Swinton Green Animal Experiences: The cancer survivor and children's author who has set up a farm attraction in the Yorkshire Dales
Not so, for the amazing young lady that is Hannah Russell who coped with the severe back injury that destroyed her hoped-for career as a sports instructor when just 16 and subsequently went through what must have been a devastating time when she faced up to cancer in her early 20s.
But this young lady is made of that something different that sets people apart and Hannah is now a best-selling author, patron of several charities and is never happier than when she is at home with her animals on what is now Swinton Green Animal Experiences in Masham.
Last week Hannah spoke with warmth, heart and her bubbly spirit about her books, her new visitor centre and on behalf of Yorkshire Cancer Research, the charity partner of the Yorkshire Post Rural Awards 2023 held at Pavilions of Harrogate.
“I know I’m one of the lucky ones,” Hannah says when I speak with her the day following the awards.
“It’s not right to say I breezed through it all. I had it and I was going to beat it, but obviously it was so unpredictable.
“I am an active person, on the go all the time. I was still on social media. I didn’t go on about what I was going through, I just wanted to be on with what I was building. The thing is everyone has challenging times. I am a very bright bubbly person and I always treat every day like it’s a new day.
It was Hannah’s relationship with a 28-inch miniature Shetland pony that changed everything.
“I’ve always loved animals, right from getting on a donkey on Scarborough beach where we lived when I was little. We moved to the Yorkshire Dales when I was 5 and it’s where I’ve lived ever since, first to Harmby, near Leyburn, and then Finghall, where mum and dad built their own house. Mum comes from the Dales.
“I’d dropped out of college because of my fractured back and to do something I had taken on work in an interior design shop in Leyburn. It was quite a difficult year as my friends were all talking of going off to Uni, but then I got Little Alf, my mini-Shetland pony, and he gave me a new focus.
“He was so small and playful, 7 months old, and I spent time with him, taking photos of him, putting him on social media. I had started writing little stories about Little Alf on his blog and sharing them.
“Little Alf’s blog went viral and led to me volunteering for the Riding for the Disabled Association. I started taking him with me because I thought it would be lovely and it proved so rewarding. Children and adults could have a hands-on experience with him and seeing the enjoyment they were getting out of it was beautiful.
“I then started telling stories to the children when I was there. That’s when I also thought why not write a book, so I did. I wrote a couple. My first was published when I was 17. It wasn’t instant success. Initially I self-published. I’d actually failed English at school.
Hannah had no idea of how her fame and that of Little Alf was to progress. She undertook a home learning qualification in interior design, spent more time with Little Alf and her four horses even though she could no longer ride them.
“I was very passionate about my books and I’m very business orientated but I was worried that I might not be able to make a career out of it. I enjoyed interior design. I really enjoyed the course and qualified a year later.
“When my first book Little Alf & Friends was published we were featured in local newspapers and then an agent got us in national newspapers. After we appeared in The Times I was picked up by an agency in London. I told them about the charity work I was doing. They said they loved my story and how it had given me a new focus, helping people.
“They published Little Alf’s true story in 2017. It was a best seller all around the world and that led me to buying the shop I had worked in.
Hannah’s biggest bombshell was dropped on her around the same time.
“It was then that I was diagnosed with stage three Sarcoma in my hip. I was diagnosed on the Wednesday and had an operation on the Monday afterwards because they needed to get the tumour out.
“I started radiotherapy after the operation, that was the worst thing, the drugs, because it made you feel not yourself. I was more upset that I couldn’t get down the field to see my animals. I was desperate to see them, but some days I felt really well and some days really poorly.
It was at this time that Hannah decided she really wanted to work with animals and help others and to by have animals on her own place and people coming to her.
“When I was 17 I’d said in an interview that I’d love to have a centre where people could spend time with animals. It had come from working with the Riding for the Disabled. Helping with people’s mindset, their disability and their general health.
Hannah and her family, parents Sharon and Mike and her brother John moved to Swinton Green, a 16-acre tenanted smallholding from Swinton Estate just a year ago, and Swinton Green Animal Experiences was born.
“We were looking for more land. When we moved here I said it was a perfect place to do animal experiences. After having the illnesses I know life’s too short. We got on with it and now have all the licensing agreements set up and are under way.
“It is a personalised experience. You have to book to come, whether as family, individual or group party. It’s a one-to-one tour where visitors meet me, Little Alf and all of the other animals. It’s a two hour tour around the smallholding meeting the animals.
“Everyone wants to meet Little Alf. I know that without the books that feature all the animals, the experiences wouldn’t be a thing. It hasn’t been hard to draw people in because we have such a following.
Hannah’s current menagerie includes 4 dogs which she says are her pets that people don’t come to see; 2 rabbits, 1 guinea pig; 6 goats; 2 miniature donkeys, 1 giant tortoise; 2 mini-Shetlands, 3 alpacas, 6 Valais Blacknose sheep, 1 pony and some fish in a pond.
Hannah Russell has come through more traumas than many will go through in their lifetime – and with Little Alf she has built something really special.