The top deck of a double-decker bus proved to be a great vantage point for Sandra Johnson when she first viewed her future home. Set behind high walls and hedges, Rudby Hall, near Stokesley, is hidden from those at ground level.
“I took the bus to market one day and saw this beautiful house and I was intrigued,” says Sandra.
Its history added to the allure. The house was commissioned in the 1830s by the last Hanoverian king, William IV, for his illegitimate daughter Lady Amelia Cary. At the time of the king’s death in 1837, he had no legitimate offspring but he was survived by eight of the ten children he had with Irish actress Dorothea Jordan, with whom he cohabited for 20 years.
While Sandra never dreamed she would own the former royal residence, within a matter of months she had the keys to the door. She had mentioned the house to her husband Martin, a property developer, so when he heard it was for sale he and his business partner, Martin Broome, went to view it.
“They agreed to buy it there and then,” says Sandra, who was away visiting family in France at the time.
It was a departure for Martin’s company Python Properties, which is renowned for renovating historic commercial buildings, including Cargo Fleet in Middlesbrough.
Most of the hall had already been beautifully restored by previous owners. It had been split into flats and was semi-derelict when a chemical company bought it as their HQ. They carefully turned it back into one property. The couple who bought it from them also lavished a small fortune on the grade two star listed building, although they didn’t touch the top floor.
“I fell in love with it,” says Martin. “It is such a beautiful house and, it was in such fantastic condition thanks to the previous owners, that I couldn’t resist. It’s one of those places that comes along once in a lifetime. We had to move very quickly to get it and we had exchanged contracts within five days.”
He and Sandra swapped their cottage in nearby Hutton Rudby for the magnificent country house in 2002. They bought some of the furniture and furnishings as their own belongings were far too small-scale for the enormous Georgian rooms. They have also added their own finds over the past 13 years, including a huge coffee table, which is a dining table with the legs chopped down.
The challenge of finding large-scale pieces for the period property became more pressing recently. Keen to find a commercial use for their home to help fund its considerable running costs, which are about £80,000 a year, the Johnsons decided to open it up as a luxury venue for weddings, private events and corporate accommodation.
“We were rattling round in it, then a couple of friends asked if they could get married here and the idea of opening it up as venue and a private house to hire grew from there,” says Martin, who recently installed a £150,000 biomass boiler to replace the oil-fired heating system.
The couple, who have two children, Jack, ten, and nine-year-old Charley, are no strangers to the hospitality industry. Both had a long career on cruise ships, which is how they met. Martin was a captain and Sandra was a purser and they have applied the exacting standards and friendly atmosphere on board ship to their upmarket rural venture.
They have restored and converted the redundant top floor of the hall into seven bedroom suites. There are also six suites below dressed in a more classic style. Downstairs, guests have the run of the grand reception rooms, which boast Rococo plasterwork, original panelling, sweeping staircase with carvings by Mouseman and a secret door.
Great care was taken not to spoil the original features when changing the Georgian property into a venue. The original oak doors have been made into fire doors, although the effect is subtle thanks to discreet, gilded fittings.
Sandra took the lead role in designing the new bedrooms with the help of local decorator Michael Brotton. They were the original servants’ quarters and, as they were simple in style, so Sandra decided to give them a more contemporary look. The furniture is a mix of bespoke, built-in storage and free-standing pieces from Betel, a charity that restores and sells furniture. Many of the fabrics are from France and the pictures on the landing and stairs are all by art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka.
The other suites are all named after characters who are associated with the hall’s long history. The beautiful bridal suite is named after Lady Amelia, while the red and racy boudoir-style suite pays homage to her mother, “Mrs Jordan”.
Another is named after a previous owner, Robert Ropner, and there is a Salvin room in tribute to the architect who designed the hall.
“He sourced a lot of the original tiles from Morocco and so I decorated that room in a Moroccan style in his honour,” says Sandra, who has recorded the latest chapter with the Captain’s room, housed in the old water tower.
It is a tribute to Martin’s time at the helm and has a nautical theme, with rope lamps from Barker & Stonehouse, a captain’s chair and a map of the world.
“There are quite a few comparables to our time on the cruise ships,” says Martin. “These houses were built for entertaining. Having guests at Rudby Hall brings it to life.”