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Stately survival: a tale of rural success

Friday 04 July 2008

Countryside commentator John Sheard relishes the chance to publish a good news story and congratulates a young Yorkshire Dales landowner who rescued his ancestral home from a fate worse than death

AT A time of almost unmitigated gloom, a story presented itself this week that warmed the cockles of the old heart. It involves a young man enjoying the excitement of the London media scene who was forced back home to the Yorkshire Dales facing a dilemma which has challenged – and often defeated – other young men in his situation.

Few of us ordinary mortals feel the weight of history on our shoulders like young Roger Tempest some 20 years ago. He had a job with an exciting new national newspaper in London working as a close aide to the man who was revolutionising Fleet Street, Eddie Shah, the first owner who dared to take on the mighty print unions and win.

Broughton Hall
Broughton Hall: a tale of rural success
Photo: www.broughtonhall.co.uk

Then came to call from home on the outskirts of Skipton: his father was not well and the estate was haemorrhaging money. The family might have to sell up...

Sadly, there may be thousands of people in this country obliged to sell their houses in the coming year or so as the credit crunch sinks its teeth into shaky family fortunes – but few of those “homes” will be 18th Century Palladian mansions with a just claim to be the prettiest stately home in the Yorkshire Dales.

And even amongst stately home owners, few can match the Tempest claim to have lived on the same land at Broughton, near Skipton, since the 12th Century, when the family set up a water mill to grind corn on the local beck – and have been serving the local community ever since.

Survival for the Tempests must flow in the blood. As staunch Roman Catholics who have never wavered in their faith, they survived the religious persecutions of the Tudor and Stuart times when many of their ilk were burned at the stake. They had built Catholic churches in the area before Henry V111 created the Church of England.

They were perhaps even luckier to survive the 20th Century, when successive Labour Governments did their best to wipe out the land gentry, using death duties rather than the stake as their instrument of terror.

Hundreds of such estates were sold, their houses being turned into hotels, golf clubs or private schools – even demolished to be stripped of their lead roofs, ancient timbers or fine dressed stone. Others limped on at the verge of bankruptcy ...including Broughton Hall.

This was the situation when I first met Roger Tempest. Back from a glamorous life in London, he was faced with the prospect of coming up with some bright new ideas – or selling up. He told me then: “It has been our family tradition for centuries for every heir to leave the estate in a better condition than when he inherited it. Can you possibly imagine the guilt I would feel as the heir who lost it all...?”

However, the Tempest survival genes kicked in and Roger set about transforming the estate into a rural business park for hi-tech business: “I had seen the cost of office rents in London and cities like Leeds; I knew how difficult its was to drive in and park; I knew about the noised and the congestion and the pollution.

“The fax machine had come on line and businesses were turning to computers. The Internet was in its infancy but promised much for the future. I thought, surely people would prefer to work in the open countryside in customised office buildings, where they could park and breath fresh air. So we started to convert the old stables and things began to click into place...”

Few members of the House of Commons have any idea how to create a successful rural business

That’s an understatement. Broughton Hall Business Park became such a roaring success that it has been copied by other stately homes throughout the country – Roger even set up a profitable business to help them do so. Now there are no fewer than 49 businesses with offices on the estate.

The only thing they lacked was an “office canteen.” Well, now they have one – only it is an ultra-modern cafe/restaurant called Utopia which this week won a major architectural award presented by Michael Jack MP, Chairman of the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (see News, Wednesday)

The stark glass and steel design is in sharp contrast to the 18th Century facade of the hall but the Country Land and Business Association, which gave he award for outstanding rural architecture, says “it works really well and has a place in our rural landscape.”

Once again, Roger Tempest had challenged the conventional – and come up trumps. I just wish he had time to have a word with the visiting MP. Few members of the House of Commons have any idea how to create a successful rural business. Roger Tempest is just the sort of adviser they need.

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