As I continue to rack up the years like tree rings laced with gin and bittersweet symphonies, I am constantly reminded of the ever-increasing gap between the young and the no-so-young. This widening fissure between generations presents itself more often in the usage of phrases that my grandparents taught me when I was growing up. After all, the language we use in our formative years becomes our cultural lexicon. So, when I say to you that Jonathan Turner is ‘salt of the earth’, I expect those of you without the knowledge of the term to research it, whether you are scholarly or not.
Established in 1919, in Leeds, by a group of men returning from service during the Great War, the Bayford Group started its life in coal and has stayed stalwart to the pursuit of energy ever since. With diversified holdings in oil distribution, property and forestry, the company’s expansion into key markets and continued ranking as a Times Top 100 Company to Work For, is in no small part down to the group’s CEO, Jonathan Turner. Rather than meeting in a board room or studio, Turner suggests we visit Bowcliffe Hall in Wetherby.
As a long-term fan of the Beaujolais Run, I have had the pleasure to frequent the Royal Automobiles locations in the south west, but on northern tours, I have never had a reciprocal club to call my own. Historically, my family are engineers, specifically in railway engineering and avionics, so I was delighted to see that Turner shared my appreciation for all things mechanised. So much so that Turner spearheaded the £6m pound restoration of Bowcliffe Hall, the former ancestral home of Robert Blackburn, who was the first Yorkshireman to design and build a powered aeroplane.
“My vision was to create a fitting legacy to an unsung flight innovator to fruition,” says Jonathan. “Robert Blackburn’s achievements included founding an aircraft manufacturing company that became part of Hawker Siddeley and, later, British Aerospace and the restoration epitomises design excellence.”
Robert Blackburn was without question an aviation pioneer. Born in 1885, he graduated in engineering from Leeds University and set to work building his first monoplane in 1909. He took his first flight from Filey on 8 March 1911, and henceforth Primrose Valley became known as the Blackburn School of Flying. After founding the Blackburn Aeroplane company that same year, he began work to establish the first scheduled air service in Great Britain. In 1917, Blackburn purchased Bowcliffe Hall as the family home. Built between 1805 and 1825 by William Robinson, a cotton spinner from Manchester, Bowcliffe is a Grade II listed property set in 28 acres south of Wetherby.
The focal point of Turner’s wider restoration plan was to become the iconic Blackburn Wing, an aeroplane wing-shaped copper and glass treehouse that looks out across the estate’s landscape. The unique cantilevered building designed with the help of architects at the Harris Partnership rises ten metres from the steep ground at one side. The structures oval design and wraparound timber with glass deck is some 40m long. Turner’s attention to detail is evident throughout the build, notably the glass-topped semi-circular bar built from one half of a jet engine and buffed to within an inch of its flush riveted life. Not forgetting the burnished aircraft wing tip placed atop legs and layered beneath glass to become the wings conference table. And my personal favourite, the leather armchairs clad in studded aluminium.
“The wing came into being because I felt Blackburn had been undeservedly forgotten. As with the Drivers’ Club, I really wanted the ‘wow factor’. Above all, I’m a very proud Yorkshireman, and I wanted to honour a fantastic fellow Yorkshireman.”
So, while aviation is a central theme throughout, so is a distinctive and unwavering fealty to automotive history. “Originally the drivers club was going to be a pilots’ mess. What I wanted was to design a restaurant or a place where the pilots would have gone in 1918, 1920. My passion for many years has been in racing and rallying old cars, pre-war and 50s sports cars. So, I thought let’s have a drivers’ club. Instead of pilots, let’s create something where drivers of vintage machinery would have gone.”
We arrived at the club, partially due to my co-driver’s willingness to put speed above safety, sometime earlier than the other guests. As the weather was stunning, we agreed that lunch on the Drivers’ Club terrace, overlooking the beautifully designed gardens, was absolutely in order.
Alistair Baldwin led the team in landscaping the estate’s grounds at Johnathan’s invitation.
“Jonathan asked me down to Bowcliffe to help him develop it as a beautiful country estate but also as a commercial concern,” Alistair explains. “Not just to improve the grounds for his tenants and give them a beautiful place to come out and have their lunch, but also to make it a beautiful place for events, weddings and functions. I think the thing that makes a project like this successful is to retain the charm and the spirit of a family home but make it work as an estate that rents space out for people to come and do a job. To end up with a combination of residential country house charm and commercial success, I think that’s the nub of it and that’s very difficult to do.”
I don’t think we were more than two sips in before the peppy and personable Turner appeared to welcome us to the club. As we were rather early, there was no need to apologise or detail his current engagement – but he did, because the veil of separatism you find with some entrepreneurs simply doesn’t exist. I liked him immensely from the get-go, and not just because of what he was doing to ensure the memory of a pioneer of aviation, but because of his positivity and confidence. He offered to take us on a quick tour of the club before the other guests arrived.
The club’s design, once again, takes its lead from Turner and Damian Lawrence from Rock and Bone.
“I took a lot of my inspiration from some of the cars I own. Some of the light fixtures, for example, have all got logos from manufacturers that I have been passionate about over the years. The light fittings in the corner of the Drivers’ Club are exactly like a vintage Bentley radiator would have been in the 20s and 30s. What I have got next door to the restaurant is what I have called the drivers’ briefing room and we’ve got a couple of sofas in there, some comfy chairs, we’ve got a real fire going. We’ve got a nice area where people can sit and chill, have a cup of tea, talk to a mate, do some work. I have worked with some wonderful people that have helped create the blinds for example. The panelling was done by a friend of mine – the banquette seating and the pullouts, which is to resemble the armrests in the back seat of an old car, a detail that he came up with, which I love.”
The walls are adorned with Turner’s motoring art collection and enough memorabilia to keep even the most affected engine buff obliged for days. It really is a rather splendid space that generates endorphins at every corner, not to mention the incredible bar.
“It’s become a focal part of the room. I am very proud of how the bar looks. I have Yorkshire beer on the bar, I am working with a wonderful chef, who again I have known for a long time. He’s a fellow Yorkshireman. We’re doing our best to make sure that all the produce that we buy and sell is all from Yorkshire. So, it’s something that I am very proud of, but equally I know the people who come here will be equally impressed and blown away.”
Jonathan’s culinary exploits don’t stop there. The serial entrepreneur purchased the Yorke Arms, an hour’s drive into the Dales, in 2017. Keen to showcase the reason that Frances Atkins’ restaurant received a Michelin star, we decamp north-west to visit the 18th-century coaching house by the river Nidd in Ramsgill. If you’ve never travelled across the Yorkshire Dales, you’re in for a thrilling time, as long as you’re driving something spirited.
We arrived at the York Arms mid-afternoon and, given the property’s location at the end of the Gouthwaite Reservoir by the river Nidd, it makes for a rather special vista. The building’s character and charm comes from ageing gracefully: it sits on the site of an 11th-century monastic cheesery. It has just enough network signal for me to be contactable, but without having to speak to anyone at all. No-G is the perfect level of solitude for any countryside break.
The Yorke Arms sits amongst a small village enclave in Ramsgill, the sort of place that a literary charcater, having endured a life of struggle and strife, retreats to in an effort to enjoy some semblance of recovery. It’s an undisturbed location, but for the occasional passing of very light traffic. The restaurant’s ivy-covered facade and sash windows are reminiscent of a place where time has arguably stood rather traditional still but not the kitchen.
Frances Atkins earned her Michelin star in 2003, and everyone I asked before departing had nothing to convey but utter jealousy, whether they had frequented before or not. After all, she was the country’s first female chef to win a star. And let’s be really bloody honest: in terms of culinary accolades, there are few things harder.
Whilst touring the restaurants geometrically precise organic vegetable garden and private dining area known as ‘the onion’, we bump into Francis. Presumably, she’s either picking something lovely for supper or has come to work out why there are a gang of southerners not minding their business. She’s utterly lovely, engaging, yet still formidable in her own way. Like most of the people in Yorkshire, there is an incredible warmth to her. Half of my family hail from north of the wall, so I always feel a kinship with the area.
In 2017, Francis and her husband Bill decided they needed a new challenge and put the Yorke Arms on the market. Enter Jonathan Turner, who had read about the imminent sale in the Yorkshire post and reached out to cut a deal – a deal that ensured Atkins remained at the helm doing what she has won awards doing best.
“We were all set to embark for pastures new,” she says. “But Jonathan’s deep-rooted love of Yorkshire, his style and panache are very infectious, and it really struck a chord with me. He has a genuine enthusiasm to create something even more special here and we hit it off straight away.”
Over dinner, Johnathan echoed Francis’s affection for the partnership: “I have always admired the drive and talent of Frances, who is respected for her culinary creativity and is a champion of local, seasonal produce. We share a collective passion to further enrich and enhance Yorkshire’s rich heritage”.
That injection of Turner has meant a little fettling with the interior design side of the properties 16 rooms. But they’ve resisted the temptation to go country-chintz complete with shire horse statues and copper kettles. The interior is traditional and warm without being overly old fashioned. You’ll still find the same gloss black bitumen floors, velvet and leather sofas, low beamed ceilings and antiques you would expect to see.
The rooms are also incredibly tasteful with small touches here and there, yet a refreshing removal of flourishes and flounce. Each of the house rooms has a country feel, soft colours, linen headboards and pale oak floors.
But I digress: what of the food. Firstly, go for the tasting menu. Highlights for me included the Laudale venison; the halibut; and the smoked hare bun – with each dish also comprised of perfectly-manicured vegetable garden. The food is obviously Michelin-starred, though not laced with novelty. It’s full of heart, imaginative, intricate and – my god – is it beautiful when plated.
With guests dropping like flies under the weight of all the good beer and fine wine, it was time to retire to the front of the building for a night-time tipple to toast the Yorke Arms. The following morning, in typical countryside fashion, there would be a small clay shooting competition. So, in the interest of keeping my side by side horizontal, I retired to a very deep night’s sleep indeed.
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The Yorke Arms:
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