Generations of children have visited St Leonards Farm Park in Esholt. Ben Barnett heard the story behind its success.
After 18 years and more than a million visitors, St Leonards Farm Park in Esholt, near Bradford, will cease operating as a daily attraction to general admissions when the farm gate is swung shut tomorrow evening.
It has taken an incredible amount of vision and effort for James and Denise Wainhouse to turn what was an overgrown former dairy farm into the all-singing and dancing visitor experience it is today in the village made famous by Emmerdale.
Despite its success, like any other long-running family business there comes a time when the owners embark on a new chapter.
For the Wainhouses, it’s a case of wanting to spend more time with their family but St Leonards is not shutting. Instead, from Monday, it will offer three pre-bookable activities – school and group trips, private indoor parties in the farm’s fun barn and a new holiday club to give insights into the world of farming.
James explains why it’s time for a change.
“My mum is 84 and I’d like to see her more, and my sister is mentally handicapped and there might be a time when she moves here. Denise’s dad has moved in with us after having three strokes in 2012 and we’re looking after him as well.
“The years I’ve been here, I’ve had so much satisfaction from educating children and adults about farming and I have probably made more people laugh here at the farm in a day than most people do in a year.
“We’ve had adults who’ve come back to take pictures because they came as youngsters and now have children of their own who they bring.
“All this will stay with me, as well as memories of the people who have worked for me and have helped support us before going on their own way, and those I have hopefully helped and mentored in the past.
“I have a very positive outlook on life and like to see these three activities we’re now offering as a new venture.”
The new direction will allow James to focus on what he enjoys the most.
“The main thing I love about this is teaching children about animals,” he said.
“There’s not enough education about what we eat and what farmers do for the countryside.
“Years ago people ripped out hedgerows but we are putting them back and looking after the wildlife like never before.
“Eighty different species of birds have been spotted on this farm. I take visitors out on a tractor trailer ride and point them out. Swallows and swifts revisit to breed at the farm every year from Africa. We feel honoured that they find their way to us.”
James considers himself lucky, even if he had no intentions of becoming a farmer in the first place.
Born in the hilltop village of Midgley, near Halifax, James was the youngest of four siblings. He moved to Guildford, Surrey, with his parents, Willy and Lily, when he was 16-months-old and left school at 15 to work on the family’s dairy farm, Russell Place Farm.
“I was forced into farming because my brothers left to pursue different careers. It was a challenge, very much. You’re not with your friends, you’re working at nights, up early in the morning for 4am starts and working at weekends. There was a lot of labour involved then too.
“It’s a way of life but you’ve got to be determined to do it.
“I wanted to be a fireman at one stage but I didn’t get past the paperwork.”
When James reached 23, he lost his father to cancer, leaving him to take over the family business with his mother.
Out of the blue six months later, James met Denise in Bradford while visiting his cousin Valerie, who worked with Denise at Yorkshire Bank in Leeds. It was “love at first sight”, he says.
Denise moved to Guildford and ran the farm’s office. The couple tied the knot and in 1992, had a son, Rhys, now aged 21. Later they adopted a daughter, Meren, 15.
When James’ mother retired, Russell Place Farm was sold and the then young family of three moved to another local dairy farm in Cobham. James worked there for two years but missed being his own boss and in 1994 they relocated to St Leonards Farm.
James says: “Robert, Denise’s dad (who lived in Bradford), said he’d seen an advert by the council for this ex-dairy farm that needed extensive renovations.
“The advert mentioned that Emmerdale was filmed here and we thought we could see the potential for visitors to come here as it was in a good catchment area between Bradford and Leeds.”
While renovations took place, the family lived in a caravan for 12 months and sought planning permission to open the farm to the public. They modernised the milking parlour and made a living by leasing out their milk quota.
When the gates opened to the public on the couple’s wedding anniversary, July 28 1995, there was a play area with straw bales, a tea room in the farmhouse and a selection of animals.
“A lot of people said we were taking a risk,” says James.“But each year we developed the farm and five years later we sold the cattle as the milk price was going down and down.”
The farm park has grown over the years and with the help of timely self-matched government grants after the Foot and Mouth crisis, the tea rooms have moved into a converted barn, classrooms have been added for hosting extra school groups and a fun barn with an indoor play area has opened in the former silage pit.
Its collection of animals includes rare sheep breeds, cows, pigs, horses, ponies, chickens, turkeys, goats, exotic birds, meerkats, rabbits, guinea pigs and even cockroaches.
Twelve thousand people visited in its first year and, so far, 2013’s attendance is 80,000. James says: “There’s no way I would have been able to do this without Denise but we’re at a time now where we’re not as young as we were and we’re happy to move on with our new venture.”