Get lost on the beautiful country tracks, just off the A66 towards Barnard Castle, and you may stumble upon
beautiful Barningham – a quaint conservation village at the foot of the moors.
After tackling the Monday morning A1 rush, it’s a welcome retreat as I step into a world of stone-built cottages, glorious gardens and rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. I find myself relaxing into my seat as I wind through the country roads.
As I’m meandering through the village, I notice the entrance to Barningham Estate on my right. Sitting at a height along a pristine drive is Barningham Park – a beautiful, Grade II* Listed country house, dating back to the 15th century and set in 7,000 acres of countryside.
It has been the home of the Milbank family since 1690; and today, I have the pleasure of meeting the family who have made the house a home – Sir Edward and Lady Natalie Milbank.
It’s a family home among many other things. It’s a business, and will always remain a family business, but it’s important for each generation to really get to grips with life on the Estate.
Sir Edward and Lady Natalie live at Barningham Park with their three children and labrador, Rocket. Today, it’s all hands on deck as they prepare for a busy summer schedule – balancing family life with the running of the Estate. And with the re-opening of the much-loved Milbank Arms in the mix, there’s plenty to keep them busy.
We’re here to talk all things Barningham – a day in the life of the Estate – but also, to explore the recently re-opened Milbank Arms, sitting in a quiet spot at the bottom of the Barningham Estate entrance – at the heart of the village.
Loved amongst locals, it has been a treasured meeting point for many years – and, of course, an important part of the Milbank family since 1690.
Retaining many of its original features, it enjoys a breathtaking location at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales and celebrates everything local, from the food and the real ales, to the decor and the staff.
But before we get to see the Milbank makeover, it’s a pot of tea with Sir Edward and Lady Natalie in their home.
Inside, the house nods to its history and heritage, but with a touch of contemporary design. It’s very much a running, family home. Wellies of all sizes are lined up at the door, a games room keeps the kids entertained and an agar sits at the centre of the farmhouse kitchen.
It’s everything you’d expect from a busy family home in the countryside, but with heaps of family history inside.
Iconic copies of Vogue line the drawing room table, while vintage tea sets are displayed in crooked cabinets. Loud, yellow sofas light up the room, while patterned chairs passed down the family take pride of place in the windows. There’s a real mix of old and new here, and it’s great to see the couple making their mark on a historical home.
We settle down in the dining room; a large, banqueting table sitting at the centre – as you’d expect from an aristocratic family. Portraits and paintings adorn the walls and rich, traditional colours make up the decor. It’s timeless, it’s traditional – but it’s home.
Over a pot of Yorkshire tea, Sir Edward and Lady Natalie tell me about their journey to Barningham.
“I grew up on the Estate,” says Sir Edward.
“So it really is home for me. I left for school and university – and then went on to work away, but returning to the Estate was always part of the plan, and I’m humbled to do so.”
For Lady Natalie, it’s an adopted home – but one she feels incredibly passionate about and takes pride in running on a daily basis.
“My mother is German and my father was in the military, so we’ve lived in lots of interesting places including Hong Kong,” says Lady Natalie.
“I attended boarding school in rural Wiltshire, based my career in London and then retreated to this beautiful part of the world,” she adds.
“But before that, I escaped the big city to run an aid project in the wilderness in Africa, which was one of my favourite places to live, for sure.
“I feel most at home when I’m surrounded by nature and animals – so Barningham Estate certainly feels like home for me.”
Lady Natalie spent much of her career running reconstruction projects in post-conflict war zones. Barningham Estate is a blissful comparison, and somewhere the couple, along with their three young children, dog and their wider family of staff and animals, are delighted to call home.
After meeting through mutual friends in the Swiss Alps a number of years ago, the pair moved to the Estate nine years ago, with a transition period with Sir Edward’s parents.
“We’ve undergone some renovations since taking on the Estate,” says Lady Natalie.
“We renovated the back of the house, where we used to have all of the shoot lunches – so as you can imagine, it’s quite a fun and social entertaining space.
“Because the house isn’t commercial, we focused on fixing the other buildings/properties on the Estate first – and ours was slightly neglected to be honest.
“But each generation has to save a bit of the house, and so we used Estate materials and local workers to help us make some improvements to keep the house in shape.
“It’s interesting actually; we took up the floorboards and found stone flags and the remains of an old castle in the middle of the house.
“It’s quite fun – we found old castle windows and lots of interesting things – wrapped around each successive generation.
“This was Lord Thor’s house – once a Viking home. York University did a thesis on it – and did a model all of the different successive layers of renovation over the years. It was really interesting.”
For Sir Edward and Lady Natalie, it’s important to continue making improvements to the house, without losing its charm and its family heritage.
“Maintaining the house is a big project in itself. When it rains, there are a lot of pots around,” Lady Natalie laughs.
“But that’s just the nature of an old house. Hopefully we’ve done our bit for our generation, and then our son will be able to do his bit, when the time is right. Each Milbank will take on their own project on the Estate, and I think that is really great for progression.”
Next in line to take on the Estate will be the couples’ first-born son.
“He knows how it all works and that he’s next up,” says Lady Natalie.
“I think it’s really important to be upfront about it from the start. That’s how it has always managed to be an uninterrupted line, which is rare and really lovely – and that’s how it’s managed to remain sustainable.
“I think, once you start to break things up, then it doesn’t support itself and it falls apart – and then it’s gone forever.
“We have something really special here, and we’re going to hold on to it with everything we have.”
The Milbanks really have made a house a home. And the Barningham Estate is not just their home – they share it with local farmers, animals, workers and the village community as a whole. And that is really important to them.
“For us, the local community is key,” says Sir Edward.
“We work closely with village residents to ensure everything we do works within the local environment,” he adds.
“It’s important for us to move with the times, for us to grow and develop – but for us to ensure the village and the surrounding area doesn’t lose its charm.”
And, alongside the running of the Estate, The Milbank Arms was a huge factor in getting the local community involved, ensuring it’s a place for everyone to enjoy.
“Pubs are shutting down at an alarming rate,” says Lady Natalie.
“Particularly in rural areas. And it’s our job to fight to keep the village community alive,” she adds.
“Our village has several community hubs including the village church, the village hall, and of course, the pub – all of which complement each other nicely.
“The Milbank Arms is part of a 100-year plan for us. It’s not a money-making business. It’s what is right for the village and for the local community.
“So with that in mind, we’ve injected a bit of contemporary design into the building, but it has very much remained a traditional, country pub – with plenty of local influence in everything from the food to the look.”
Stepping inside The Milbank Arms is like stepping back in time – but with a bizarre sense of familiarity. It’s strange, because it’s like something I’ve never experienced before, but, even first thing on a morning without a customer in sight, there’s something oh-so calming about the place. Stick me in front of that fire with a glass of red and I’m in for the day.
It’s a place you could easily while away the hours on a drizzly afternoon. A place you can pop in with your pooch. A place you can hide away in the snug with a group of friends and a bottle of the good stuff.
It’s very traditional, but its facelift really has brought new life into the place. Mustard walls, splashes of deep red throughout, copper tones, Milbank paintings – it has a sense of place, but a sense of style too.
The pub’s former landlord, Neil Turner, who retired last year after decades in charge, served the first drink at the new-look Milbank Arms at its opening in the summer, and it has since been a hit with both locals and foodies travelling from afar.
The Milbank Arms was offered a grant through the RDPE (the Rural Development Programme for England) – investing in local areas – to help with 40% of the build and structural improvements.
“For us, it was the perfect opportunity to breathe new life into our main community hub, and as far as we are aware, it has been greatly received,” says Sir Edward.
“We will continue to help deliver and organise community events and activities for locals and for people visiting Barningham,” adds Lady Natalie.
“We’re approaching game season on the Estate – so we have farmers working together to help feed into the kitchens and the local community. Harvest is a very exciting time here in the countryside.
“Christmas is also a lovely time in Barningham. It’s a great time for families to come together in the community. We’re hoping The Milbank Arms will remain a meeting point over the holidays. I’m sure there will be plenty going on.”
When they’re not taking on new projects or running day-to-day life on the Estate, the Milbank family like to explore the local area.
“We’re a very outdoorsy family,” says Lady Natalie.
“Our little girl loves horse riding. We do a bit of fell running too. I love my running – getting out in the countryside and letting off some steam,” she adds.
“We love to have picnics up on the moors. We’re very lucky to be in a place where we can do that.”
“We love to visit places like Fountains Abbey,” adds Sir Edward.
“And places nearby like Raby Castle and The Auckland Project. There are lots of exciting things going on in this area, and it’s important we all support each other along the way.”
“The children all enjoy being outside – making the most of our amazing surroundings – and they also like to stay home and play instruments, keeping us busy with lots of new hobbies. All three children play the piano and one of our boys would love to start playing the bagpipes.
“So yes, it keeps us busy,” she laughs.
“Out of term-time, we like to escape to the Alps – for skiing holidays and in the summer too.
“We’re very lucky to have friends scattered across the world – Europe, Africa, Asia and so on… so we try to explore as much as we can, but coming home to Barningham is always a pleasure.
“It’s a huge part of our family, it will always be a part of us and we’re very passionate about ensuring it stays that way.”