James Sheehan and Zoe Carter have swapped London’s bright lights and fast paced city life for the tranquility and beauty of the Welsh borderlands.
The couple fell in love with Milebrook House Hotel, which nestles in the Teme Valley near Knighton, when they stayed there in 2017.
They enjoyed their stay in the picturesque country house hotel so much that they decided to buy in. “It’s a funny thing but I suppose our story reminds us of the old Remington ad when Victor Kiam says ‘I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company’,” said James.
He and Zoe completed the purchase on December 14 last year and 10 days later were welcoming guests who had booked for Christmas with the previous owners.
“We had a full house of guests staying for Christmas and New Year, without having ever served so much as a bowl of soup,” explained James, who admits it has been a steep but rewarding learning curve.
“It’s been the hardest, most stressful but most unexpectedly rewarding experience to live in this charming and most beautiful of places and to have the opportunity to start the next chapter of our lives, almost in polarity to the inner city life of London that we knew so well.”
The couple left good jobs in the capital to begin their new life. James worked for an advertising agency while Zoe combined her skills as a social media specialist with work as an actress.
Focused on customer service and delivering quality, they have retained all nine of the existing staff at Milebrook House, which has 10 individually styled letting rooms, two sitting rooms, a bar and a restaurant.
Head chef Matt Smith, a member of the Culinary Team Wales squad that won silver and bronze medals at the Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg last November, has been recruited to run the kitchen.
“We have taken Matt on because we recognise the need to offer quality food, as customers come to our restaurant looking for a great experience,” said James.
“We are working hard to rebrand and refresh the property to make the most of the wonderful architecture, mature gardens, magical scenery and serene placement in our beautiful Welsh valley. We are also busy trying to integrate and network with local businesses.”
To help market their new business, the couple have become members of MWT Cymru, an independent organisation that represents around 600 tourism and hospitality businesses across Powys, Ceredigion and Meirionnydd.
Having lived and worked in London since the early 2000s, James explained that he and Zoe had reached the point where they were looking for a new challenge.
“When you live 12 minutes from Covent Garden and you can’t remember what Neal’s Yard looks like any more, then you realise that perhaps some of the shine of living in such close proximity to our global hub had rubbed off,” explained James.
“We spent our free time either at home with Netflix or in Highgate Village, since we both had a draw to the quieter parts of the city.”
Zoe’s parents live in Tenbury Wells in South Shropshire, where she grew up and she and James visited regularly, often frequenting the village pubs. Then, in November 2017, they booked to stay at Milebrook House because Zoe’s parents’ home was full for the night. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in their lives.
“I remember the morning we woke up in Room 1, which overlooks the kitchen garden,” recalls James. “It was a cold, still, frosty, clear morning and we sat in the little chairs by the window as we read through our work-related text messages and we decided pretty quickly, having never spoken of it before, that we didn’t want to go back to London, or our home in Islington, and wouldn’t it be nice to live in Wales.
“We knew that the hotel was for sale and, before we left, we tentatively approached the owner for a chat and she was quite forthcoming about it being time for them to move on.
“At that moment, without having ever seriously considered the hotel trade or upping sticks and moving away from London, we decided to sell the flat, leave our jobs and start on an adventure. A year later, we bought Milebrook House.”
Built in 1760 as a dower house to the nearby Stanage Castle, the property was once the home of British explorer and author Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Famous guests have included Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and rock star Mick Jagger.
Milebrook House is set in 2.5 acres of gardens which can accommodate a marquee for 150 guests for weddings and other functions.