St. Nicholas sits on the fringe of the historic market town of Richmond. With elevated views across the pastures towards the ruins of Easby Abbey and the River Swale its origins date back to 1171 when St. Nicholas was owned by the Crown. It has been remodelled over the centuries and has been in private ownership since around 1585, making it the oldest structure in Richmond in continuous use as a habitation. The property is on the site of a Benedictine hospital, founded in 1171 by one of the Earls of Richmond. There are still graves from the era underneath large parts of the grounds.
St. Nicholas was the home of much-loved Richmond character Lady Serena James, who lived in the house with her husband, Bobby James, who in 1905 planted the gardens as they currently exist.
She was born Lady Serena Mary Barbara Lumley on March 30 1901, the only child of the 10th Earl of Scarbrough. As an only child, and as a girl, Lady Serena was in a position comparable to that of Vita Sackville-West at Knole; had she been born a boy, she would have been heir to a great inheritance – in her case the medieval Lumley Castle in County Durham and the Palladian Sandbeck Park, near Rotherham in Yorkshire.
Her marriage in 1923 to Robert James, third son of the 2nd Lord Northbourne, brought her to the entrancing St Nicholas. The marriage was unexpected: Bobbie James’s first wife Lady Evelyn – nee Wellesley, daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington – had died young, and he was almost 30 years Lady Serena’s senior. Lady Scarbrough, moreover, was mortified that St Nicholas was not a great country seat. “She’s going to live in a little cottage by the road,” was how she described her daughter’s future.
Lady Serena continued to live there after the death of Bobby James. The eponymous “Bobby James” rose still grows throughout the gardens, and on the walls of the house. Richmond residents were welcomed to tour the gardens at any time, and were often invited in for tea. Lady Serena died in 2000, and is still fondly remembered by many in the town.
St Nicholas was then purchased in 2001 by Keith Schellenberg. He is a Yorkshire businessman who made his fortune in shipbuilding, livestock feed, glue, and agricultural chemicals. He was also a sportsman, playing rugby for Middlesbrough and Yorkshire, and was part of the British Olympic bobsleigh team.