HOW many new business ideas are there? Truly new ideas? I don’t know. Alan Sugar has had a few. And Peter Jones. Branson, of course.
Much of the time though, the old ones are the best, and James Allison has taken an old idea – opening a grand country home to the public to help make it pay – and put a refreshing spin on it.
At Middleton Lodge, you get to take over James’s home and make it your own; whether it’s for a house party, wedding or corporate function. Yes, you can hire other properties, but Middleton Lodge is different in that it is a home first and foremost, with the comfortable, lived-in feeling that a home brings. Tabitha the friendly house cat isn’t a designer feline; she’s a daft, fat moggy who’s here because she’s at home.
There are no locks on the bedroom doors because, once you are here, it’s your home too. There are no tea and coffee trays in the bedrooms because, well, you wouldn’t have them at home would you? The Lodge, a Georgian Palladian country house near Darlington, is grand, though comfortably sized.
It is beautiful, but also lived in. The corner of one of the old, exquisitely upholstered sofas has been clawed to shreds by Tabitha. You can curl up in an old armchair and hide behind one of James’s many climbing books without fear of a snooty waiter looking down his nose at you. You can get up late on Sunday morning and shuffle into the kitchen, where James will happily make you a fortifying pile of bacon and eggs.
Or a Bloody Mary, should that be more appropriate. Life at Middleton is easy. “I run it this way because it fits the house,” says James. “This is my home, and it absolutely always will be. That will never change. I’m very flexible and we accommodate people’s needs, whether it’s a wedding, a party or a corporate function. Importantly, we don’t offer set packages. That wouldn’t work for the sort of people who come here and I don’t want to work like that. This is a home and it should feel like that when you’re here.”
James’s business ethic is refreshingly simple. He accommodates clients by offering them what they want, rather than a set package. His business also enables him personal flexibility. He works extremely hard, but also allows time for climbing, skiing, sailing and, recently, a couple of expeditions. Infact, he has a section headed ‘Recent Expeditions’ on his CV, which is novel. He joined his father (an intrepid adventurer currently sailing the world’s seas) to become the first Brits to sail the Northwest passage (Greenland to Alaska via the Arctic Ocean) last year, and also completed the Plymouth-Dakar rally across the Sahara Desert.
“It’s busy and you have to make sure everything is just right when people are here, but this is a great way of working,” he says. “I’m going ice climbing next week in France. Okay, so I’ve got tonight to do first [a dinner, wine tasting and overnight stay for 30], then 30 people coming for a weekend house party tomorrow, for which I’m doing all the cooking. Mind you, I’ll enjoy it, but it will be hard work, then I have to get myself organised to get out to France. That’s the pay off though isn’t it? You work for that level of flexibility.”
James’s parents bought Middleton Lodge in 1980 and he grew up there, the youngest, now aged 29, of six. In those days, it was, he says, a bit run down (“well, the roof leaked quite a lot ...”) but of course it was a magical place to grow up, with its 200 acres of parkland and countless hidey holes around the house and grounds. James bought it from his parents in 2005 and, to make it ship-shape for guests, he’s re-decorated throughout with help from his sister Fiona, who lives on the estate and is the Lodge’s events co-ordinator. He can’t tell you off the top of his head how many rooms there are, though there are 16 bedrooms, many bathrooms and several reception rooms. All of it is beautifully done out. It’s very comfortable, very beautiful; not flash or too immaculate. Just very relaxed and easy to be around – like James.
He genuinely enjoys hosting regular parties and functions in his home, just as former incumbents of this grand mansion might once have done for their own friends and business associates. Corporate away days and weekends, house parties and weddings – Middleton Lodge is yours, complete with the owner playing host / butler / chief cook and bottle washer if you desire. The black-tie dinner that evening puts me in mind of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement; the early chapters set in the 1930s in the big house, cosseted from the outside world; endless parties and dinners following long, languid days in the grounds. “We had to change it from a family home to somewhere people can come, but it hasn’t changed at all really,” says James who, quite simply, loves this old house and actually suits it rather well. “It’s just the same now as it has always been for me. One of the main things was to ensure it remained my home. I don’t want that to change at all and see no reason why I should.”
Which is why, I guess, I wander into the kitchen later to find his mother Prue making cheese and salad rolls for us all – ‘all’ being me, our photographer, James’s sister Fiona, a brother helping to build a new bar, plus various others who emerge from the woodwork when the food appears. I’ve been there all morning and toured the house, yet I had no idea they were all there. God knows where they were all hiding, but then, in a house this big, I guess it’s easy to lose yourself. But does he really let the paying guests treat the house as their own? Don’t they take advantage?
“Honestly, we’ve had no problems,” he says. “I think it’s because I meet everyone here and they know it’s my home. I’m also reasonably relaxed about it. Obviously, people get drunk and things are going to happen, but it hasn’t been that bad.”
The comedian Steve Coogan – who has a reputation for, shall we say, liking a party – celebrated his 40th here with absolute decorum. At a wedding party, a mahogany dining table was injured when a bridesmaid fell on it (she said she was leaning against it; but the damage pointed to some pretty vigorous leaning). Whatever, James is pretty relaxed.
“It’s okay, these things happen. The damage wasn’t too bad.” His mother used to open the doors for cream teas and cater for parties back in the 80s and James has inherited her excellent catering skills. “It’s nice to be able to fill it with people and everyone enjoys it,” he says, simply. “If I didn’t enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t do it.” The house was begun around 1780 by the architect John Carr. It remained in the same family ownership, though largely rented out, until 1947, when it was sold for the first time. Then, it was sold to James’s parents in 1980 and from them to him in 2005. In addition to Middleton Lodge, James also runs three mixed arable and livestock farms in the area and, with his brother Paul, a quarrying company, Sherburn Stone.
There are plans to create conference facilities in the stable block at the Lodge, plus a restaurant and farm shop stocked with quality produce from the farms and the walled garden. James has submitted a planning application to restore the rest of the estate and create an ambitious garden attraction, complete with an amphitheatre, a 50-metre high fountain and a quarry garden. “I want to create fantastic facilities within the estate without affecting the house,” he says, “so I can still just close the door and it’s still my house.” He travelled and did some voluntary work in Chile in 2000, during which time he had a short, 24-hour period on his own in the middle of nowhere and wrote a list of jobs to do at home.
“The estate needs a lot of money spent on it and I need an enabling development. I don’t want to do a housing project because that would ruin it. A big garden project is high risk, but it’s more fitting,” he says. “It’s taken a long time to work out what would be right and I think this is it. People have a problem with the idea of mineral extraction on a country estate, but the garden will be spectacular, with a meadow, a yin yang-design pool, fountains and a quarry garden. It will all be done in stages. It’s all worked out in here,” he says, tapping his forehead thoughtfully. The house is fascinating; the rooms radiate from an oval, double-height hall marked by a magnificent stairway which coils round the wall like a snake slithering towards the dome above.
“Someone had a corporate training event here and told his colleagues that Cleudo, the board game, was modelled on the house,” says James. “I liked that. It might have been though, don’t you think?“ James’s boyhood bedroom, now a guest room named Willow, is hexagonal, exquisitely decorated in shades of gold, with endless views over the North York Moors. Looking at the view, you could confidently declare yourself slap, bang in the middle of nowhere, though you’re actually just a couple of miles from the A1, which makes life very easy for the visiting company execs and party goers. Sleeping 32 (plus eight children), you can sit 45 in the dining room, have 120 at an evening party and a 200-guest marquee on the lawn. There’s a snooker room, a hot tub, tennis court, cricket pitch, barbecue area and clay pigeon shooting. For corporate events, the main hall serves as an auditorium, with plenty of break-out rooms leading off it and a good audio system.
“None of it is too much trouble; I just like providing what people want,” James says.
“I did engineering at university [Oxford], and being an engineer is about solving problems; that’s how I approach it. It’s all logical.” It’s the same logical approach, one supposes, that found him negotiating the Northwest passage last year. “Well, Dad was in Greenland and he rang to say the ice was right and he needed crew. That was the Thursday and I flew out with a friend on the Tuesday. The sail itself was actually pretty monotonous, though of course the landscape was spectacular.
“There were three of us on the boat; Dad navigating, us two crewing. It was full on, 24 hours a day, six weeks in total. When we had done it, we left Dad there and he lost his boat, which was just terrible. He was in the Baring Sea, where there are very big waves, and he had to be rescued by a fishing boat.
“The strange thing was, he had a suit on board, and why he saved it I don’t know, but he carried it off the boat in a bag. When he came back on land, he had a black eye and was wearing this suit. He’s quite a guy. He’s sailing now somewhere between Mexico and Hawaii. He’s just sailing round the world; not easy sailing you understand – he’s doing the big stuff.”
James has clearly inherited a penchant for doing things the hard way and completed the Plymouth-Dakar rally last year for a Mali-based charity. “I bought a car for £250; a G-Reg Land Rover Vogue. The engine was spot on. I did a lot of welding work on it before we went, so it was immaculate. It was an excellent car actually. When we finished, we had to leave it there for the charity, and that was a bit of a blow to be honest. I’d got quite fond of it. The landscapes, again, were just amazing. The sand dunes were stunning; a rolling landscape, just bare, but incredible.”
Back to Middleton Lodge, and the house is full of striking sculptures by mum Prue, a sculptor and painter. There is also a painting on the drawing room wall of the hall, which James found in an antique shop in Darlington. And a striking portrait of a young James, his sister and his best friend Guy and his sister, painted from a photo by the artist Francesca Hudson. The children in it are all polished up and in Sunday best, presumably off to a party. The photo from which it is painted is stuck on the wall just beneath it.
The kitchen mantelpiece supports a signed cast and crew photo from a film made here, ‘Perfect Day’ starring a few telly faces, including a girl who used to be in ‘Casualty’ I think. There was also a Bollywood film made here called, would you believe, Hari Putter. “I’d love to see that, but I’m not sure it’s surfaced yet,” James says, laughing. These mementoes mix with family photos, bits and bobs and bookshelves heaving with battered reading matter, much of it about sailing and climbing. Its host is, as mentioned, pretty relaxed. Prices depend upon what you want, but you can reckon on a very reasonable £150 per person for a 24-hour hire including food midweek, while the corporate day rate starts at £40 per person per day including food. You can hire it for £4,000 for the weekend, self catering. Everything is flexible, which is how James likes it. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s not hard. I love it. I really enjoy it. The sort of people who come – it’s just fun really. So it’s a very nice way of doing business.”