For more than 20 years visitors to Stow House knew what to expect when they stepped inside. Like many other rural B&Bs, the interior was country style with floral fabrics and traditional furniture. Now, guests booking a return visit are warned to expect the unexpected. A papier mâché sculpture of a badger wearing a gas mask hangs on the wall in one of the bedrooms, while another features poster-size photographs from a fashion shoot inspired by the film Kes. It includes the famous two-fingered salute.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but fans of modern art and those interested in interior design will love the new look. Even if you don’t care for contemporary style, the decor is exciting and it will be a talking point. When your room is entitled “Like Wow Man” or “Shotgun Clare”, you’re bound to ask why.
“All the bedrooms are named after pieces of art. We’ve collected quite a lot over the years,” says Phil Bucknall, who bought the property with his wife Sarah last May.
Both worked in the advertising industry in London. Phil was an art director and Sarah a copywriter until they decided to escape to the country. Selling their home in Islington provided enough cash to buy a live-work property with potential.
“We loved our house in London but the advertising world can be quite ageist and we were ready to try something else. Property prices had risen a lot and at one point the house was earning more than we were,” says Sarah.
A B&B was an obvious choice for keen cook Phil and for Sarah, who is a great people person. They eventually chose Wensleydale after a search that stretched from Scotland to Dartmoor.
They spotted Stow House, a Victorian vicarage in Aysgarth, on a property website and were captivated by its handsome period architecture and beautiful views. Phil knew the area as he grew up in the North East but Londoner Sarah had never been to the Yorkshire Dales before.
“We came to view the house and we knew immediately that it was the one,” she says. “The couple who ran it had been there for 23 years and, although it wasn’t really our taste and it needed updating, we could see it had potential.”
The Bucknalls honoured the summer bookings and liaised with John Mason from White Hart Architecture and Arcadia Builders. Plans in place, they closed for the winter to revamp the property, starting with a new roof and insulation. Every window was replaced, oak floors were laid and old radiators were swapped for Victorian-style, cast-iron versions.
A series of five small rooms, including the old kitchen, pantry and utility room, were brought together to make one enormous open-plan kitchen. To enhance the feeling of space, the boarded ceilings were removed to expose the trusses.
The 11 letting bedrooms were reduced to seven and some of the tiny en-suites replaced with sensational, large bathrooms. On the ground floor, they changed the old bar into a snug/library and installed a wood burner, while another reception room was turned into a bar/sitting room.
The decor is bold. The walls of the snug are in Farrow & Ball’s Pelt and an old chaise longue reupholstered in orange and purple adds zest. One of the bedrooms is pale pink and red, and all of them are full of surprises. The Glasgow toile du jouy lampshades from Timorous Beasties appear classic but, look closely, and you’ll see someone being mugged and someone else smoking a crack pipe.
The couple’s art collection includes work by Masham-based sculpture David Farrer, who made the badger and the papier mâché hare in the bar.
There are prints by Pure Evil and Dan Baldwin, along with photographs by Bob Carlos Clarke and Phil’s friend Tony Briggs, who took the Kes-inspired photographs. They contrast beautifully with Victorian pictures taken by the property’s original inhabitant, the Rev Stow.
Furniture is a mix of pieces from their London house, inherited antiques from Sarah’s father and finds from Tennants’ sales and eBay. Chairs and sofas have been reupholstered, some of them professionally by David Freeman from Coverdale. Phil came up with the idea of making an enormous kitchen table from scaffold boards.
With no time to catch their breath, they reopened for business this Easter while launching into another project – a modern annexe. The Yorkshire Dales National Park was persuaded to grant permission for the building on business grounds. Their guest house would have been barely viable if the couple had used some of the B&B space as living quarters.
So the discreet single-storey building with a living roof will be their home and will bring their total spend on Stow House to about £500,000, which they say is worth every penny.
“One friend described me as the most urban person he knew but I love it here,” says Sarah. “The people are so friendly and the countryside is so beautiful. There’s only one thing I miss and that’s wearing heels. I have a big collection but they’re useless here. It’s flats all the way.”