Caroline Norton fought for the rights of women when they had none and you suspect she would be pleased that it was a woman – Valeria Sykes – who has transformed what was a dilapidated 17th century mansion into one of England’s finest country hotels.
Grantley Hall had been empty for almost six years when Valeria, former right-hand woman and wife of multi-millionaire Paul Sykes for over 40 years until they divorced, made the snap decision to buy the hall in 2015, when she and her partner, Colin Little, spotted the Grade II*-listed property while driving past it one afternoon.
Four years and a whopping £70m later and this grand country pile has not only been restored to its original Palladian splendour, but given a new lease of life in the process.
Located a few miles away from Fountains Abbey and just over a 10-minute drive from Ripon, Grantley Hall has 47 rooms, three restaurants, a swimming pool and spa. It boasts its own English Heritage-listed Japanese garden and has the kudos of being Yorkshire’s only member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux.
If that wasn’t enough, it also has a state-of-the-art gym and wellness centre with enough hi-tech gadgets – everything from a cryotherapy chamber and an underwater treadmill – to make even James Bond green with envy.
The gym, which was opened by Lord Coe, has two bedrooms that allows you to sleep at altitude. “The people who come here are those who want to improve their cycle speeds, or are planning some big challenge,” says Andrew McPherson, the hotel’s general manager. “If you decided you wanted to go up Mount Kilimanjaro, or lose six kilos, we’ve got the ability to put together a 12-week programme to achieve these aims.”
A tailored programme likes this would set you back around £3,000 and is the kind of thing Grantley Hall hopes will set it apart from its rivals.
“These days people in their 40s, 50s and 60s are more interested in how they can improve their life, and this facility will become a hugely important part of driving our midweek business. I think in 10 years’ time all the cutting-edge technology that we have here will become a normal sort of offering,” adds McPherson.
Grantley Hall certainly has big ambitions with the aim of establishing itself as the leading country house hotel and spa in the north of England.
It’s not short on heritage either. Grantley has hosted many famous names down the years – Queen Mary was entertained by Sir William Aykroyd in 1937, and Dame Vera Lynn sang to the troops here during its stint as a convalescence home for injured soldiers. It has also been painted by countless artists including, perhaps surprisingly given his penchant for industrial landscapes, one LS Lowry.
The driving force behind the restoration project was Sykes’s refusal to compromise on quality and her determination to harness local businesses.
“Valeria is Yorkshire through and through and she wanted as much of the cash spent in Yorkshire, or sourced through a Yorkshire company, as possible. She wanted a place that Yorkshire and the north of England was proud of and that’s what she, and her son Richard have developed,” says McPherson, who lives in Masham and spent five years working at Swinton Park.
It’s not just about getting people to come here from across the North, part of the plan is to entice guests from London to venture beyond the M25. “People say ‘how will you attract people up here?’ But we’ve got Harrogate, York and the Dales all close by. So instead of going to the New Forest, or Bovey Castle, actually it’s only an hour and 50 minutes up to the beautiful city of York and then on to us. And when you think of it like that it’s perfectly situated.”
This hotel is all about five-star luxury and it comes with prices to match – rooms start from £350 a night, including breakfast (£270 a night in winter). But while it’s undeniably aimed at people with deep pockets, it is underpinned by a sense of place, which stems from Sykes’ own close affinity with Yorkshire.
The Grantley Academy, a learning and development centre open to all employees, has been set up to attract high-quality staff and provide opportunities to young local talent. “Valeria wanted to offer a springboard to people from Ripon and the local area to have a really good grounding in hospitality,” says McPherson.
Food is at the heart of Grantley Hall’s appeal, too. There are three restaurants, which might sound a lot for a hotel this size, but McPherson says the aim is to encourage more local people to come for a meal and a night out, particularly at its Pan-Asian restaurant.
“We want people from Harrogate and the local villages to come out and we want people from north Leeds to come out. So many country house hotels are dead by nine o’clock and we want to keep the atmosphere going. Richard’s idea is to bring a bit of urban chic to the countryside and that’s what it does.”
At the heart of its culinary offer is the fine dining restaurant headed by acclaimed chef Shaun Rankin. The restaurant offers a £90 tasting menu with additional wine pairing options at £65 and £115. It’s already been earning rave reviews (including from one of this newspaper’s food critics).
“We’ve had some great customer feedback and I think we’ve set the tone right with the menus and the provenance of the food. Everything is very regional and very local,” says Rankin, who is busy working in the kitchen when I pay a visit.
In keeping with the ambitions of the place, Rankin, who was born in Yorkshire and grew up in Durham, is gunning for not just one, but two Michelin Stars. “We set this up with aspirations for two stars. I think we’re more than capable of doing that and it’s only a matter of time, because the cooking and the service is there.”
It’s perhaps unusual for a chef to make such a bold statement from the outset, but Rankin sees it differently. “I did think about it. Do I set my stall out like this and I thought ‘yes, why not?’ If I didn’t think we could rise to the challenge then I wouldn’t have mentioned it.”
He’s pleased to be back in Yorkshire and is spurred on by its burgeoning food scene. “You’ve got amazing countryside, great people and fabulous produce... What more could you ask for as a chef?”
For more information go to www.grantleyhall.co.uk/