Inside Leighton Hall, Carnforth's, Lancashire historic home changing hands
PUBLISHED: 17:01 21 May 2010 | UPDATED: 19:10 08 June 2016
Two women talk frankly about the pressures of running one of Lancashire's loveliest homes - and the challenges of one taking charge. Roger Borrell reports
When a new boss takes over the reins of a long-established business, you can be sure there will be change. And with change comes uncertainty, emotions and, sometimes, a few tears.
When it’s a family business, the potential for trouble is multiplied. After all, everyone’s future is at stake - present and future generations.
It has all the makings of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. You can just imagine the teacups flying, the brooding silences, the accusing looks.
Happily, the family running this highly unusual business have taken a more adult approach. But they would be the first to admit there had been awkward moments, difficult conversations and hard decisions.
Running Leighton Hall is, of course, no ordinary job. This lovely old house sits at the centre of a substantial agricultural estate and occupies a dramatic spot in one of Lancashire’s loveliest landscapes, just north of Carnforth. Its grand entrance doors welcome 20,000 visitors each year.
It is also unusual in that virtually all of the rooms you see are lived in by the family and no flunky is ever going to frogmarch you out if you happen to sit on a chair. This is the most relaxed and unstuffy of stately homes without a red rope in sight.
The house is best-known for its 200 year association with the Gillow family, Lancaster’s goliaths of furniture-making. Their work is prized worldwide.
While the past is obviously fascinating, it’s the future of Leighton Hall that occupies much of the â family’s current thoughts.
Its matriarch is the former High Sheriff of Lancashire, Suzie Reynolds, a bright, vivacious woman whose welcome is as warm as the fire crackling in the living-room grate.
She and her husband, Richard Gillow Reynolds, an ex-Irish Guards officer and engineer, have run the estate since the mid 1970s following the death of his mother.
Now, with Richard’s health suffering, they are in the process of gradually handing over to their daughter, Lucy. Their disabled elder daughter Katherine and husband John also work with the family when big events are staged.
There are clear echoes of the days Suzie and Richard gradually assumed control of the hall. ‘The state of the place was not good,’ says Suzie. Lucy explains: ‘It was stuck in an era when they used to have many staff and a lifestyle of new dresses and parties.’
‘My husband’s parents weren’t commercially-minded at all,’ continues Suzie. ‘Although they opened the house in 1958, they slightly played at it with visitors admitted on just two afternoons a week.
‘My mother-in-law couldn’t cook but she tried to run the tearoom. She was eventually sacked for using a whole month’s rations in one day! The fabric of the house wasn’t too bad, apart from the dreaded dry rot, but the estate wasn’t good. Things needed doing.
‘Richard and I soon realised that if it was to survive as a family house we would all have to work very much harder. From then, our lives were focused on making it a viable family home.’
Lucy, who lives in a modernised, stylish section of the hall complex with husband Danny, a finance expert, and their son Sebastian, aged four, finds herself going through similar change.
She is the first to admit her parents have transformed the house and estate. ‘But the transition time we are in is very difficult,’ she admits.
‘My parents have worked very hard and earned the right to retire or semi-retire while maintaining a certain lifestyle. That requires taking money out of the business. As newcomers coming in and doing the work, we have rights, too.
‘But no matter how difficult it has been, it’s important we all keep talking. Wills, for instance, are hard to discuss because of everything they imply. But decisions taken now have knock-on effect for the future. The goal is to keep passing the estate down the family line so we need to know how a will is likely to effect Sebastian.
‘I’m not aggressive about this but there sometimes comes a point where mum tells me to drop it. There are grey areas and I’m not always able to make decisions because I don’t technically own anything. But we are all on the same common ground and everything comes down to cash flow.’
Keeping Leighton Hall ticking over is hugely expensive and very hard work for the family.
‘I’m sure there are some people who come here who think we are loaded and I sit around all day eating grapes,’ says Suzie, whose roots go back to the cotton industry in Bury.
While Richard built up the agriculture and woodland - the dominant side of the business - Suzie developed the visitor attraction and created a thriving weddings and corporate hospitality enterprise.
‘Mum is very flamboyant, very sociable,’ says Lucy. ‘I put it on,’ says her mother with a serious expression, ‘because I have to. But I must admit the visitor side is great fun and I love the school visits.
‘It’s wonderful having people here who enjoy the house and the gardens. We enjoy treating them as guests and I’m grateful to them for helping to keep the roof on.’
Lucy and the family realise the â income from a 1,700 acre estate isn’t big enough to sustain the house and, like her parents before her, she is looking at ways of developing Leighton Hall. It’s clear she has a good business brain.
She says: ‘My first big project involves doing up four cottages on the estate and I have to prove to mum and dad I can complete it in on time, to budget, looking fantastic and, most importantly, let to tenants.’
Husband Danny is developing the shoot while Lucy and the family consider how to further grow the visitor attraction.
Both women are particularly proud of the weddings they host, the standard of catering and the fare on offer in the tea rooms. ‘It’s tea in china cups - and we don’t do sandwiches with curled edges,’ they say.
Meanwhile, dad Richard may not be in the best of health, but his mind is still as sharp as ever and he’s a handy free consultant for Lucy.
She adds: ‘We will ensure Sebastian knows what he has got and what a privilege it is. If he doesn’t want to take it on, that’s up to him, but it will be great if he does.
‘In the meantime, he will start learning the business from an early age. It will be from the ground floor up. Sebastian will start in our equivalent of the Post Room.’
Suzie says: ‘I apprenticed myself to my in-laws and Lucy is now doing something similar. You don’t do it for yourself, you do it for the future of the house. We recognise that everything changes and Lucy will do things differently. To still be here…that is the object of the exercise.’