Visitors to the grand, Downton-style Swinton Park castle hotel would be hard pushed to identify the “Lady” behind it all, even though she is ever present. Felicity Cunliffe-Lister, whose formal title is Lady Masham, is usually make-up free and dressed down in jeans, a jumper and flat boots – perfect attire for dashing about and getting stuck in, which she does a lot of.
It is the uniform of a busy woman with no airs and graces and is ideal for her latest job: overseeing the design and construction of a large spa and country club next to the hotel. At the moment it’s a muddy building site.
“We’re aiming to finish and open in late spring/early summer,” says Felicity, looking tired and work weary in a way all self-builders do at this stage in a project. She perks up considerably while showing me pictures of what looks all set to be the north’s premier spa.
This is the latest in a series of projects Felicity has helped instigate since she swapped her career as a London lawyer for life on one of the largest country estates in England
She arrived at the age of 30 in 2000, when she and her husband, Mark, a geophysicist and heir to the Swinton estate, bought Swinton Park for £1.75m funded by a mix of bank and family loans.
The castle, near Masham, has its roots in the late 1600s and was bought by Bradford mill magnate Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, the first Lord Masham, in 1882.
The 100-room mansion was sold by Mark’s uncle in 1980 and became a management training centre before sitting empty for four years pending planning permission and its eventual sale.
“It was a chance to get it back and we knew that it would probably be the only chance. We also knew that Mark would have to come back to Yorkshire one day to run the Swinton estate so we decided to buy it.”
Their previous property renovation experience extended to doing up a one-bedroom flat in Pimlico, but hard graft and enthusiasm got them through everything from battling death watch beetle to reconfiguring and fitting out the now sumptuous interiors.
“We got back from honeymoon in July 2000 and from then until February 2001 when we opened, we didn’t stop. We were very hands-on because we didn’t have a project manager or an architect. I’m not sure how we managed it to be honest, it’s all a bit of blur,” recalls Felicity, who didn’t employ an interior designer or a hotel contractor. Instead, she used bold, Victorian colours on the walls and added a mix of antiques she picked up at auction, along with original furniture and paintings from the castle that had been stored by Mark’s uncle.
The décor is one of the highlights at Swinton Park, which opened just as the foot and mouth epidemic broke out. Trading conditions were tough but it survived to become one of the country’s finest hotels with a renowned restaurant. Fired by an eco-friendly biomass boiler, it has since expanded from ten to 32 bedrooms and has a cookery school, a bird of prey centre and thanks to Mark’s green-fingered mother, Susan, a four-acre kitchen garden.
Mark inherited the title of Lord Masham and 20,000 acres from his uncle, David Yarburgh Cunliffe-Lister, in 2006 and since then he and Felicity have turned their attention to regenerating the estate.
Little had changed in decades and while tenanted farms, shoots and fishing still generated income, a fresh approach has seen the couple open Swinton Bivouac, a glamping site with tree lodges, yurts and a café.
“The estate was very traditional and was run by agents. We have since brought the management in-house and our plan is to have one big HQ at Swinton Park to deal with the hotel, the estate and Bivouac,” says Felicity, who attempts to maintain some work-life balance by living off-site and building in holidays to Devon, where she grew up as the daughter of two school teachers.
She, Mark and their three children, aged nine, 12 and 14, live in his childhood home, a country house just outside Masham.
“The life bit is on hold at the moment but I’m hoping for a break when we have the spa up and running,” she says.
Set in a walled garden, the spa and country club will have an 18-metre pool, a hydrotherapy pool, gym, fitness studio, sauna, steam room, relaxation space and treatment rooms. There will also be a restaurant, coffee shop and bar. The thoughtful and contemporary architecture – lots of wood and glazing – is sensitive to the rural surroundings. The proposed décor is sensational with stand-out bespoke features, including a handmade chandelier by Ripon-based Glow Lighting.
“It is what most people want when they come to a place like this and although we have been successful without one, we feel the new spa and country club will be an enormous boost for us,” says Felicity, who has more ideas for making the most of what the Swinton estate website describes as “20,000 acres of Yorkshire pride”.
Restoring and upgrading existing properties on the estate and building new, affordable and market value housing on the land is top of the agenda. “There is a need for more housing in Masham. Some of our staff travel an hour-and-a-half each way to get to work here but we need to make sure that we build what is right for the town. Housing interests me and so does design so I think that will probably be my next project.”