A look at the magnificent tree house in Bowcliffe
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 August 2017
Joan Russell Photography
Being around Jonathan Turner can be exhausting and not a little mad. Heather Dixon meets him
When a customer told Jonathan Turner his place was ‘completely bonkers’ he took it as a great compliment. ‘That’s exactly what I want people to think,’ he says. ‘I love bonkers. I don’t want to do what everyone else does.’ Which is exactly why Jonathan is not only a hugely successful Yorkshire entrepreneur, CEO of Bayford & Co, charity worker and a deputy Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire, but also the proud owner of one of the most extraordinary tree houses in the world.
‘It started with the idea of building a modest treehouse for the kids at home, but they didn’t need it. I thought I could create one here at Bowcliffe Hall instead and it developed into a vast wing-shaped tree-top meeting room in the woods,’ he explains.
Bowcliffe is the location of his company HQ and home to his breath-taking collection of ‘boys’ toys’ in the guise of the luxurious Drivers’ Club, an invitation-only private members club which reflects two great loves of Jonathan’s life: racing and rallying classic British cars. Think banquettes modelled on the back seat of a Mk 7 Jaguar; photographs of Jonathan with Stirling Moss standing by his vintage Bentley and in his Jaguar D type at Goodwood; steering wheel doormat motifs; original Fred Gordon Crosby paintings; racing and rally trophies; a giant silver jaguar leaping out of the walnut wood panelling – oh, and a picture of the Queen smiling down on visitors in the grand entrance hall.
Everything about Bowcliffe in Bramham near Wetherby is an extension of Jonathan and his passion for life. But while his adventurous exploits have often made the headlines, it’s his treehouse which has attracted international acclaim. The award-winning, million-pound construction defies the odds, built in an area of ancient woodland and morphing into a stunning feat of architectural design, structural engineering and futuristic thinking. It’s a treehouse unlike any other: a unique copper and glass 2,060 sq ft conference venue built sitting in the woodland canopy as a tribute to unsung aviation pioneer Robert Blackburn, who once lived at Bowcliffe Hall.
The aptly named Blackburn Wing - designed by The Harris Partnership and built by Yorkshire companies using Yorkshire materials - is part of a multi-phase restoration of the 19th century Bowcliffe estate and a perfect example of Jonathan’s out-of-the-box thinking. There is nothing mundane about the Wing and everything bonkers.
‘Fortunately, the Leeds planning team, and one planning officer in particular, completely understood the madness of it, and did everything they could to help me negotiate my way through the archaeological, ecological and historic issues to create something which works on all levels,’ he says. ‘I still feel emotional about that; the fact that someone really understood my vision and helped to make it happen.’
It was Jonathan’s tenacity and people skills which got him through the maze of red tape, yet he insists his success is down to the fact that he is just an ordinary guy with an extraordinary thirst for life. ‘I don’t do negative,’ he says. ‘I wake up every morning and truly appreciate how fortunate I am.’ He certainly has breathtaking energy which few can match but many follow, caught up in his boundless enthusiasm.
Jonathan rarely sleeps, never watches television (‘I can’t see the point in sitting in front of a box – what a waste of time’) and is so intent on squeezing every last drop out of life that he can’t sit still for a second. Being around him could be exhausting, yet it’s his fierce energy, competitiveness and magnanimity which motivate everyone, from the cleaner who makes his environment a better place to be, to the world’s business elite who have also made their fortunes through sheer hard work and relentless focus.
Jonathan Turner, chief executive of Bayford Group and owner of Bowcliffe Hall in a rare relaxation moment
The Blackburn Wing is as a tribute to unsung aviation pioneer Robert Blackburn, who once lived at Bowcliffe Hall
The unique conference centre is designed by The Harris Partnership and built by Yorkshire companies
Ship building technology from Hull was used in the construction of the tree house
Builders and designers from Yorkshire helped to create the tree house conference centre
There is nothing mundane about the Blackburn Wing
A bust of Amy Johnson, pioneering English aviator, is strategically placed to hide a control box for the mains water pipe
Its a tree-house unlike any other: a unique copper and glass 2,060 sq ft conference venue built sitting in a woodland canopy
The award-winning, million-pound construction is considered a stunning feat of architectural design, structural engineering and futuristic thinking
Bowcliffe Hall, home for Jonathan Turner and his family
Jonathan's collection of motoring memorabilia in the Driver�s Club includes racing and rally trophies
‘I want the people I work with to enjoy what they do,’ he says. ‘If they don’t enjoy it they won’t be giving it their best, so I do everything I can to help people find their niche and change their perspective on life. I never lose my temper, never get angry. It doesn’t change anything, if anything it makes it worse. I would rather view life with a sense of humour.’
Jonathan believes he is still a seven-year-old in an adult body and that his child-like humour evident in the quirky signs and instructions dotted around the estate is inherited from his father, also a hugely successful entrepreneur who would think nothing of standing in a corner with a lampshade on his head pretending to be a standard lamp. ‘I’ve had a lampshade on my head plenty of times since then,’ he grins. ‘If you grow up with people telling jokes and messing around it becomes the norm.’
It was a natural progression for Jonathan to embark on a family management buyout of the Bayford Group in 2004 and oversee the development of the business which continues to go from strength to strength.
He tends to keep his family life out of the limelight, although he has nothing but admiration for his wife and sons who create a sense of stability and calm at the centre of his whirlwind lifestyle. ‘I don’t sleep much,’ he admits. ‘I wake up in the morning with a ‘to do’ list on my phone because I’ve thought of all the things I need to do, or could do, in the middle of the night and need to write them down in case I forget.’
At this point in the interview he greets a friend who saunters through the Driving Club in Hawaiian style shorts and casual shirt. It’s the hottest day of the year and they banter about the outfit being more suited to the beach. It’s a light bulb moment for Jonathan.
‘A beach!’ he says, his mind in overdrive, eyes glinting with childlike possibilities. ‘That could be my next project! I could import tons of sand, a few palm trees and set up a beach bar in the grounds of Bowcliffe….what a splendid idea!’ I suspect summer time guests will soon be offered Pina Coladas and a beach towel as an alternative to fine dining.
But that’s the essence of Jonathan Turner: a man who never says never.
‘My life is definitely organised chaos,’ he says. ‘I can’t bear to sit still. But life isn’t a rehearsal. We only get one shot at it so why not make it the best it can possibly be? I probably won’t live to a ripe old age, but I shall never look back and say “if only…”.’