Twins Stella Laird and Jodi McSherry are the brains behind Blackton Grange – a beautiful new luxury holiday home and wedding venue in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Elysia Fryer takes a tour…
If you can share a womb and navigate through some of life’s biggest challenges together, you can certainly share a business – is the ethos Stella and Jodi (34) are carrying into their exciting new venture.
Blackton Grange is a beautiful place to stay and celebrate, in a spectacularly rural area in the heart of the North Pennines between Middleton-in-Teesdale and Barnard Castle.
Born from a passion of property, interiors and finding the perfect place to entertain and celebrate with loved ones, the twins made their forever-dream a reality by putting their heads together and creating an incredibly special place to share with the world. And much like their sisterly bond, this property was a match made in heaven.
Meeting with Stella and Jodi is like catching up with old friends. We’ve been chatting over email for some time now, keeping up to date with developments at Blackton Grange, but as we meet for coffee at Eggleston Hall, it feels like I’ve known them forever.
Before we get into the details of Blackton Grange and what makes it so special, we go back to the very beginning. These girls have been together for the duration, after all. “So, we’ve known each other forever,” Stella jokes.
“We are, of course, very close and do a lot together. But after school, we went on to do totally different things. Jodi was into sports and exercise, whereas I was more into art and design.
“I ended up working in HR for some corporate companies and Jodi trained to be a teacher, but we knew we always wanted to do something together. It sounds so cheesy but we used to watch Property Ladder with Sarah Beeny back in the day and we decided we wanted to be property developers.
“One birthday, I bought Jodi a pink toolbox and told her it was the start of our venture,” she laughs. They didn’t know it yet, but that was the start of the Blackton Grange journey. “Lots happened between then and now,” adds Jodi.
“We always knew we wanted to do something together, but we went on to have our own little journeys first, which I think was really important.” Stella and Jodi’s first venture came as two twenty-somethings looking for a gap in the tea market.
“It all started because I really love hot chocolate but couldn’t find a healthy alternative,” Jodi starts.
“Fast forward a few months, we developed a product called Chocolate Tea – it was basically loose leaf tea, blended with cacao and chocolate nibs.
“I was driving to work one day and there was this advert on the radio inviting applicants to be on a TV show with their business ideas.”
“Next thing you know,” Stella jumps in.
“We’ve applied and Jodi tells me we’re off to London in two weeks!” “So off we went on the Megabus down to London,” Jodi says, laughing.
“We pitched this business idea and actually got quite far. They didn’t invest because we didn’t actually have a product at that stage, but it was a catalyst for the start of something new for us. We developed the product, got a bit of investment and before we knew it our products were in Fenwick and Hotel Indigo.” The twins had checked off their first successful business venture.
“We had proven to ourselves that we could work together and make a success of it,” says Jodi.
“But we had to make a decision, and decided we couldn’t afford to put our all into it at that stage.” Time went on, they both met their love matches, got married and ‘lived happily ever after’…
If only life was that simple. Their late 20s brought the biggest challenge to date. A health scare that really helped put things into perspective for the pair.
“We’ve both always been fit and healthy, so when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a massive shock,” Stella starts.
“I knew I had a lump, but just shrugged it off as something hormonal – I thought I was too young for it to be a problem. But it continued to bother me so I went to the doctors and was referred to the breast clinic. I remember it so well – it was the day before Christmas Eve and I was there for about six hours. That Christmas, I spent a lot of time worrying about the results, then I got a phone call in January to say everything was fine and no surgery was needed.
A month or so later, I was getting quite uncomfortable, so I booked in for a private operation to get the lump removed. When I went back to get my stitches checked, they told me it was cancerous. I was booked in for a mastectomy straight away. After six months of chemo, I got the all-clear two days before our 30th birthday.”
“When Stella was diagnosed, we both got tested for a gene that means it can run in the family,” Jodi says.
“But we didn’t have it, so that was a relief. I got regular check-ups, but everything seemed to be fine. One morning, I woke up and found a lump that I’d never noticed before. I didn’t tell Stella because she was three weeks away from giving birth, so I didn’t want to worry her. I went to the doctors, which was difficult because it was during the lockdown, but they were great and eventually I got to see the consultant that Stella had.
“Within a week I was diagnosed.”
“It changed everything and really put things into perspective for us,” Stella adds.
Twins quite literally go through everything together, and after going through something so upsetting and traumatic, it made sense to take the plunge and make their dreams a reality – together!
“When Jodi was going through treatment we started looking at properties,” says Stella.
“I’m a big believer in the notion that everything happens for a reason, and it really gave us the push to go out and do something that we were really passionate about.
“I found it really difficult going back to work after treatment and my pregnancy,” says Stella.
“I was the same,” Jodi adds.
“I was off for nearly a year and when I went back, I just realised it wasn’t for me. Life is far too short to do something that doesn’t make you tick.”
The cogs started turning for the twins during the planning of Jodi’s hen party, searching for the ultimate party house to enjoy with loved ones.
“It was really hard to find something that ticked all the boxes,” says Stella. “And we certainly couldn’t find anything similar in the North East, so we saw a gap in the market and the rest is history.”
Since then, with the help and support of their husbands, Mark and Andrew, the girls were on the hunt for the perfect property to transform into a luxury escape. “Andrew came across Blackton Grange. I didn’t really know that area existed to be honest, but we went to have a look,” says Stella.
“I wanted to put an offer in straight away, but Jodi didn’t like it at all – it had previously been a youth hostel and it was quite difficult to see past it.
“Because it was listed as a commercial property, there were a lot of hoops to jump through. We were lucky because we didn’t need planning permission to change it back to a residential building. “After convincing Jodi, we put the offer in and it was accepted within a couple of days!”
Now for the fun bit. The planning, preparation and transformation.
“It’s just been about creating a luxurious space where families and friends can come and spend time together – in a really nice environment, without breaking the bank,” says Stella.
“When I go somewhere I want it to be nicer than home, so luxury was always top of the priority list. “It’s easy enough to find high-end places to stay on a smaller scale, but when you’re looking for somewhere for a big group, it gets difficult to find somewhere that has both the space and the style.”
The initial idea was to transform the property into a ‘wow’ celebration house where people could gather with loved ones and enjoy quality time together, but the girls very quickly started to see lots of potential.
“The property has a barn to the side of it, which we realised would be perfect to host weddings,” says Jodi.
“That will be part of our second phase of development, but we’ve already got the ball rolling with it and it’s incredibly exciting.
“People will be able to dry hire the barn, bringing in whatever suppliers they want in terms of food, drink and entertainment. They’ll hire the whole estate – so they’ll get the barn and the house for the weekend. “It’s a blank canvas for people who want to be a bit creative with their wedding.”
One of the most striking things about Blackton Grange is, not only the breathtaking scenery that surrounds it, but the meticulously designed spaces inside. The interior vision has been brought to life by the girls with the help of local suppliers and tradespeople.
“We’ve tried to design the place in line with the surroundings, because they are so stunning,” says Stella.
“It’s a traditional stone farmhouse, so we’ve had to completely gut it and bring it back to life. We’ve stripped it back and used some of the amazing features that were already there, but were just hidden when it was running as a youth hostel and then an activity centre.
“There was lots of reconfiguring to do, but it’s amazing what you can do with a space.”
“We’ve got some ‘wow’ rooms to show a bit of personality, for example the cinema room, games room and the bridal suite, but then some of it is just really stylish and homely,” says Jodi.
“We don’t want people to feel intimidated. In the living room, for example, we’ve got a really good balance of comfort, but also the luxuries you’re looking for when you’re away – like a big open fire and gorgeous soft furnishings.”
“One of the biggest problems I’ve faced when looking for houses for a large group is there never seems to be space for everyone to sit around a table and eat together,” says Stella.
“So in the kitchen we’ve got a huge dining table with enough chairs to seat everyone (up to 20). There’s more than enough space for a full house of guests – lots of comfortable seating and enough bathrooms.
“Our aim was to create something to the standard of a really nice hotel, but with the convenience and added luxuries of a self-catered cottage.”
Blackton Grange comfortably sleeps 17 people with five en-suite bathrooms and two additional showers and WCs on the bedroom level.
The house boasts plenty of entertaining space downstairs including a large living area with sink-in sofas and a huge fireplace, games room featuring a full-size pool table with a double-sided fireplace separating the other side of the room where you can sip the night (or day!) away in the cocktail lounge.
The kitchen is the heart of the home and perfect for entertaining, complete with all the mod-cons you need for a comfortable stay including a coffee station, wine fridge and instant hot water tap. What’s more? You can while away the hours in the totally indulgent cinema room, fitted out with surround sound, comfortable armchairs and access to all the best streaming services, meaning cinema night is covered during a stay at Blackton.
The girls are now taking bookings for 2023 and beyond, with barn renovations set to start shortly, launching Blackton Grange weddings in 2024. It’s also worth noting that this stunning, 11-acre estate is both dog and child-friendly.
It really is a home from home for any occasion – be it a girly gathering, a family celebration or a getaway with couples. Stella and Jodi’s main aim is to ensure everyone who walks through the doors loves the space just as much as they do. It’s the rural escape you are guaranteed to fall in love with.
And with plans for wellness retreats, stargazing events, glamping pods and extra accommodation for weddings in the not-too-distant future, it’s safe to say that there’s lots in the pipeline for the lovely pair.