Crow Wood Leisure: from dairy farm to award-winning spa and hotel complex in 20 years

Looking out over the sprawling complex of hotel, spa and sports fields at Burnley's Crow Wood Leisure it is hard to imagine that 20 years ago this impressive complex once housed a working dairy farm.

Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 3:54 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 3:57 pm

Today, owner and founder Andrew Brown can look back with a sense of pride in his achievement, a destination that attracts thousands of visitors from Burnley and beyond.

Indeed, the 63-year-old has not forgotten how far the huge development has come, sitting in his office which was once part of the original farmhouse.

"It's nearly broken me more than once," the straight talking entrepreneur told me as he reminisced and, as is his wont, looked forward to the future.

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Andrew Brown

"At times the 20 years seem like they've flown by, and others it's seemed a lot longer than that. I've made a lot of friends, both staff and customers, in that time and I'm proud of what we've achieved," Andrew added.

The story began when Andrew and his brother David decided to sell their father's office supplies business, FH Brown, in December 1997. Their father, Fred Harold Brown, had died in 1978, but after working with the new owners for a short time Andrew decided to go his own way.

"I'd retired at 40 but didn't want to. At the time I had a very small shareholding in David Lloyd Leisure and I felt it was a very interesting business model. Back then then there were far fewer gyms and leisure centres than we have today.

"I found it very pioneering and an interesting concept. I had just built a house with an architect and I asked him to help me build my own leisure centre."

Where it all began

However, despite initial backing from Burnley Borough Council, last minute opposition from Friends of the Earth, Burnley Civic Trust and what Andrew described as a reluctant planning officer, saw Andrew's dreams of a leisure centre nearly end before they had begun.

The final decision was referred to the Secretary of State and a public inquiry at Burnley Town Hall before Andrew was given the answer he wanted in just six weeks.

"We took legal possession of the dairy farm on December 1st, 2000, and on that day a year later the farmer took his final calf away in a trailer," Andrew revealed.

Spades in the ground soon saw the centre open with four outdoor tennis courts, four indoor courts, two squash courts, two dance studios and an equestrian centre.

First steps

Andrew added: "A lot of people said it wouldn't work and there was no demand for it. We started pre-selling and had 800 members. Then numbers started ramping up even more.

"I've always thought of Crow Wood as a social club with a gym attached than just a pure fitness centre. I think that is the secret of our success. More people find it easier to motivate themselves in such a setting. We needed to offer an environment that people enjoyed and I think we did that."

Soccer Burnley soon followed until the next major development at Crow Wood, the soon to be award-winning Woodland Spa and Bertram's restaurant.

Together with existing spa manager Karen Ashworth, Andrew toured spas across the country before the £4.5m. Woodland Spa opened in January, 2013.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Andrew soon set his sights on the next stage of the Crow Wood life cycle, a luxury hotel that he felt was lacking in Burnley.

"We had 11 bedrooms at Crow Wood but I felt there was the need for a proper hotel that could cater not only for our spa customers, but for travelling business people and for conferences, banquets and functions.

A much-publicised disagreement with the landowners saw Andrew's hotel plans delayed, and after opening for six months, the Covid pandemic struck, and subsequent lockdowns hjitting the hospitality industry hard.

"The lockdowns crippled us," Andrew admitted. "We lost £1.7m. during it all. Rate freezes and VAT cuts helped us enormously but I think the pain was very unevenly spread. I feel for the travel industry and of course hospitality."

So what next for Crow Wood? Will there be any more development?

"Never say never," Andrew admitted. "I would like to do more. We started with an original staff of just 35 people, we now employ 330."

Some 25,000 trees have been planted around the development over the years. It is no stretch of the imagination to suspect more will grow in and around Burnley's Crow Wood in the next 20 years.