Why bother? It’s a question Valeria Sykes has been asked many times since buying Grantley Hall, a dilapidated mid-18th century mansion that screamed “money pit”.
Why bother with all that work? Why bother spending a small fortune? Why bother investing a huge amount of time and energy on such a tough project when you’re past retirement age and entitled to take it easy?
Valeria, 75, made the snap decision to buy the hall just over three years ago when she and her partner, Colin Little, spotted the Grade II-star listed property while driving past it one afternoon.
“I’d attended a decoupage course there many years ago and so I knew it was a lovely building.
“I said, ‘It would be wonderful to have afternoon tea there’ and then we drove on a bit and my mind went racing.
“I had this vision of it as a first-class hotel and I turned to Colin and said, ‘I’m going to buy it.’”
Her main motivation was to rescue the property that had been empty for almost six years.
“I feel sad when I see beautiful old buildings like that. I just want to save them,” says Valeria, who has form for this, most notably the restoration of her former home, Studley Royal House, near Fountains Abbey.
Grantley Hall was a far bigger proposition and a commercial venture to boot.
“I love restoring properties and, after taking advice, I knew I could do it,” she says, adding that the conversion has taken over her life for the last three years.
When she first viewed the hall, which sits in an idyllic spot by the River Skell, five miles from Ripon, the roof was leaking in 12 places and the once grand home was forlorn. Council-owned and run as an education centre since 1947, it was sold for residential use in 2006. The last owner realised it was too big to live in and got permission to turn it into a hotel and spa, but there were no takers until Valeria agreed to buy it in August 2015.
An artist and maker, she had no problem visualising what it could become and she is now busy spending £70 million turning it into the best country house hotel in the north.
There was no point trying to talk her out if it, though some tried. Petite, thoughtful and friendly, the softly-spoken Mrs Sykes should not be underestimated.
As the former right-hand woman and wife of multi-millionaire Paul Sykes for over 40 years until they divorced, she understands business and is quietly but fiercely determined as the 150 people working on the Grantley Hall site know only too well.
She is hands-on and present, so much so that the contractors presented her with a pink high-vis jacket with “Mrs Sykes” printed on the back. There’s a hard hat to match.
“I know I can be difficult to work with and I apologise but I am a perfectionist and I want everything to be right,” she says, adding that the organic laundry in the basement of the new spa building was a case in point.
It was a late addition at significant extra cost after she realised she couldn’t risk sending the washing out. The basement will also house offices, kitchen prep rooms, a plant room and storage and was a major undertaking.
“It took a year to dig out and we hired the biggest pile driving machine in Britain for it,” says Valeria as she energetically zips me round a long and exhausting tour of the site.
The contractors, Wooler and HACS, and the project managers Lucas Lee are on schedule and the hotel, which will be Yorkshire’s only member of Relais and Chateau, is set to open in the spring.
The hall, which still has all 47 of its original fireplaces, and its new Fountains wing will have 21 bedrooms and suites The Three Graces Spa building will have 26 bedrooms arranged around a mezzanine courtyard with a spectacular glass roof. The spa is all bells and whistles. It will also have an 18-metre pool, snow and steam rooms, a gym run by champion rower Duncan Roy, an altitude training facility, underwater treadmill, a cryotherapy chamber and a state-of-the-art wellness centre with allergy testing and a 3D body scanner that can check bone density among other things.
A new contemporary garden pavilion will contain the Grantleysuite, which holds 200 people for conferences, weddings and events. It will also have a restaurant and bar along with Valeria’s, a champagne and cocktail bar.
There will be four places to eat, a Pan Asian restaurant, a spa restaurant, a brasserie and Signature, a fine dining restaurant with Shaun Rankin as head chef. That afternoon tea Valeria imagined will be available in the house drawing room.
The cost of staying in one of the luxurious rooms will start at £350 a night running to £5,000 a night for the opulent Presidential suite.
All are air conditioned with smart technology by Wetherby’s Clever Associates and opulent marble bathrooms by Knaresborough-based Lapicida.
Valeria’s son, Richard, is heavily involved with the project along with her grandsons, Tom and Will, and Colin, whose background is running corporate companies. The idea is that this will be a long-term family business.
Her forte is design and much of her time has been spent sketching ideas and sourcing everything from furniture and fabric to art and garden sculptures.
She has also spearheaded the restoration of the 1910 Japanese garden and has designed the new fountain and rill at the front of the hall.
“It’s been hard work but I am someone who is always on the go,” says Valeria. Colin concurs, adding that after dinner, when he settles down in an armchair to relax, she gets out her paints. “I stay up painting until midnight or one in the morning. That’s my ‘me’ time,” she says.
Her love of art is well known, along with her philanthropy. She is patron of New Light, which supports and promotes well-known and emerging Northern artists.
Some of their work will hang in the hall and will be for sale.
Artist James Naughton’s landscapes will hang in the reception as Valeria has insisted that there is plenty of “Yorkshire” in the building.
A proud Yorkshirewoman, she grew up near Barnsley and she has retained her accent and a down-to-earth approach to life.
“Supporting local businesses and talent was really important to me,” she says, adding that her aim is to tempt people from London to come up to the area to see what they are missing.
The viability of her venture has been the subject of discussion but there is method in what some regard as madness.
The property and its 38 acres are in a beautiful, secluded spot but it’s only a 10-minute drive from Ripon and the A1 and Grantley has also been designed so that boredom never sets in.
“There is a lot to do here plus most hotels have one restaurant and here there are four, all different so you can go out and have a different experience every night,” says Colin.
Making sure that everything is five star is general manager Andrew McPherson. He was poached from Lucknam Park hotel and spa in the Cotswolds after a chance meeting that felt like fate.
Valeria and Colin had been staying at Lucknam when she spotted Andrew and thanked him for a lovely stay.
Good manners cost nothing and in this case they saved her the hassle of hunting down a top quality manager.
“We got chatting and he told me he used to work at Swinton Park Hotel and was coming up to Masham to sell his house there, which he didn’t really want to do because he and his family loved it.
“I told him he didn’t have to if he came to work for us and that was it,” she says.
Andrew is now in the process of recruiting staff. Finding and keeping them is notoriously difficult as the hospitality industry has been badly affected by Brexit.
Foreign workers have already stopped coming to Britain to seek work, which is why no expense has been spared on staff facilities at Grantley Hall.
An accommodation block will have 44 en-suite bedrooms, kitchens, a cinema room and a gym. There will also be a separate training academy for Grantley staff and for others in the industry.
“It is incredible but we want the best staff and this will help attract them. The academy means we can train and employ local people who are more likely to stay with us long-term,” says Andrew. It all comes at extra cost with no quick return.
Valeria says: “I know I won’t see a financial return on my investment in Grantley during my lifetime and I have no regrets. I love Yorkshire and it deserves the very best.
“I can’t wait to open the doors and greet people from all over the world.”