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As well as antiques guides and his own gin brand, Martin Miller now has a group of hotels. And they're all packed with quirky stuff

The Tors Hotel sits on a wooded cliff overlooking a part of the north Devon coast known as Little Switzerland. It's on the edge of the town of Lynmouth, which is all thatch and rushing water, tea cakes and postcards of Exmoor ponies. A water-powered funicular railway rocks up to Lynton, 150m above. Below, the sea roars in over spits of Bristol Channel pebbles.

The hotel itself has terraces, Alpine gables and the best view for miles, though it was a conservative old fuddy-duddy of a place before Martin Miller bought the place and – at lightening speed – "Millerised" every surface.

"One minute it was a building site," the bloke on reception tells me, "the next it was like this …"

The décor in the lounge-bar is scarlet and Wedgewood blue. Fairy lights dance around the architraving. Swags of rich fabric pour from windows and drape over mantelpieces, dripping tassels and fringes. Shelves groan with junktique collections (above the bar, I count 19 mantle-piece clocks). The place is awash with statues, upholstery, books, Chinese vases, Devon pottery. There are quirks and curios in every corner: a large cast sheep on a carved chest by a painted fireplace, two gorillas on a portico above the front door.

Miller is the founder of the classic Millers Antiques Price Guides. Now he makes his own brand of premium gin. In the Tors bar, he orders one for me. Miller's Gin with tonic, a twist of lime and a sprinkling of juniper berries, served in an iced Miller's Gin glass the size of a goldfish bowl. Miller the man wears a purple-sweater-pink-shirt combo; long rockster hair frames a lived-in face. Firm handshake.

"Great place," I tell him. "Love the …" I look around and don't know what to love first. "… the gorillas."

To describe Miller as a collector is an understatement. He collects stuffed puffa fish. Stuffed anything. He collects stuff – tons of it. He also collects hotels. Then he stuffs them with stuff. Three years ago, he bought the Anchor on the harbour at nearby Porlock Weir. Last year, he acquired the Tors, swiftly followed by the old Castle Hotel in Porlock – now reinvented as Miller's Bistro & Hotel

Together they form his "Exmoor collection" – which is soon to be completed by the Manor, a former old people's home on Lynmouth's waterfront. This is opening in July as the Arts Hotel (work is still in progress, but I get the general idea by looking at the garden furniture on the lawn: a replica of a French galleon, courtesy of ITV's Hornblower series, a giant flatiron, another gorilla …).

The portfolio isn't confined to Exmoor: the Miller country seat, a vast house in Herefordshire called Great Brampton, opened to paying guests as Miller's Hideaway last weekend. And somehow Martin Miller manages to find the time to do his own picture framing.m And cast his own model sheep. According to hotel staff, he oversees the placing of every gilt mirror, every chandelier, in every place he owns. And he doesn't stop at decorating. Every hotel is different, but Miller basics include everlasting log fires, bowls of sweets (everywhere), quality linens and decent food. He runs a tight ship.

To get the full Miller experience, I spend a night at the Anchor. Ten miles from Lymouth, it's an inn-like Victorian number, just metres from north Somerset shingle and Porlock Weir's medieval harbour. My room has chocolate-and-coffee flock wallpaper, a monochrome portrait of Arnold Bennett courtesy of the Café Royal, a dubious painting of Exmoor ponies, a portrait (Delia in the Country), wall-mounted plates, books, lamps, a small teapot shaped like a butcher's shop, a gold brocade chair, a large resin bust of a Roman Caesar … I could go on.

Downstairs in the lounge, I sink into a sofa and just stare. Crowds of china figurines. Oil paintings. Watercolours. Red walls. Rugs. More plates. A glass decanter stuffed with silver balls. Stuffed animals. A collectible teddy bear in a hand-knit sits in an antique wheelchair. In the restaurant, I dine by candlelight on scallops and Devon Red beef. After dinner, you can grab a sofa (and a blanket) in the cinema upstairs.

Looking closely I find that the Miller look often relies on clever little cheats. Some of the statues are cheap garden-centre repros. None of the Chinese vases is priceless (bought in bulk, I suspect, from Chinese Vases R Us). I find the odd dodgy china kitten or plastic frog lurking among the porcelain. Miller buys some of his sofas – and his picture frames – from Ikea. But the overall effect is still mesmerising. A tad exhausting, too. In the Anchor alone, an inventory could stretch around the globe.

Next day, two miles away in Porlock, I find another facet of the Miller collection. At Miller's Bistro & Hotel he is creating new bedrooms with a surprisingly modern, almost minimalist feel. In the lounge though he reverts to type – low beams, antiques, lots of damask sofas, wall-to-wall second-hand books (to which guests are invited to help themselves).

The ultimate Miller, though, is his "hideaway". Great Brampton House, an unlisted 18th century mansion, former home of antiques dealer Lady Pamela Pidgeon, sits in parkland a few miles west of Hereford. The ballroom-like drawing room is Brighton Pavilion meets Palace of Versailles – laced with intricate mouldings and glittering with chandeliers. I was almost breathless with the spectacle of the place.

Great Brampton is offered as a weekend party house (for groups of up to 20) but now also offers individual B&B rooms. Huge bedrooms named after literary figures (Byron, Wilde, Proust, Keats) overlook gardens and a cider orchard. Some still feature Lady Pidgeon's soft furnishings: walls clad in moiré silks and extravagant swagged drapes. One room has a pink marble bathroom with a gold fleur de lys pattern around the tub.

Heading down a grand staircase, I find a lofty red dining room, an equally lofty yellow dining room, marble fireplaces, and lots of vintage taxidermy. In the billiards room, there's a huge green baize table and a realistic deer head that sings Home on the Range ("must get some more batteries," says Martin). In the cellar are an art gallery, a cinema and 1,200 dusty bottles of assorted rum. On the roof, a sculpture garden. Tropical murals cover large areas of Regency stucco. In the gardens, alongside real chickens and a flock of Martin's cast sheep, a concrete cow grazes the lawn. Coming soon is a "space ship" – a kind of arty outdoor cocktail lounge. In this country house, anything goes.

But I wonder what's in it for Miller himself. He cheerfully admits that it's not worth investing in hotels: "No money in it. I just like doing them up.

I wonder if he simply wants to provide the right environment in which to drink his beloved gin (his favourite London hangouts include Claridges and the Polo Bar at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair).

Above all, he says, he wants people to feel at home: "If one of my guests were to feel relaxed enough to come downstairs in pyjamas. I'd feel I'd really achieved something."

Accommodation was provided by the Miller's Collection (millersuk.com). The Anchor at Porlock Weir (01643 862753) and Miller's Bistro & Hotel in Porlock (01643 862504) offer doubles from £90 B&B. Doubles at the Tors in Lynmouth (01598 753236) cost from £130 a night B&B. At Miller's Hideaway at Great Brampton House (01981 250912) doubles cost from £145 B&B

Lesley Gillilan

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source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2013/apr/19/millers-hotels-lynmouth-devon-gin


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