Stately home is where the heart is

A title, another 20,000 acres – Mark Cunliffe-Lister seems to take it in his stride. Frederic Manby meets the new Lord Masham

There is a story that when the Swinton Park estate in Yorkshire's old North Riding was for sale in the 1880s, the Royal family was thinking of buying it, but was put off by the shooting challenge posed by the high-flying pheasants.

They bought Sandringham instead. The pheasants fly lower in Norfolk. Swinton Park was bought by a Yorkshire textile tycoon, the man who gave the world Lister's renowned velvet curtains. The anecdote is told with a chuckle by his descendant, who has just inherited the estate, high pheasants and all.

Mark Cunliffe-Lister is far removed from the bucolic landed squire portrayed in cartoons and stories. He is tall, lean, clear-skinned with a healthy gleam in his eyes. He plays cricket and soccer and enjoys the occasional long distance run.

He has just become Lord Masham, a title he puts in everyday abeyance, preferring to be called Mark, and is in the process of inheriting the 20,000 acres of North Yorkshire that compose the Swinton Estate, which stretches west of Masham, from the Ure to the border with Nidderdale.

When we meet, Mark declines coffee or tea: bottled water... still, please. We are sitting in one of the smaller drawing rooms at Swinton Park, the ancestral seat, which his family syndicate bought back from a property company in 2000 and within a year had it open as a country house hotel, with a fair amount of aristocratic polish in the old family paintings and furniture.

The 20 bedroom "hotel" survived a year of foot-and- mouth disease; it now has 30 bedrooms, a clutch of awards for its food and accommodation, a cookery school, a spa and so forth. Mark and his wife, Felicity, are joint managing directors. The syndicate is completed by Mark's brother, Simon, their sister, Lorna, and their mother, Susan Cunliffe-Lister, of Burton Agnes Hall. They sold a couple of farms to buy back Swinton Park, which is mostly an early to late 19th century imposing mansion, previously known as Swinton Castle, courtesy of its wannabe castle faade. Add a loan of 1.5m to bring it up to snuff, and voil, a stately home hotel is born, complete with a pair of fake stags posing under a lime tree.

Before this plunge into the posh end of the hospitality trade, Mark was working as a geophysicist, a career which included a year searching for copper in Chile. His wife-to-be, Felicity, was a commercial property lawyer in London (they had met at Durham University where Mark took a degree in engineering before adding a Masters in geophysics at Imperial College).

Newly-married, they plunged into the acquisition of the old house. It had come into the family in 1882, acquired by Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, created Baron Masham. His Bradford mill was renowned for the quality of its velvet, which established the family fortune. Decades of fine living flew by, before death duties and running costs led to the house's sale in 1980. The estate remained in the family.

Did Mark's friends think he was taking a risk in buying the huge house and hoping to make a go of it in the hotel trade? Sort of, is the short answer. Happily, the structure of the building had never been neglected. The vendors had permission to convert it to 60 bedrooms but Mark and Felicity decided that they would rather keep the Victorian bedrooms intact, instead of chopping them into smaller units. Mark always had the prospect of inheriting the landed estate and so there was a synergy in coming back to Yorkshire, where he was educated at Aysgarth, before going, like his forbears, to Winchester. The title of Lord Masham and the land passed to him following the death of his uncle, the Earl of Swinton, in March.

The new earl is his father, Nicholas, who lives in Bridlington.

The majority of the estate is in the valley of Colsterdale, which runs up to the Nidderdale watershed on Steel House Moor, through the quiet and exquisite valley of the River Burn, spared the drama of traffic because the gated road ends in a farmyard. Names on the map include Coal Road (coal was mined here), the mysterious Gollinglith and the descriptive Thorny Grane Moor.

At this time of year, the valley bottom is bright green, and the moor tops are getting a hint of purple. Pied wagtails dart across the single track road. Ruined buildings add to the idyll. There are 9,000 acres of grouse moors (Ilton, Grimes Gill, Colsterdale), the villages of Fearby and Healey, two reservoirs (Leighton and Roundhill), some 1,800 acres of woodland. The rest of the estate is farmed by more than 40 tenants, with a small area kept in hand by Mark's aunt, Baroness Masham of Ilton, renowned for her work for the disabled. The estate's eastern boundary ends with several miles of fishing on the River Ure.

There are beneficial joint partnerships between the tenant farmers and the hotel, which include a clay pigeon shooting school, off-road driving and a UK Chaser riding course. Local produce is used where possible, augmented by the kitchen garden, which was planned by Susan Cunliffe-Lister.

Her son does not seem at all dazzled by the new responsibilities, though there are elements still to unfold. Changes in the last Budget on inheritance laws are awaiting parliamentary definition: all that is in the hands of his legal team, as is putting the estate into a trust for his children, two-year-old William, and Grace, who is four.

Mark says: "The estate is a huge challenge in many ways. I am inheriting something which is passed from one generation to another and I do not want to be the generation that has to sell it or alter it.

"There is also a challenge in the changing ways of agriculture, which historically was the main source of income for the estate but is now threatened in many ways. Modern estate management is not as simple as living and enjoying life on the estate and we have to look at other income earners."

To this end, he is finding uses for redundant out-buildings. The garage has been converted into a wood-powered boiler supplying all the heating and hot water for the hotel, using wood chips from the estate woodyard.

There have been some personal compromises. Swinton Park is landlocked, but Felicity comes from coastal Devon and is a competitive dinghy racer. So there are trips back to East Prawle for the call of the sea, where they have a share in a 1950s wooden sailing boat. Mark also turns out for the local cricket team as a guest player, and recently hosted the East Prawle X1 in a return match against the Swinton Park CC on the newly restored pitch in the parkland. Honours were shared in a draw on 145 runs each.

He comes from a line of sportsmen. His late uncle was passionate about Yorkshire cricket and was one of the best shots of his generation, in an era where such men had the leisure time. Mark also shoots and employs six full-time gamekeepers to look after the three grouse moors and the pheasant and partridge. This is an expensive concern because the shooting is not let commercially.

He also retains half the estate's stretch on the Ure – where salmon and sea trout have returned, says Mark, who is the inaugural vice president of the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.

Both Mark and Felicity have tackled the annual Burn Valley Run, which is exactly half marathon distance. One gathers it was tough. "I think 10km is more my distance," laughs Mark, either fading in his mid-30s or probably just modest: last year he completed the 54-mile cross country Caledonian Challenge.