Grantley Hall sits in splendour near Ripon, in North Yorkshire, surrounded by 30 acres of wooded parkland. It was once the family home of Fletcher Norton, Speaker of the House of Commons, solicitor-general for England and Wales, and 1st Baron Grantley.
Now this grade II listed 18th-century mansion belongs to Grantley Hall Limited, a company set up by Valeria Sykes, the former wife of the Yorkshire multimillionaire Paul Sykes. She plans to turn it into a 52-bedroom hotel with a restaurant, bistro, cocktail bar and formal gardens alongside the lake. Where once the Baron entertained the great and the good, soon — if detailed plans are approved by Harrogate Council — there will again be smart weddings on the lawns.
Sykes bought Grantley Hall last year for an undisclosed sum, but it was on the market for £5.95 million. It came with a chequered history; it has been a Second World War convalescent home, an adult education college, briefly a private residence again, then the former owners embarked upon a hotel conversion before deciding to put the property on the market. “It was always intended to be sold as a hotel,” says Toby Cockcroft, the owner of Yorkshire property consultancy Croft Residential, who sold the house.
“It was the only way to get the best price for it. The thing about Grantley is that, at 30,000 sq ft, it is too big for a family,” he says. “The majority of country homes are a maximum of 18,000 to 20,000 sq ft, plus all the trimmings — equestrian facilities, land, tennis court, pool etc. Those über country houses do find themselves being the family home to people in the south of England, but in the north they are deemed too big, too much to keep up and a huge responsibility and undertaking. Therefore, in order to make them work and keep them maintained, the exclusive high-end hotel use is the only way forward.”
However, around London and the southeast, with a much greater range of international buyers, the trend to turn grand houses into hotels is reversing, says Mark Rimell, an expert in the country house department at Strutt and Parker. “It has come full cycle and gone back to private owners buying big houses which might have once been hotels. This is most common with international buyers who like retaining English charm and can be less intimidated by size and scale. They will keep it as a house, adding en suites to the bedrooms to make the property more manageable.”
Another solution for the pragmatic tycoon wishing to purchase what Cockcroft calls a “trophy property” is to combine a family home with company headquarters on the same site, so that some of the costs can be offset against business use. “People are not just looking to buy a grand house with a moat around it,” says Lindsay Cuthill, the head of Savills’ country department. “They want to know that they can adapt it for family use — they are used to open-plan living and are keen to achieve it on a grander scale.”
The major challenge for would-be owners is “heritage”. Cockcroft says: “Most country homes have history and a vast number will be listed. No matter how much change is required, certain elements will remain in place so as not to ruin its integrity. And then there are the practical issues. Plumbing, heating, wiring, smoke and fire alarms, new electrics and the unimaginable thought of getting wi-fi into a house with 100 rooms.”
This all has an impact on up-front financial outlay, which even cash-rich buyers might balk at. Cuthill says that the first question people ask is: “What are the running costs?” He also points out that buyers are keen to show off their eco credentials and save money on fuel bills by investing in alternative energy systems such as ground-source heat pumps, which start at £11,000 for the most modest home.
Paying for all this is a challenge, even for the most well-heeled. One group of five young and particularly well-connected owners has come up with an innovative way to remain in their grand family homes and gain revenue at the same time, by pooling resources to set up Canvas & Stone, a fashionable events company. The members of this “country house collective” as they call themselves are Samantha Vaughan, of Dewsall Court in Herefordshire, Anselm Guise, of Elmore Court, Gloucestershire, Philip Godsal at Iscoyd Park, Shropshire, Harry Dearden, who owns Pennard House in Somerset, and Joshua Dugdale at Wasing Park in Berkshire.
In each case, the family either lives in a wing of the house or cottages in the grounds. Proceeds from the events are shared. “From my perspective the best thing about it is that it helps me with the loneliness of command,” Guise says. “You inherit these houses and you have to immediately come up with a plan — there is a lot of pressure. The fact that I can share this responsibility is brilliant. We’re all in this together.”
Individual group members are making the most of their experience in running nightclubs, art galleries and music festivals to open up their homes — there’s a freshwater swimming pool at Pennard House and “the biggest bed in Berkshire” at Wasing Park — for an eclectic range of bespoke events for paying punters. “These houses provide the perfect backdrop for weddings, but we also have song-writing retreats, dinner parties, business away days,” says Canvas & Stone manager Olivia Rogers. “Because the properties are family homes, and are taken on an exclusive basis, they offer a level of privacy not available in a hotel — ideal for anyone wanting that sense of space and exclusivity.”
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