One couple’s life-changing move means they share their beautiful Dales house with holidaymakers who want a home away from home. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Joanne Withers.
A four-month stint volunteering with Raleigh International was the catalyst for Damian and Joanne Withers to make a life-changing move to the Yorkshire Dales.
“We were in Costa Rica and that sabbatical made us think ‘there has to be more to life’. We realised it should be about connecting with others, getting outdoors and really living life,” says Damian, an architect.
“We met a lot of interesting people while we were in Central America and we decided we wanted to do something different while keeping the jobs we still love.”
Mixing with other guests at the Raleigh accommodation and enjoying that communal experience gave them the idea of establishing a homestay business.
Common in Australia and New Zealand, homestays are popular with independent travellers and groups who can enjoy full use of their host’s facilities – including the kitchen. They can also tap into the homestay owner’s local knowledge.
“We loved the idea of a homestay because we are quite sociable and like meeting new people,” says Joanne, a photographer. “You can liken it to Airbnb but with live-in hosts who also share the kitchen and sitting rooms.”
The only problem with their plan was where to move to when they sold their home in Leicestershire.
“I love the hills and Joanne loves the sea,” says Damian.
Fortunately, they found the perfect compromise in a large period house just outside the Dales town of Sedbergh. The Victorian property sits below the magnificent Howgill fells and there are beautiful hill views from every window.
Just inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the house is also within easy striking distance of the Lake District and the Cumbrian coast.
The former vicarage was once owned by Bolton School and used as accommodation for outdoor retreats before being turned into a guest house.
“The location was perfect, the views are amazing and the size and layout meant we could create a place where groups could come and hang out together.
“It also gave us our own rooms on the top floor and a separate office space,” says Damian.
Another bonus was a large studio, which is now used for everything from quilting, art and photography courses to yoga retreats and business meetings.
“It’s also great when families stay as the children love using it as their play space and for board games,” says Joanne.
The house needed some updating but that wasn’t a problem thanks to Damian’s architectural and project management skills and Joanne’s flair for interior design.
Along with bringing modernity to what had been a traditional decor, their priority was to make the house as homely and dog-friendly as possible. It was a huge task, which began with rewiring and replumbing.
On the ground floor, they installed a new kitchen with dark blue cabinets and grey walls. Copper handles and taps were also sourced. They ripped up the carpets and sanded and varnished the floorboards in the two sitting rooms and the dining room and tackled all the redecorating themselves.
Joanne introduced bold colour to the walls and the furniture, which works brilliantly.
“Damian wasn’t sure when I said I was painting the downstairs loo black but it works really well,” she adds.
Furniture is a mix of old and new, which was bought from a variety of places, including Ikea, eBay and Edmondson’s and the Antiques Emporium in Kendal. There was also lots of upcycling. The enormous dining room table is two tables joined together.
“The former owner left us her table and we brought our own, so I painted them both black and put them together so they can accommodate the large groups we have,” says Joanne, who bought the dining chairs from eBay.
“We painted them and a local upholsterer gave us some tuition so we could reupholster them ourselves with fabric from the Fent Shop in Skipton.”
The curtains, all nine sets, were made by St Helen’s-based Ena Shaw, while the artwork is a combination of inspirational quotes from Etsy, Joanne’s photographs and a stunning display of stencilled plates.
On the first floor, there are now five newly-decorated twin rooms, which all have an en-suite. Damian and Joanne’s rooms are on the second floor.
Outside, they have installed a fire pit so guests can enjoy views of the fells alfresco. The studio, which comes with a whole house booking, has been a great success and used for everything from sewing and photography courses to yoga retreats and business meetings.
They bought the property almost two years ago and have no regrets.
“We give people space at first and when they have relaxed, we slowly introduce ourselves and they get used to us being around. We don’t follow them around but we might be in the kitchen making a coffee at the same time and we get chatting,” says Joanne.
“Everyone is different, some will sit and eat with us and watch a movie with us and sometimes we realise that they want their own space so we leave them to it.”
Damian adds: “We are so pleased we found this house and we love Sedbergh. It’s a great little town in a brilliant location and the community there is very supportive.”
Their new website Stmarksstays.co.uk signs off: “Arrive as strangers, leave as friends”.
St Marks Stays is www.stmarksstays.co.uk. Prices start from £1,250 in low season rising to £2,150 a week in peak season. Individual rooms can be booked at short notice.