Grays Court is one of York’s most beautiful historic sites, which unsurprisingly means it comes with hundreds of years of history attached: nine hundred years, in this case. More recently, however, the site and its owners have written their own slice of history - a chapter that was very nearly the end of them.
On the surface, Grays Court is now a boutique hotel in the city centre, once owned by the Duke of Somerset, Queen Jane Seymour’s brother, and visited by King James I, James II and the Duke of Cumberland. Nestled in between York Minster and the City Walls, Grays Court is a one-off ‘country house in the city’ just waiting to be discovered.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover a story concerning the inhabitants of Grays Court which The Independent described as what would happen "if Werner Herzog was to make a documentary about genteel British folk." Folie à Deux, a truly compelling documentary by Kim Hopkins which featured on BBC’s Storyville, is a study of the descent into near-insanity suffered by owner Helen Heraty and her family when they took over Grays Court with plans to convert it into the boutique hotel it has now become.
A tale of grand ambition and financial depression, Folie covers six years of life at Grays Court - a time frame unexpected by all parties as the story stretched on and on - and involves petty-minded fights with neighbours, banks reneging on loans and a constant sense of doom and gloom which doesn’t let up and ultimately, after some bizarre twists, out-dramas anything Grand Designs could dish up.
Helen Heraty lived to tell the tale however, and from the plush but currently under-stocked library that forms part of the first floor, she believes that she and her family may soon be out of the woods, even though "if anything, after the film, things got worse. For some obscure reason, a neighbour pursued a vendetta on the grounds that we didn’t have planning permission for the venture in the first place."
"Grays Court was marketed as a business property and we applied for ownership and development on this basis," says Helen. "We were deep into the process when the problems started and it really took us aback. But really there was nowhere we could go with it once the ball started rolling."
As documented in Folie, Helen had to stick to her guns and focus on the business plans that she and her partner John had put into motion. "John made sure everything was done meticulously, based on his knowledge of historic buildings. He was a gifted architect, one who had a great sensitivity for the way Grays Court had been used in the past and how it could be developed as a modern business."
For those not in the know, Helen speaks about John in the past tense as, during the filming of the documentary and indeed the development of the business, he passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving Helen and her family to cope with everything. "After the film came out, we had a lot of letters of support from people who’d suffered similar financial problems of viable businesses being put to the wall during the recession."
Crossing the line whereby they were able to function as a business, the banks reluctantly agreed to let the hotel & restaurant open in order to prove its success, and since it has, a huge number and range of people have passed through Grays Court, from theatre casts and crews to film and TV people.
Some of our guests are really interesting. We've had BBC, TV and film people staying here during shoots, including a Doctor Who writer. Some of them are comfortable enough to walk around in their dressing gowns.
"It’s a huge commitment," says Helen. "There’s always something that needs fixing. I think most people understand that though, and are incredibly generous and kind."
Now well over the halfway stage with Grays Court but still "with a long way to go," Helen and her team are now developing the upper floors to further expand what Grays Court is able to offer other than the seven bedrooms, lunch parlour and restaurant, and venue for meetings, weddings and private events. "I’ve got a very firm plan of where I want to be: I want this to be the go-to venue in the North of England. I have a six month, one year and two year plan but broadly speaking, I have achievable targets for the place. And touch wood, the worst is behind us."
Would Helen have begun this mammoth undertaking with more foresight? "It’s hard to say now of course, but if we’d seen what was coming, I don’t know if we would have done it at all. We’d have done it differently, let’s say. My children have been a calming influence, despite the craziness of the last few years, and my son is a terrific chef so it’s been a great training ground for most of them to start their own careers. This place can really nurture that creativity."Buy Folie a Deux