‘This horrible thing happened to us but we have an opportunity’: the identical twins behind a leisure firm with a difference

When they were growing up identical twins Stella Laird and Jodi McSherry idolised Sarah Beeny and longed to one day run their own property business – and now that dream has come true.

They have been the proud owners of a tired outdoor activity centre and hostel in rural County Durham for just a few weeks and, together with a team of local contractors, will spend the next few months renovating, painting and transforming it into a luxury holiday home and celebration space Blackton Grange.

Their enthusiasm and determination to succeed is palpable – and is all the more deserved when you hear how they arrived at this stage.

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In an unimaginable coincidence both sisters have suffered breast cancer over the past four years and had double-mastectomies, chemotherapy and all the mental battles their diagnoses entailed.

Both are now in remission – Stella is four years on from her diagnosis while Jodi is coming up to two years – and they are living life to the full.

And they revealed their property dream is actually part-funded by the critical illness insurance payouts they received after being diagnosed at such a young age, creating a positive from a dark time in both their lives.

Stella said: “We really wanted to use the money for something that was going to set us up for life. We feel like we’ve got a new lease of life and we just want to do something we’ve always said we want to do. This is going to be a mix of everything we know we’re good at – and we know that we can do this.”

Despite their property dreams as youngsters, the former St Thomas Moore School in Blaydon pupils, now 33, went into different careers after studying at Northumbria University.

Stella, of Burnopfield, County Durham, was working in HR after doing a masters degree in international HR management and has worked for the likes of KPMG and Virgin Money for more than 12 years. Jodie meanwhile, of Shotley Bridge, has enjoyed a career in fitness instructing and personal training and works at Newcastle City Council for the public health team.

Stella said: “Back in the day, Jodie and I used to watch Sarah Beeny Property Ladder and Changing Rooms and we absolutely loved it, and we’d say ‘one day, this is what we’re going to do’

“I bought Jodie a pink tool box, full of pink tools, and the Property Ladder book. It’s always something we’ve wanted to do, working together – renovating it.

“But we’ve followed the traditional route at school and university, got sucked into a world of work to pay our bills.

“But after getting diagnosed with cancer we thought there’s more to life. Then this property came up in the North Pennines which we absolutely loved. It was everything we always wanted so we thought let’s just do it.”

It has taken some time to come to fruition, however, as they have had to juggle all of the planning with their cancer treatments.

Identical twin sisters Stella Laird and Jodi McSherry (left), who now have big plans for Blackton Grange (Image: Jodi McSherry)

In 2018, when she was 29, Stella discovered a lump which was initially thought to be a harmless cyst although, after having it removed, further investigations revealed she had breast cancer – triple negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease.

“I got the diagnosis on the Wednesday and on the Saturday I was booked in for a mastectomy. Because I’d left it a couple of months because we didn’t think it was anything another tumour had started to grow. It’s that fast moving. There was no time to really process it.”

A couple of months later she began five months of intensive chemotherapy.

Jodie then underwent a series of common gene tests to see if she too could be at risk.

She said: “At the time we thought that because we’re identical twins, was this something in our genes? We don’t have any family history of any kind of cancer, on both mum and dad’s side. So we asked, as we’re twins am I more likely to be at risk? We did the common gene tests, to try and find some links, but there were none.

“Then in May 2020 I found a lump. In my head I thought ‘it can’t be’ but got an appointment that day.”

A referral to the breast clinic revealed that she too had the same type of cancer.

And as she had been diagnosed during the pandemic, she had to go through chemotherapy in hospital alone. Her sister felt helpless on that front, yet was in a unique position to give support and practical help, telling her sister about everything from over-the counter creams and foods she could have to counter the side-effects of cancer treatment.

Stella recalled: “It was horrible. I had people who could come with me when I was having my chemotherapy whereas Jodie didn’t, and had to go in by herself.”

“It was a double-edged sword really. A horrible thing to give advice on, but I felt like we were in it together. I felt there were practical things like I could tell her, you’re going to lose your hair and eyebrows so I know what make-up to use, I know your skin is going to be really dry so I bought all these moisturisers. Even things like feeling sick and what might make you feel better.

“And now I can say to Jodie, look at me now, I’m four years in – that’s going to be you soon. Soon we’ll be past the whole thing.”

Jodie said: “It was quite comforting, which sounds horrible. Chemotherapy is a whole reset of your body. For me, I had those checkpoints because I could ask ‘Stella did this happen to you?’”

The sisters are now on genetic lists after working with the Centre for Life, where scientists are looking to find the genetic link between the two sisters.

There is nothing to show they are predisposed to cancer, so they are making themselves available for further gene tests to see if their case can help others, as well as further cancer research.

When they returned to work they realised something had to change.

Jodie said: “I felt like all of our lives had changed so much – you go back to your day job and nothing has really changed and yet everything has at the same time. That’s when we thought life is too short to not try something that you might regret if you don’t give it a go.

“It’s been a whirlwind few years but hopefully we’re on the up now.”

Work starts soon to turn the property into luxury holiday home and celebration space Blackton Grange (Image: Marc McSherry (North View Architecture)) Work starts soon to turn the property into luxury holiday home and celebration space Blackton Grange (Image: Marc McSherry (North View Architecture))

After spotting that a former outdoor activity centre was up for sale in the North Pennines, they hatched a plan to acquired it – and the deal to purchase Blackton Grange was finalised three weeks ago.

Their plan is to transform it into a luxury holiday home and unique wedding venue, set within 11 acres of unspoilt countryside.

The large farmhouse will undergo substantial renovations to turn what has been a traditional youth hostel, complete with a mismatched jumble of furniture, into a beautiful country retreat.

Sleeping up to 20 people in a range of suites, family rooms and cosy couple hideaways, they plan to offer something for everyone in their large celebration home.

Across from the farmhouse is an old Cart Barn that will be relaunched as a wedding venue, enjoying ultimate seclusion within a designated dark skies area.

Jodie explained: “We are such ‘people people’ – we want to create somehing that’s going to be such a nice experience for people to share. Providing something that you know people can go to and share special memories – that’s something I get quite excited about.”

Stella added: “They can have it as a holiday home with family and friends or hold celebrations there. We just really want to make a nice luxury space where people can fully relax and be able to do that.”

The plan for the house is well under way, with local builders stripping back the original farm house. The space is being reconfigured to create luxury bedrooms and kitchen and dining areas and work will also start soon on creating the new kitchen and bathroom areas.

The house is expected to be completed by September and the new website is already receiving enquiries for bookings.

Jodi’s husband Marc has, since the pandemic, launched his own business – North View Architecture – and he has arranged all the planning and designs, while the girls are project managing the entire scheme.

Once the team of local tradesmen have been in, the siblings will get stuck into painting, decorating and picking furniture, a lot of which will be upcycled to bring in a sustainability element, with Stella doing all the upholstery.

All told, more than £1.2m is being spent on the project, which includes the property’s purchase and the 11 acres of land.

Stella: “It is a chunky investment. We’ve bought the house and barn, and it’s set within 11 acres, for £640,000 and we are budgeting for the renovations to be a similar amount. We really are ploughing in all of our money.

“Because of the both of us with the cancer diagnosis we had critical illness insurance, so another reason we’ve been able to do this is that we both got payouts from our insurance for having cancer at such a young age.

“We really wanted to use the money for something that was going to set us up for life. We didn’t want to just fritter it away. We wanted to put the money towards something that was going to change our lives.

“If we hadn’t had the cancer we might not have been able to be in this position. The payouts don’t cover all of this. My husband’s done well in the business he works in too, so we’re all in this – we’ve roped both husbands in.”

Jodie added: “It is bittersweet – we’re quite optimistic people and with the cancer diagnosis you can either dwell on it or make something of it. Life is so fragile isn’t it? You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or a month or year’s time. This horrible thing happened to us but we have an opportunity over it.

“It’s nerve wracking and we’re trying not to think about it going wrong. We just hope that other people feel the same about Blackton Grange as we do.”

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Coreena FordChronicle and Journal business writer