The writing’s on the Hall

The Sheepshanks family have owned Arthington Hall for 170 years, but now it’s time to say goodbye and thanks for the memories. Sharon Dale reports.

Some houses inspire devotion and Arthington Hall is one of them. You can feel it’s been loved and thoroughly enjoyed by the family who have owned it for 170 years.

Times and traditions have changed over the decades, of course. Where once there were Downton-style balls and soirees with neighbouring aristocrats, there are now teenage sleepovers and parties with loud music, though one command has been echoed by generations of Sheepshanks.

“Do not bounce on the stairs” is the plea to children and guests who ascend the magnificent flying staircase, which boasts the longest unsupported middle treat ever created. Some can’t help themselves and it springs up and down alarmingly, but it is still standing and still confounding experts who can’t quite work out this remarkable feat of joinery and engineering.

The staircase is one of the reasons why the Georgian hall is listed. The property was designed in the late 1700s by architect John Carr, who also created nearby Harewood House. The Sheepshanks, who were wool merchants, bought it in 1842 and later added a Victorian extension and another wing. It is now big and beautiful and sits by the River Wharfe in a glorious oasis, near Otley, with exceptional views.

Like all large houses it was built in the days when there was plenty of money to run it, with servants on hand to build fires, clean and cook. Now Will and Alice Sheepshanks do much of the work themselves with help from a part-time cleaner. The family wealth has dwindled, along with the wool trade, and as subsequent members of the clan have been free to pursue fulfilling but less lucrative careers, the running costs and commitments have become quite onerous.

That’s why Will and Alice have decided to put their home on the market so they can downsize, free up some time and reduce their annual bills, which total £34,000. The couple have made no secret of their energy costs and insisted on putting them on the sales brochure just in case some innocent doesn’t realise how much a mansion consumes.

Then there’s the maintenance. You have to keep on top of it and be super organised, which Will is. He checks the roof and the gutters every week and has a strict schedule for other works.

“If you leave it for a while things can deteriorate quite quickly,” he says. “You also have you have to be very careful about leaks. If water gets in and you don’t realise, it can cause a lot of damage. As for the bills, people have to realise how much it costs. It’s one of the reasons we are selling.

“When the house was first built, it had an estate to help fund the upkeep but that’s slowly been sold off over the years. We decided that if we couldn’t afford to stay here and be comfortable we would sell and the time is coming, though we’re not in any desperate hurry to go.”

It was an agonising decision, but there are lots of memories and these have been beautifully put down on paper by Will’s mother, the novelist and poet Mary Sheepshanks. Her book A Price for Everything is the story of how she and her late husband Charlie renovated the historic property. Her latest book Wild Writing Granny is a wonderfully evocative memoir, interspersed with poems, that looks back on her life and her time at the hall.

She and Charlie inherited it from his uncle in 1961. It had previously been requisitioned as a military hospital then used as convalescent home and was in need of work. The couple, who lived in Berkshire where Charlie was the much-loved headmaster at Sunningdale prep school, made it their family home and brought it back to life.

It was a major project and Charlie’s legacy were the beautiful gardens and trees, while Mary’s is the reception hall, which features beautiful murals of the garden by Graham Rust. When a long and fatal illness took hold of her husband, Mary commissioned the artist to put a picture of the house on canvas so Charlie could make a tapestry. It now hangs in her home in Scotland and is a reminder of happy days with family and friends, who included the late George Lascelles, seventh Earl of Harewood, and his wife Patricia, Countess of Harewood. Alice and Will bought the property from Mary in 1992 and left their home in London to “give it a go.”

“I did say that while Mary had a love affair with the house I had an arranged marriage. But I have grown to love it here. It’s been absolutely wonderful,” says Alice, a French teacher and ghost writer.

Making changes was expensive but they installed new central heating and turned the billiard room into a large but cosy living kitchen. They also redecorated, re-leaded the dome and created new uses for some of the ground floor rooms. One features a mini driving range.

“It was costly but we sold the stable block and some of the gardens to fund it all and we did let it out for filming. In fact, Heartbeat painted the study in green, which we decided to keep ,” says Will.

Petite Alice reveals that the property has helped keep her fit. She runs everywhere. Otherwise, she says, it takes too long get round the house, which has six reception rooms, a large living kitchen, nine bedrooms, four bathrooms, two dressing rooms, attics, a two bedroom flat and a three bedroom garden flat.

Outside, there are 23 acres of gardens, woods and parkland with shooting and fishing rights.

She also invested in a school hand bell, which was great for calling Will and their two children Octavia, 18, and Charles, 16, before the advent of mobile phones. She’s happy to bequeath it to the new owners, who she hopes will love the house as much as they have.

Meanwhile, Will has taken on the task of clearing almost two centuries worth of Sheepshanks clutter, which includes a collection of chamber pots

“I’ve been doing it for weeks and I’ve sent two Luton vans full for auction and had two bonfires but there’s still a lot left,” he says, adding that although he is sad about leaving, he is ready to go.

“My mother and sisters all feel it’s the right decision and I think that the house needs updating and some new energy every 20 or 30 years. It has so much potential and we are hoping someone with money and imagination will come along and give it that.”

Arthington Hall, near Otley, is £2.75m. Contact Knight Frank, Harrogate, tel: 01423 530088, Wild Writing Granny is £15 and is available from Stone Trough Books, 51 Walmgate York, YO1 9TY, tel: 01904 670323