Country house rescue

Ambitious and entrepreneurial, Valerie Walton Knowles dreamed of owning a big house in the country and it’s no surprise to anyone that she’s is now mistress of Blackwood Hall.

She bought it five years ago after hunting in North and East Yorkshire and moved from Bishopthorpe in York to enjoy a rural idyll that gave her and her two teenage children 14 acres to play in. “Buying this was the pinnacle of my aspirations. I used to play in Huntington Hall when I was a child before it was demolished in the 1960s and I always wanted to live in an old hall.

“Here, I am away from the hustle and bustle and I can step out of the door and go for a long walk in my own grounds.”

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The Victorian house, near Skipwith, between Selby and York, was built in 1858 and is set in parkland with its own lake. The previous owner had rarely used it but had renovated and decorated it in classic country house style.

“People compliment me on the decor and I have to admit that I had nothing to do with it. It was all done by the person who owned it before. I was very lucky,” says Valerie, who left school at 16 before training to be a solicitor. She then founded Brooke Williams, a family law firm with branches in York, Bridlington, Hull and Leeds.

The vendor also left quite a lot of furniture and some interesting ornaments, including statues and the giant chair in the grand entrance hall, bought from an auction for a song, as very few bidders had space for it.

It was a ready-made home and with a gimlet eye for a business opportunity Valerie knew that, if required, the house would be able to earn its keep. “I could see it would be a great B&B and that I could possibly let some of the rooms if necessary, though I never really thought I’d have to exploit that potential.”

That moment has come thanks to the Government clampdown on legal aid payments, which many of her clients relied on to sort messy divorces and child custody issues. The situation is so bad, says Valerie, that at least two lawyers have taken their own lives. She knows of at least one other solicitor who is doing exactly what she has done.

“He is opening his house as a B&B too. I know it’s hard to feel sorry for solicitors but the situation really is dire. There are a lot of hard-up lawyers out there. It is cuts and more cuts and not good for justice. The Government is preventing us from doing worthwhile work for the needy in society.”

She hasn’t had much time to dwell on it as Blackwood Hall has just opened as a luxury B&B. And after spotting other opportunities she is also offering her home as a wedding and events venue. She has let the separate coach house to create more income and a former swimming pool is now a function room. What used to be a reception room is laid out with rows of chairs for civil marriage services.

Valerie and her children have shifted to another part of the house and she has sacrificed her huge bedroom and enormous en-suite bathroom where the sanitary ware has a rampant floral design that covers everything from bath to bidet

“Leaving the bedroom was a bit of wrench. It’s now the bridal suite but doing all this means we can stay here. I bought at the height of the market and now there’s a recession, so there is no question of selling it,” says Valerie. She’s a whirlwind of a woman who, so far, has done everything herself from the cleaning to the bed making and the guests’ breakfasts. “I didn’t have much experience except for some part-time work as a chambermaid when I was 16. But I get up and do the breakfasts, so there’s no hanging round in your dressing gown till lunchtime on a Sunday. But I am enjoying it. I’ve met some interesting people and it’s been a refreshing change from legal work, though it has been full-on.”

She is keeping her head above water and is devoting most of her considerable energy to her new venture which may even be the catalyst to a complete life change. “I love being here and that’s what this has enabled me to do. I can work at home. I’ve got good staff in my offices that I can rely on and it means I can be here sorting everything out.

“It’s such a beautiful place but it costs a fortune to maintain. The constant jobs that need doing and the energy bills – you wouldn’t believe it. I had the idea that I could just heat certain rooms but that doesn’t work. If you do they get damp and the curtains start rotting.

“So this is a bit of a country house rescue and it should mean that I can stay for as long as I want, which is great because this is my dream home.”