The Camp Hill Estate, located just north of Kirklington village and a handful of miles south of Bedale, has been home to the high rope and zip wire visitor attraction Aerial Extreme since 2003, an experience devised and instigated by Robert Ropner, and today it forms an integral part of the adventure park that has been developed here since Robert and his wife Jo moved in nearly 24 years ago and evolved from attracting just corporate activities.
On leaving the longstanding family business that had diversified from its original ship owning and management base to engineering, insurance and property, Robert and Jo took on the 300-acre Camp Hill Estate from his parents in the mid-1990s.
They have worked hard and Camp Hill is now home to corporate and general public outdoor activities including a glamping site and hosting stag and hen parties, and weddings.
Taking on the hosting of North Yorkshire County Show, after 19 years at Otterington Hall, is a new challenge for Robert, Jo and their team and one he is deeply passionate about.
“We felt this was something we’d like to do and I hope and am keen that it should stay here a number of years. The show isn’t going to line our pockets and we needn’t have it but community events are fantastically important and we are delighted to play our part in the show’s continued success. I’m currently Master of Foxhounds for Bedale Hunt and sit on two committees for the Great Yorkshire Show. We’re embedded in the grass roots of the countryside. The show will take up about 65 acres of parkland and we’re really happy it is here.”
Hosting events and people has been the basis of everything that has developed at Camp Hill.
“When we came here we needed to do something. Our children Angus, Max and Poppy were all very young and it was a great place for them to grow up but we knew we’d have to roll the dice a bit to make the place work for us and provide the right income. My father, Bruce, had said ‘give it a crack, but you’re going to find it quite hard as it hasn’t the agricultural land to support it’.”
Of its 300 acres, 170 are woodland and while that could have restricted any farming ideas Robert and Jo may have had, the trees have proven to be their inspiration.
“Our first base was corporate entertainment. Those were the days when many companies were running training or team building exercises and were looking for new places to go and different things to do. Along with many other estates we sought to encourage corporate customers from businesses in cities like Leeds and Newcastle to come out in the countryside. They came for some fun, that was the first base, and then we were asked to provide them something different, everything from training programmes to outdoor and indoor activities.
“I travelled the length and breadth of the UK taking in what everyone else was doing and set about creating an infrastructure that included an event management team and all of what was needed to provide a memorable experience.”
One of Robert’s schemes involved the purchase of an aeroplane that provides teams with a dilemma of how quickly they can rescue the pilot.
“I bought the plane, a Nord 1023 four-seater, from a guy in London. He just wanted it taking away so I paid the transportation costs. We put it on a piece of ground, dug a moat around it, flooded the moat and developed a simulated rescue challenge that involves two teams.
“Our biggest moment in the corporate sector came when we landed the global Marconi Challenge. At that time they had 60,000 employees in 23 countries and every year they held a challenge in one location. It was a huge event and gave us the confidence to keep rolling the dice with other ideas.”
The move towards general public visitor attraction status came with Aerial Extreme.
“We were really busy throughout the year except late-July and August as all our corporates were on holiday. I was fortunate to meet Nick Moriarty from a company called Ropes Course Development. At that stage the market only really had educational ropes courses rather than recreational where people could come and play as a family. We built it as a continuous course with so many elements that I thought it would be physically too difficult but it became a hit from the get go.”
Robert now has five courses around the UK and in a more recent development - the Woodland Kingdom - there is a smaller low ropes course for young children. The shift to general public visitor attraction accelerated in 2008.
“The recession hit our corporate sector hard and the financial crash that year saw us lose 50 per cent of that business. That’s when we realised we were a little too much a one trick pony.
“Our business today is far more robust with the additions we’ve made including the glamping site and a fantastic rustic barn that’s an ideal wedding venue. We’re also now hosting festivals and that gives us a cross pollination to the visitor attractions that also include such as quad biking and foot golf.”
Robert points to business relationships with Terry and Belinda Williams who started the Yorkshire Party Company at Camp Hill and who he and Jo worked alongside for five years; and Kerry Roy and partner David Beazley who set up and run the glamping site, as great friends and major influences on the success of Camp Hill Estate.
“Without having been involved with them we wouldn’t be in a position where we could welcome the North Yorkshire County Show. We are looking forward to Sunday, June 18.”