LADY Natalie Milbank tells Ruth Campbell about her and husband Sir Edward’s ambitious plans for the 7,000-acre estate and magnificent stately pile at Barningham Park which they and their three young children call home

The Northern Echo:

Were you prepared for what lay in store when you took charge of this important estate and house, home to the Milbank family since 1690?

WE were very humbled and grateful. My husband always knew that one day Barningham was going to be his responsibility. I spent most of my career running reconstruction projects in post-conflict and war zones, namely Iraq and Afghanistan, so Barningham Estate was blissful in comparison.

We had a useful transition period with my parents-in-law before the final handover, so when it came, I had a better understanding of what was entailed.

How did you meet your husband and what are your roles in the running of the estate?

We met through having the same friends, but our romance took hold in the Swiss Alps. We work well as a team and approach every aspect of estate business – property, shooting, farming, forestry and conservation projects – together. We are determined to give it our best shot and to try to have fun doing it.

Where did you grow up, and how does it compare to Barningham?

My mother is German and my father was an Army officer who speaks six languages so we travelled and lived in lots of interesting places, including Hong Kong and various parts of Europe. I went to boarding school in rural Wiltshire and weekends during university and my London-based career were spent in the countryside – escaping the smoke and noise. I also ran an aid project in the wilderness in Africa, so wild animals and raw nature was where I felt most at home.

Whilst I adored moving around, I value the fact my children will have a wonderful base throughout their lives to return to after all their adventures. Their bat cave!

How has your family adapted to living in such incredible surroundings? What are the benefits and the drawbacks?

I make a point of reminding them this is a wonderful place to grow up and they must be grateful and make the most of it. I don’t like to whinge, but of course running Barningham Estate is a huge amount of work and it’s relentless. It is our responsibility to maintain the continuity and way of life – with all the jobs, people, houses, farms and conservation projects this estate supports. I am permanently concerned about dry rot, moths, woodworm, damp, roofs, walls, painting restoration and furniture preservation… the list goes on. So often there is no return on the significant investment required to take care of these lovely old buildings. But I try to keep focused on how blessed we are.

What are your favourite features of Barningham Park house and the estate?

We love it all. My favourite aspect is the kitchen garden – being able to feed the family fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden, free from chemicals and totally organic, is a real joy. My husband’s favourite things, apart from the house, are the trees. The children enjoy running about on the beautiful lawns and keeping chickens.

How have you made your mark on the house?

We recently undertook a large programme of renovations to the medieval part of Barningham Park, which dates back to the 14th century, and restructuring of the Victorian wing. Water was coming up through the floor, structural timbers were rotting, and the walls were going green. It gave us a great opportunity to undertake a full academic study of the various phases of the house that uncovered a medieval core structure, then parts dating from the 16th, 17th, 18, 19th centuries and the 1970s. We felt it was important for our generation to contribute to the story of the house.

After dealing with the issues, we enjoyed decorating the renovated part from scratch. We hope our work will keep the house safe for generations to come.

What makes the area special and what do you feel it is important to preserve and protect?

The families and community who live in the area are truly remarkable. They have such fabulous insight, we learn so much from them, and I am taken aback by how friendly everyone is. We aim to help preserve the community spirit and our involvement in local tradition. I hope the estate continues to be a place where families enjoy living for centuries to come.

Maintenance and development plans are endless – like the Forth Road bridge, our work is never done. We need to preserve the traditional aspects, but also evolve to keep up with the standards people now expect. We have to be commercial at times, which requires some tough decision making. It is a careful balance. This is why we have chosen to proceed with the development of the Milbank Arms Pub. The estate needs to preserve, protect and sustain this historic building.

So what can locals expect when you re-open this historic pub’s doors next year?

With a fair wind the work will start this summer and we plan to open by early summer 2019. The Milbank Arms will hopefully breathe new life into the village, provide jobs, encourage tourists to the Dale and also provide a lovely place to congregate. Our mission is to create a traditional, relaxed country pub which offers delicious food and serves a great selection of drinks, combined with a good night’s sleep in comfortable accommodation. We are very excited about the plans.

We are collaborating with Coghlans Catering, who operate a traditional tea room, artisan bakery and catering company from Barningham Park Coach house. Local provenance, including seasonal game from the estate and freshly baked produce, will be key. With pubs all over the country shutting, we need to give it our best go and hope everyone will support us.

What are the biggest challenges for the future of the estate?

Farming post-Brexit holds many unknowns. We need to be able to evolve, keeping traditional farming practices alive and profitable, whilst improving the land for wildlife.

Tourism is important to the future of these wonderful uplands, hence our determination to renovate the Milbank Arms and to develop holiday cottages. Visitors will bring vital income into the rural economy.

Helwith Cottage, situated on the edge of the moor in an idyllic valley, surrounded by stunning views which featured in the opening credits of the famous All Creatures Great and Small TV series, is the first holiday cottage we are doing up, tastefully decorated with a mixture of antique and contemporary furniture. It goes live this summer with We are also building eight new houses, in traditional style, on the site of two derelict agricultural steadings in Barningham village in 2019 and look forward to welcoming new families into the village.

Our village church – St Michael and All Angels – is suffering from dwindling attendance. We hope the developments we are undertaking will help boost the congregation at the village church and village hall, which need everyone’s support.

How do you relax?

I love endurance running – which I do on the Moor as often as I can. I was born without a hip joint but, thanks to very clever doctors, was eventually fixed and went on to represent my county at cross country running and have more recently run the Swaledale and London marathons, raising £10,000 for children’s charities.

Where is your favourite day out in the North-East?

I love the local ‘golden triangle’ comprising Raby Castle, Auckland Castle (Kynren is the best outdoor show I have ever seen) and the Bowes Museum. Further afield, Fountains Abbey for a picnic and run about.