When James Allison bought his family home from his parents he didn’t know a thing about running hotels or restaurants.
“I’d never even worked in a bar,” admits the Oxford-educated engineer, who was just 24 at the time.
‘Home’ for James was the grade II listed Georgian country estate of Middleton Lodge at Middleton Tyas near Richmond. You would think his affinity for Middleton Lodge was due to the fact the estate had been in his family for generations – not so. His parents, adventurer father Jeffrey, who sailed the Northwest Passage – Greenland to Alaska via the Arctic Ocean – (his boat still sits in the grounds as a future project for James ‘when I get the time’) and mother Prue bought it when James was two.
“I am the youngest of six children, although four of them are stepbrothers and sisters as both my parents had been married before. But my father actually bought the 200-acre estate because of the land. At the time, banks would lend against the value of land and so he set about acquiring land, it just happened it had the house on it.”
When they bought it, Middleton Lodge had water running down the stairs and his parents set about making it habitable for their brood.
For James it seems to have been a magical upbringing and so, when his parents considered selling years ago. he decided to buy them out and to make it pay.
“Estates like this cost a lot of money to run,” he says, Middleton Lodge employs more than 140 people. “I had to find a way of trying to make it pay and the obvious place to start was the house.”
Although he had no experience whatsoever in hospitality he decided that his house would make a fantastic wedding and events venue, with its 16 bedrooms and stunning grounds.
He bought his parents a separate house and moved into one room in the main house himself, adding a marquee for bigger functions.
“I must have been a bit mad,” he laughs. “I had this idea of creating a must-go-to destination in the middle of pretty much nowhere, with no experience, but somehow it worked.” ‘Somehow’ involved a lot of hard work and sleepless nights.
But his dream didn’t end with just developing the house. After meeting his fiancée, London architect Rebecca Tappin, in New York through a mutual friend, she added her skill and passion to her adopted home.
“Bizarrely I have ancestors who lived in Middleton Tyas, virtually next door to Middleton Lodge,” says Rebecca. “So in a way it feels like coming home.”
Having sympathetically developed the rundown Coach House into a restaurant, treatment rooms and nine hotel rooms, the next phase of this ambitious couple’s plans are seeing fruition.
For the last two years they have been working with renowned landscape gardener, Tom Stuart-Smith to restore the grade II* listed walled kitchen garden, which had become rather overgrown and neglected.
“It was like walking into the Secret Garden,” says Rebecca. “There was something magical about walking through the door and into this wilderness.”
Two years, £1.6m, more than 90,000 plants including 22,000 bulbs, and a number of designs later, the stunning walled kitchen garden is coming into bloom.
“We were incredibly lucky to get Tom. He had worked with Becky when she was in London and he agreed to help us.”
But it wasn’t just the restoration of the historic kitchen garden that appealed to Stuart-Smith, it was James’s longer-term plans to transform the quarry which has been part of the estate since the 1940s and has been further extended.
Finances from the limestone quarry helped pay for the estate’s development and it is something of a necessary evil, although it is clear it is something that Rebecca is none too happy about.
In a bid to reduce its impact, James plans to create an amphitheatre and wild flower meadow.
“I think it was that project that most interested Tom,” he says.
Having said that, the kitchen garden is a triumph. Stuart-Smith and the estate’s head gardener, Andrew Webb have created a garden to bloom in all seasons. Divided into different sections, the two-acre space allows guests to explore four unique gardens, including a Spring Garden, Summer Garden, Prairie Garden and the vegetable and fruit garden.
“It’s wonderful to see the walled garden at Middleton Lodge brought back to life with such great commitment and vision from a brilliant team,” says Stuart-Smith. “It is intended to be a garden that has some interest throughout the year and a series of really magical moments from the first pear blossom in spring to the colouring of the autumn leaves in October.”
The four gardens are clearly separated with large arbours, built by the estate’s construction team. In the spring garden the arbours are hidden with growing pears and flowing white wisteria.
But it is not just the garden that is magical. Rebecca has designed a romantic wedding venue around the old brick archway. The Fig House is a large open space, with floor-to-ceiling Georgian inspired doors opening out onto the terrace. Inside, Rebecca has preserved original features such as the exposed brick wall, now crawling with fig trees, and the 18th century fireplaces in the adjoining Boiler House Bar. Styled with garden antiques, velvet greens and cosy soft furnishing – most sourced via eBay – this botanical inspired space can host up to 200 guests for a private event.
Peeping through the walls either side of The Fig House are the three Potting Shed bedrooms. The restored bedrooms follow a similar style to that of The Fig House, with subtle tones and garden inspired themes throughout.
Alongside both restored venue and walled garden being used for weddings and private parties, the spaces will be used for events hosted by Middleton Lodge, including a series of Open Gardens, foraging workshops, outdoor BBQs and fitness classes, such as yoga and pilates.
“It has been a lovely project to work on,” says Rebecca. “When I was working in London I would design a project but then never be able to see it through to fruition. With the Fig House I have been able to do all the nice bits as well, such as sourcing all the interiors.” That includes a stunning metal chandelier and original church doors – you guessed it, found on eBay.
Although two weddings are due to take place in the next couple of weeks, the Fig House and its staff, including chefs using produce from the estate, will really be put through their paces when Rebecca and James tie the knot there on June 16.
The couple’s two young daughters, Daisy, five and Poppy, two, will be flower girls, and nearly 200 guests will sit around the trestle tables overlooking the idyllic garden.
“I cannot think of anywhere else I would want to get married,” says Rebecca.
And this is not the end for their plans for the estate. “I want to create an outdoor and indoor swimming pool,” says James. “We are also in the process of changing what we deliver at the Coach House, while the Dovecote and The Forge will become more fine dining, again using seasonal produce from the estate.
And it is not only the product of the estate that the couple use, virtually everything they can recycle from the estate they do so, from oak beams to limestone to old plant pots.
“In the past estates like this would have been self sufficient and although that is not totally possible, we would like to get as close to it as possible.”