Big-hearted tycoon Jimi Heselden spent millions creating his very own “Neverland” at Flint Mill. Sharon Dale enjoyed a guided tour of the property he built to share.
Lavishing £11 million on a home that is now worth £3.95m looks like a poor investment, but for Jimi Heselden it was worth every hard-earned penny.
Flint Mill, near Wetherby, was his very own “Neverland”, complete with a 13,000 sq ft vintage car museum, life-size statue of Napoleon, mini Stonehenge and a ride-on railway running through stately home-style parkland.
Even the River Wharfe benefited from his largesse. He built a bridge so he could reach his land on the other side and relined its crumbling banking with limestone. He also repaired the weir before backlighting it with coloured LEDs.
The 18th century converted mill and 67 acres of land he bought up around it was a project that allowed him to dream up ideas and put them into practice while keeping his “lads” – the labourers he employed – in work.
His fortune was built on bright ideas. He grew up on a Leeds council estate and became a miner. He used his redundancy cash to set up a sandblasting firm and went on to make millions from creating the Concertainer “blast wall” basket, used to build defences around military encampments. The products created by his company, Hesco Bastion, saved countless lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones.
He later bought the European licence for Segway and was out on his own high-tech scooter when he died in 2010 aged 62. He had pulled over in what the coroner called “an act of courtesy” to allow a dog walker to get past, when he fell 42ft from a footpath.
His death was devastating, not least because the tycoon was close to realising an ambition to open up his home to disabled and under-privileged children.
His nephew Nicky, who worked with him on the project, says: “That was what it was all about. The train track, the museum, the miniature donkeys. He wanted the children to be able to come down and enjoy a day out in a great big playground. That’s what he was like, unbelievably generous.
“After he died, I finished the house, the pool and the grounds how he wanted them. He’d taken years over it because he was forever coming up with new ideas and pulling us off on to the next thing. He had more or less retired from the business, so every day there was another great plan, like ‘let’s make a lake’.
“He loved being busy and he enjoyed working outside with the lads. They’d clock off at 1pm on a Saturday and he’d carry on. He never stopped.”
Jimi and wife Julie bought the converted mill 11 years ago. It is in an idyllic spot by the river and boasts a landing stage so you can travel to Wetherby by motor boat. The mill had been converted into a three-bedroom home with stunning views and he extended it to create a hall, pool room and conservatory. He also put in a £100,000 staircase and refurbished the water wheel. But his priorities lay outside so the interior remained unfinished.
He and Julie lived in a one-bedroom cottage annexe for a while before moving to a three bedroom Canadian-style timber lodge on the site.
The glass-fronted museum for his car collection was finished with a miniature version of Stonehenge to the side of it, just for fun. It housed some of the world’s most sought-after vehicles, including a 1927 Rolls Royce Phantom that belonged to Hollywood actress Bette Davies, a Mustang Shelby used in the movie Gone In 60 Seconds and George Harrison’s 1965 Aston Martin DB5. They were sold after his death.
Estate agent Andrew Beadnall says the museum has proved to be a selling point, with two high-profile car enthusiasts who have shown interest in the property.
“It would also make the most amazing entertaining space,” says Andrew.
It houses a simulated golf range imported from America, and, most poignant, a huge mural that snakes around the wall of the top floor. The painting depicts Halton Moor council estate where Jimi grew up. If you look closely you can see Segways, miners and pictures of his cars.
Jimi Heselden never forgot his roots or how it felt to have no money. His home was created with the aim of sharing it with those less fortunate and tales of his generosity are legendary. He donated millions to charities and good causes in his home city and to Help For Heroes. He was also a great boss. Labourers at Flint Mill earned at least treble the going rate and there were bonuses of £10,000 each. “Money didn’t mean anything to him. He was the opposite. He liked to spend it and give it away. Mind you, he loved a bargain and he hated it if you left a light on, which made us laugh,” says Nicky.
Flint Mill may sound flash but it isn’t. It’s a waterside idyll that feels tranquil and happy. “It was a happy place and we had happy times working there. It will sell to the right person, someone like Jimi who wants a unique and beautiful place to live in rather than a massive house,” says Nicky.