THE outdoor ‘rooms’ are even more beautiful than the indoor at a romantic retreat with a long history on the edge of Richmond. As it seeks new owners, Jenny Needham takes a look

AFTER he reached his 70th birthday, sportsman, adventurer and millionaire Keith Schellenberg – controversial former owner of the Hebridean island of Eigg – determined to finally leave Scotland and return to his beloved North Yorkshire, where he was born.

“We searched for suitable properties for several years and one sunny summer afternoon came to view St Nicholas on the edge of the market town of Richmond, which on paper did not fit our plans at all,” says his wife, Jilly.

However, the ancient and sprawling house with its beautiful, though then neglected grounds, immediately and completely captivated them both with its magic and romance. “We were enchanted by the stunning views from the house, above and through the massive yew hedges across the pastures to the golden ruins of Easby Abbey beside the River Swale... and the views from the bedroom windows into the garden ‘rooms’, which were abundant with headily-scented roses,” says Jilly. “The house itself breathed a wonderful sense of continuity and we felt ourselves in an Edwardian time-warp, one in which the James family – the former owners – had lived for close on 100 years. They were the successors of seven-hundred years of St Nicholas’s previous inhabitants, from the earliest records when, in 1172, a grant was made to the religious hospital of St Nicholas by King Henry II.”

This romantic country house, which sits on the fringe of Richmond, is the oldest continuously inhabited house in the town. And true, the views to Easby and the Hambleton Hills beyond are stunning, but that’s only if you can tear your eyes away from the beautiful landscaped grounds of St Nicholas itself, perhaps, as Jilly says, its most notable feature. They stretch to almost seven acres and consist of a series of ‘rooms’ or compartments, laid out and divided by hedges and walls of local stone, reminiscent of Hidcote. Planted at the start of the 20th century by eminent gardener the Hon Robert ‘Bobbie’ James, they were featured in Country Life in 1936 and then again in 2013.

Now the Schellenbergs are moving on and St Nicholas is up for sale. Not only will the new owners inherit stunningly beautiful surroundings, but they can be sure of the property’s historic credentials.

The building was founded as a medieval Hospital in 1172 and remained as a Crown property, with a chapel and chantry, until it was sold by Queen Elizabeth I in about 1585, when its religious character was finally lost and it was largely rebuilt.

Thereafter in private ownership, it was purchased in 1813 by the Dundas family – later to become the Marquises of Zetland – who directed restoration and improvements to be carried out by Ignatius Bonomi.

Plantsman Bobbie James moved to St Nicholas in 1901 and made further additions to the house well into the 20th century before he began laying out the gardens in 1905. A formal garden bounded by topiary hedges, a cottage garden, rock garden, potager and herb garden and the Long Borders are are amongst the remaining compartments. St Nicholas is included in English Heritage’s official Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Interest.

After his death in 1960, James’s widow Lady Serena lived there until her death in 2000 in her one hundredth year, when St Nicholas became the Schellenberg home. Keith is best known for his captaincy of the British Olympic bobsleigh team in the 1950s and of the Yorkshire Rugby team, and for his long and successful vintage motor racing and rallying career. He is also known as quite a character.

“With a place like this, you don’t go in for structural surveys," he said when he bought St Nicholas, adding that he would continue to open the 50-acre gardens to the public, and for charity. “I’ve a great love of old things and tend to keep a lot of quirky features that most people would discard," he added. “The community should be able to share in it.”

It has been a promise kept. Under the Schellenbergs’ tenure, the gardens have continued to be restored to their former glory and visitors have been invited into in to enjoy them on open days. Ongoing projects include the introduction of additional diversity in the meadow orchard, further encouragement for bees and butterflies, restoration of the ‘Nepalese Garden’, attention to the old apple trees, and propagation of existing inhabitants of the garden to ensure their survival.

A multitude of Old Roses contribute to the romantic ambience – St Nicholas is the home of R. gallica ‘St Nicholas’ and the vigorous rambler R. ‘Bobbie James’. And from the approach to the Field Walk there are stunning views across the pastures.

For prospective buyers – hopefully green-fingered – the Grade II-listed gardens are approached off the town’s Maison Dieu. The property boasts paddocks, woodland, greenhouses and garden stores and the house enjoys an elevated setting. As you enter, steps ascend from the forecourt to an arched covered entrance. Inside, the rooms are beautifully proportioned with wooden flooring, lovely views and open fires.

The dining room leads to the servery and on to a kitchen/breakfast room with four‐oven Aga. Leading from the kitchen are the scullery and pantry. The servery also accesses a back porch area leading to the old school rooms, which are now used as stores and an office. Below the house are traditional vaulted wine cellars with original wine bins.

There are seven bedrooms and a large library with craftsman‐built bookcases and parquet flooring.

The remaining land at St Nicholas consists of parkland that lies beyond the garden to the east and two further pasture fields, amounting to about 36 acres.

“During our relatively brief sojourn here, 17 years now, we have considered ourselves to be simply the present custodians of this rare and special place,” says Jilly. “St Nicholas has welcomed visitors and travellers through all the centuries of its existence and we have followed this ethos, especially the wish of Bobbie and Lady Serena James to share the glorious and once famous gardens.”

  • St Nicholas is on the market with Knight Frank at a guide price of £1,650,000.

T: 01423-530088.