HLN meets… Jodi McSherry and Stella Laird, owners of Blackton Grange Celebration Estate
We chat to twins Jodi and Stella about their serial entrepreneurship, battling breast cancer and their latest venture – a luxury celebration estate in County Durham.
‘Born together, best friends forever’ – it’s a common quote, right?
But what about twins, best friends and business partners across multiple ventures? That’s where Stella Laird and Jodie McSherry are doing things differently.
Back in 2012, we knew them as the founders of Choclateas – a luxury chocolate-infused tea range which went on to develop even more sweet flavours.
Fast forward 10 years and they’re launching their next venture: a farmhouse renovation project set to become a ‘celebration destination’. Sleeping up to 20 guests, Blackton Grange will be the ultimate staycation spot for large families, stag and hen parties and group getaways.
With everything from a games room to a cocktail lounge, hot tubs and a cinema room, it promises to provide a high-end getaway for large groups. Not only that, but they’ve curated a range of suppliers from beauticians to chefs, chauffeurs to mixologists and even Pilates instructors who will be on hand to help everyone relax and have a great time.
From a young age, Jodi and Stella have always been excited by property renovation and this project really is a dream come true for the sisters, especially given the challenges they have overcome to see their vision become a reality.
Sadly, over the last few years, both Stella and Jodi have found themselves battling breast cancer in what has been a tremendously difficult time for the family. But it was on their respective roads to recovery that both sisters rediscovered a real zest for life and adventure, vowing to themselves and each other to live their lives to the fullest.
They came across the Blackton Grange Estate with this mantra at the forefront of their minds and, as they say, the rest is history.
We caught up with Jodi and Stella to find out more about what we expect from Blackton Grange when it opens later this year, and how the renovation project is coming along right now…
It’s safe to say that your site is gorgeous! What made Blackton Grange Estate stand out to you?
[Jodi] The setting is so stunning and unique. You drive across a reservoir dam to access Blackton Grange, which was a real wow factor when we visited for the first time. We felt like it was something out of a James Bond film! It’s perfectly secluded but only a 15-minute drive to the market town of Barnard Castle.
Blackton Grange is surrounded by nature with stunning views, which instantly gives this feeling of relaxation. This was really important to us. The house has direct access to the famous Pennine Way walking and cycling route, so there’s lots to do on the doorstep, and the estate is close to some great sites such as High Force Waterfall, Barnard Castle and Richmond. It’s also directly positioned in a Dark Skies Discovery Site so, if you’re really lucky, you can see the Northern Lights when conditions allow! It’s stunning.
What do you envisage Blackton Grange being used for?
[Stella] We’ve called it a ‘luxury celebration estate’: a special place for people to come and celebrate big milestones with their loved ones, such as hen parties, big birthdays or just family get-togethers in a special space.
It’s going to be a really special place with a cocktail lounge, games room and cinema room – a place where people can come and truly enjoy themselves. We’re also working with local suppliers to offer our guests bespoke experiences, which is very exciting.
Tell us everything about your plans to become the North East’s newest wedding venue?
[Jodi] In spring/summer 2023, we’re so excited to launch our purposely-renovated wedding barn. We’re vowing to do things differently by offering a twist on a dry hire venue and full weekend celebrations. Our venue will be a fully licenced and truly unique spot where you will have the full creative freedom to make your dream wedding become a reality. You’re free to choose whatever caterers, entertainment and drinks you’d like, but we’re also on hand to recommend some of the very best local suppliers if needed, too.
You’ll exclusively have the whole of the Blackton Grange Estate for three nights, including the 8-bedroom luxury home, the wedding barn and access to the surrounding 11 acres to make your celebration that bit extra special.
Talk us through your renovation project – what will it be like when it’s finished?
[Stella] The renovation aspect is huge, as we’re literally ripping everything out and starting from scratch. It was a previous walkers’ hostel and then an outdoor activity centre so, by their natures, it was very basic in terms of living standards, but had very generous living spaces.
When finished, Blackton Grange will be a super luxury group holiday home with eight bedrooms, two of which are master suites. The bathrooms and ensuites will have the highest quality finishes, with some rooms featuring large, freestanding tubs. The kitchen is a really warm and welcoming space with all the mod cons and dining for 20 guests. There will even be an outdoor dog spa for those guests that bring pets.
There are many elements to Blackton Grange Estate, as we also have the wedding barn that we’ll be starting work on in the new year. That will be fully licenced for civil ceremonies and, later down the line, we hope to utilise more of the land we have by adding glamping pods and star gazing pods to really take advantage of the neighbouring Dark Skies Discovery Site.
What challenges have you faced during your renovations?
[Jodi] The main challenge is ensuring the renovations are all progressing alongside the allocated time frame. It’s such a big project, so some unexpected things crop up, but we’re working with some great contractors who are really on the ball, so that helps. The budget side of things is also challenging and can quite quickly get out of control! We’re being quite savvy with this, though. For example, we’re getting some ex-display pieces, ordering in bulk and getting some lovely vintage furniture.
Being in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the planning permissions are stricter. We have also had some setbacks with the wildlife, with bats and owls making themselves comfortable in the barn. This has delayed things, but we want to follow all the right guidelines, so it’s just something we need to work around at the moment.
We’re on a big learning curve, as there are many legal areas we need to make sure we adhere too, such as fire, health and safety regulations and correct room layouts. But we’re enjoying learning and getting all aspects of the property to the highest of standards.
You’ve teamed up with some great local businesses. Can you tell us about this?
[Stella] Part of our ethos is to keep things as local as possible and to support other local businesses, as there’s so much exceptional talent in the area. We’ll be offering extra services to guests, such as private chef experiences, cocktail masterclasses, in-house massage and pamper packages, and yoga and Pilates sessions. These can all be added to a booking to give that extra special experience. We’re also using local coffee company The Happy Barista to supply guests with their delicious, small-batch, roasted coffee beans, as well as using local food suppliers for the daily essentials such as eggs, milk and bread.
Something else we’re really excited about is that we’ve found Thistle & Twine
that will provide handmade soaps, bath salts and home scents, so that Blackton Grange will be a really eco-friendly holiday home. We’ve also found some amazing wedding suppliers, including a Pink’s Flower Farmwhere all flowers are planted and grown on-site, a local dressmaker and some great caterers.
What’s it like working so closely together as twins?
[Jodi] It’s the best! We’re best friends. It’s something we’ve spoken about for as long as we can remember and we’ve had different ventures in the past which have enabled us to work together, too, so we know we make a good team.
Don’t get us wrong – because we’re so close, there is some bickering every now and then! But it’s good to be able to say exactly what you think or feel, rather than skirting around the subject because you’re worried you might offend someone. We bring out the best in each other and share the same values and ambitions, which is key in business.