Jonathan Turner: Meet the man behind the big ideas

Jonathan Turner. PIC: Simon Hulme
Jonathan Turner. PIC: Simon Hulme
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Jonathan Turner is a successful entrepreneur. He talks to Sheena Hastings about the passion behind his big ideas.

Enthusiasm and a certain restlessness spring from every pore. He talks about the family business he bought out (from 14 relatives) in 2004, the story of the building we’re sitting in - Bowcliffe Hall at Bramham, near Leeds, the HQ of his Bayford Group - and other businesses that rent space in the mansion and adjacent buildings, such as a beautifully restored cricket pavilion.

He watches my face as we enter - how can I put this? - a fantasy man cave of motoring memorabilia set amid bespoke decor installed with the highest level of craftsmanship. I am no motoring enthusiast, but my eyes pop at the imagination, effort and sheer love that have gone into this by a man who works hard, knows how to play hard - and wants very much to share his private pleasure in exquisite old cars.

“I want people to say Wow!’ 27 times before they leave, “ says Turner. His glee is understandable. The walls are beautifully walnut panelled, in the style of a traditional gentlemen’s club.

Glass cab in Portobello Road, who also supplied thousands of items of cutlery for the elegant Bowcliffe dining room. He even found fine china with a spoke pattern around the edge. Naturally.

Above the doorway from bar/restaurant to soft seating area is a large silver jaguar. “I spotted the jaguar from a taxi in the King’s Road, and leapt out because I just had to have it,” says Turner.

Turner enjoys the challenge of rallies but isn’t at all interested in the hi-tech world of Formula 1. He’s clearly a romantic, to the extent that, after she had successfully navigated for him in the 1998 Monte Carlo Rally, he proposed to his Norwegian girlfriend Karen. They now have three children and live in a farmhouse near Ripon.

Born and brought up in Horsforth, Leeds, the 49-year-old studied business in Newcastle. He has only a trace of northern in his accent but has a voice that’s charged with energy, and there’s something of the dashing country squire about him.

Turner says his thing is “big, imaginative ideas”. He’s not done badly, for a man whose father once told him: “You’ll never do as well as me”.

Four years ago, his big, imaginative idea was to build a tree house, looking out across Bowcliffe’s lush 50 acres of Yorkshire that adjoin the Bramham Park Estate.

With the help of architects at The Harris Partnership from Wakefield plus top notch builders, engineers and other craftspeople (again 85 per cent of materials sourced in Yorkshire - an accomplishment Turner refers to as the Yorkshire Pound”) the tree house scheme pretty quickly morphed into something much more ambitious and startling.

Spending more than £1m of the £6.5m so far lavished on the refurbishment of the hall and 50-acre estate, across the lawn is a startling and unique cantilevered building that rises 10 metres from the ground at one side. It’s like no tree house I’ve ever seen.

Its oval structure with wraparound timber and glass deck is 40m long, the shape is based on the wing of an aircraft. Its purpose is meetings and other gatherings.

What turned a boy’s own hideaway into this staggering, multi-award-winning building was a link with Bowcliffe Hall’s past. The long-time owner of the 1815 hall until his death in 1955 was Robert Blackburn, the Leeds-born and Leeds University educated aviation pioneer. The 15-bedroom pile was his home.

Turner began to study Blackburn’s life, and another obsession was born. “I felt he was too little known, yet he has a really important place in history. “He seemed to have fallen off the map, and I wanted to do my little bit to put that right and draw attention to him.”

The Blackburn Wing is scattered with framed photos of aviation luminaries like Amy Johnson and Blackburn Aviation planes. Blackburn built his first monoplane in 1909 and flew it at Saltburn in 1910. Three years later, after marrying an heiress, he expanded his business to become the Blackburn Aerospace and Motor Company, based in Roundhay Road, Leeds.

Demonstration flights took off from Roundhay Park, and he introduced the first scheduled flights in the UK, with a regular half-hour passenger service between Leeds and Bradford and then Leeds and Hounslow, near London.

In 1916 Blackburn opened a new factory at Brough in East Yorkshire. Blackburn’s business later became swallowed up by Hawker Siddeley and then British Aerospace, and his name was dropped from the credits.

Focusing on microscopic detail, Turner set about creating his vision of an aviation- themed building to the nth degree of perfectionism in Blackburn’s honour.

Finding a source in the US, the glass-topped semi-circular bar is one half of a jet engine, polished to silvery perfection. A burnished aircraft wing tip is horizontally placed atop legs and layered beneath glass to make a startling conference table. The leather chairs are clad in studded aluminium.

All the rounded door handles are custom-built copies of propeller nose cones. From the taps and lighting in the loos to the “runway” lights lining the walkway outside, Turner and his talented team found a way of echoing many aspects of early aircraft design and technology and marrying it with modern, slightly spacey aesthetic.

“The wing came into being because I felt Blackburn had been undeservedly forgotten. As with the Drivers’ Club, I really wanted the wow factor’. “Above all I’m a very proud Yorkshireman, and I wanted to honour a fantastic fellow Yorkshireman.”