscape was about to change forever.
In 1970 it was muted for the first time that Birmingham was being considered to home the National Exhibition Centre. By 1976 the NEC opened its doors for the first time, and the area directly surrounding the Arden exploded into life. In the meantime, the Arden had expanded to 24 rooms in 1973, having been granted approval on appeal, and had also opened a night club, called ‘Stage One’ located in the basement. The company was therefore ideally positioned to benefit from the large influx of people. It was during this time that Tony Cheal joined the team, fresh out of college.
The following 2 decades saw continued growth with extensions of; 22 bedrooms plus the Burgundy Restaurant and Bar (1980); 30 bedrooms and leisure complex (1986); 70 bedrooms, conservatory and courtyard (1993).
In 1998, John and Peter decided to retire after 30 years at the helm. John and Rita’s sons, Steve (who had worked at the Arden since 1980) and Dave, together with Tony (and Julie—John’s daughter) bought 60% of the business, making it the 5 way partnership, and took on the day to day running of the business as joint managing directors. Not wishing to rest on their laurels, they immediately looked to expand. In September 2000 the company opened the new atrium reception area together with the sunken bar area and ‘Meeting Place’ and a further 70 bedrooms taking our total to 216. Tony and Julie retired from the business in 2013 and established a very successful restaurant in Henley called “Cheal’s”.
Despite the new ownership structure, Pete, John and Rita haven’t stepped into the background entirely—in fact if you come in at the weekend you’ve got every chance of seeing them enjoying an evening at the bar!