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The Big Interview - Andrew Wildsmith

It's a hot summer's morning on North Lancashire's rural fringes...but the sounds are not of the countryside.

As we settle into this interview there's a building site symphony booming away in the background, such that Andrew Wildsmith excuses himself while he shuts the door on the saws and the drills that interrupt us.

It's fair to say that Andrew's career plan was also interrupted.

There he was, a Lancaster Grammar School lad doing his Phd in chemistry at Cambridge University: "I'd got it pretty well mapped out," he recalls. "I thought I'd be head of Glaxo. Well, not quite, but you know what I mean."

Chemistry must have seemed like the logical choice. His father Eric had done pretty well out of his Heysham-based pharmaceutical supplies company, to the extent that he'd been able to sell up and go into early retirement..."except we all knew he wouldn't be able to settle back and do nothing," says Andrew. Sure enough Eric Wildsmith was soon exploring other avenues. The one he opted for involved the purchase of Fayrer Garden House Hotel overlooking Windermere, at Bowness.

Andrew liked what he found on his return to home pastures, to the extent that he began learning the hotel trade: "I did a bit of everything for four or five months...in the kitchen, on reception and housekeeping duties. And I learned about marketing - the challenge of getting someone to choose to stay at your place instead of someone else's."

A challenge it may well have been, but it pales beside the one currently on Andrew Wildsmith's plate.

All that sawing and drilling...they're the sounds which arise from the 2.5 million purchase and refurbishment of Hipping Hall.

That's the country pile at Cowan Bridge near Kirkby Lonsdale in which Andrew has invested his future. Sure, this is a family venture but at 28, Andrew is the man with his head on the block. He is the owner manager...the guy with the responsibility of making it happen, not least in the eyes of his bank manager.

"Obviously, there's a bit of pressure," he smiles, "but life can be boring without it."

Although there's a wash house in the grounds dating from the 13th Century, most of Hipping Hall was built in the 1600s by the Tatham family of blacksmiths who answered a demand for the re-shoeing of horses along the route between Yorkshire and Cumbria.

A Canadian named Roland Park arrived in 1940 after inheriting the place, after which it continued to be a private house until 1988. It was then bought and run as a hotel for five years before being taken over and turned into an upmarket bed and breakfast establishment.

It had been up for sale for some time before Andrew accepted his father's proposition that he might make a go of it: "I could see its potential. My father just said 'do what you think is required.' Essentially that's meant looking at things with a younger eye, acknowledging the history of the place but introducing a contemporary flavour. So we've got traditional furniture and fittings set off with modern fabrics and wallpaper."

On the grounds that if a job is worth doing it's worth doing properly, he's also got an entire new roof: "I was talking to a chap who was actually going to buy Hipping Hall before he saw the surveyor's report on the roof. That's been a fair old project in itself."

As well as new floors, Hipping Hall - its bar, lounge, conservatory, dining room, kitchen, two cellars, six first floor bedrooms and two more in the attic - have been re-wired.

The kitchen itself is a new "all singing all dancing" commercial version, and for good measure there is an entirely new heating and water system: "If someone is paying 200 a night for dinner, bed and breakfast, you can't have them turning on the shower and all they get is a drip," he says. "Everything has got to be right."

Thus far, everything is. At least according to those locals who have been quick to catch on to the renaissance of one of the area's best known landmarks.

Although work was continuing on the upper floors at the time this interview took place, downstairs at Hipping Hall has been up and running since early June. That means restaurant and bar facilities, centred on the Great Hall, a magnificent balconied dining room with beams hewn from old ships broken up at Flukeburgh. The food, gourmet class at 42.50 for three courses, is in the hands of Jason Birkbeck, late of the Samling at Ambleside, who has spent his career in Michelin-starred establishments.

The extensive gardens have also been given a Groundforce-style makeover, meaning that Hipping Hall awaits the finishing touches to the upstairs bedrooms before being fully operational, hopefully from the end of this month. That will represent five months' hard graft in all.

At that stage bachelor Andrew may just afford himself a celebratory glass of bubbly: "I'm confident that people will come here. The locals already say 'wow' when they see the restaurant and I'm sure they'll love the rest of it too."

But what about that career in chemicals?

"On reflection," he says, "I should perhaps have trained to be a chef."

 
 
 

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