She may not have conquered Everest and she’s no expert in wilderness survival, but Lara Grylls has the same fearless determination as her brother Bear.
Her “can do” attitude and boundless energy and enthusiasm helped when she embarked on a property challenge that had already beaten lesser mortals.
Becca Hall, near Leeds, was a sad and abandoned building when she and her husband James bought it five years ago.
The handsome country house had been acquired by the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1958. Unhindered by planning rules, the Board proceeded to attach an enormous Brutalist extension to the historic property.
The carbuncle was four times bigger than the existing house and included office buildings, control centres, bunkers and a tower. It controlled the electricity supply from the Borders to the Wash and was high on the IRA’s hit list. Rumour has it that MI5 used it as a safe house but by 1997 it was redundant.
Sold to a succession of speculators, none of them could work out what to do with the derelict property and the cost of demolishing the extension appeared to be prohibitive. It was on the market again in 2010 when the rescue package arrived all wrapped up in a long-held dream.
“It was my husband’s great grandfather’s home for 30 years but he had to sell it. James grew up dreaming that one day he might be in a position to buy it back,” says Lara, who co-owns London-based PR First, a public relations agency that specialises in interiors.
James’ family still owned much of the land surrounding the hall and the couple lived in a house close by with their teenage children Bevan, Mungo and Tallulah.
“Becca Hall passed into the hands of the receivers and was on sale at half the price it had been before and that’s when we thought we might stand a chance,” says Lara. “The other would-be buyers wanted to build flats and their offer was on condition they got planning permission. Ours was unconditional and that’s what swung it.”
The first job was to get planning permission and then came the demolition of what Lara calls “the tumour”. This was not the loss-making exercise everyone assumed it would be. They budgeted £200,000 for the work but the scrap value added up to a £50,000 profit, which helped towards the £10,000 they had to fork out to photograph the electricity board HQ, which was deemed historically significant by the planners. It also allowed them to reinstate the chimneys and the Georgian-style windows in the house.
Fortunately, many of the other period features inside the Georgian central section and two Victorian wings had survived. They include the decorative plasterwork, panelling, fireplaces and stained glass windows.
“The electricity board ripped off all the chimneys and changed the windows but they used the main rooms in Becca Hall for conferences so they were in reasonable condition,” says Lara.
“Upstairs was very institutionalised with drop ceilings and stud walls, and there was no kitchen or bathrooms, so that was a challenge.”
Other issues included a flood but there were pleasant surprises too, like finding parquet flooring under a damp carpet.
Now, after five years of hard work, the mammoth project is almost complete, save for landscaping.
The end result combines the grandeur of the original house with all the pre-requisites for modern family life. The property now has ten bedrooms and seven bathrooms. At the heart of the house is an enormous kitchen with bespoke units and a large island by Neptune, one of Lara’s PR clients.
Her decision to use her clients’ products and expertise made perfect sense. “I knew they were good and it just saved so much time,” she says.
There are sofas from Rodgers of York, boot room storage from Garden Trading and Neptune, flooring from Crucial Trading and Piazza Tiles and lighting from John Lewis and Vaughan. The furniture is a mix of items from their old house and other period pieces.
Ogee74 designed all the bathrooms and most of the fabrics and wallpaper are from Nina Campbell. There’s also contemporary wallpaper by Yorkshire-based Deborah Bowness, who gave it to her as payment for using the house for a photo shoot.
“My taste is a bit more wacky, while James’ is quite traditional so I had to rein myself in and take a less-is-more approach because this house is his dream. I felt a huge responsibility to get it right,” says Lara.
A canny and creative approach was essential as she and James tried to balance her budget. They project managed all the building work instead of hiring a main contractor. They also opted for porcelain tiles in the hall, which were half the price of stone and look equally impressive. Bathroom tiles were recycled as skirtings and splashbacks and instead of a whole house telephone system, they use walkie-talkies.