Meet the woman behind the Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival and find out how she managed to get James Martin and The Hairy Bikers to a field in Yorkshire
The Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival is a family affair and is a festival in the true sense of the word. “I love camping and I want people to embrace the whole experience and above all have fun,” says its founder, Rachael Higgins.
Until now Higgins has kept out of the limelight. Instead, since 2016 when the inaugural Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival was held, she has concentrated on the behind-the-scenes organisation and logistics, ensuring that every year the festival is bigger and better than the year before.
Organisation is this mother-of-three’s forte. That and a love and genuine passion to put on an event that fills people with joy and makes memories that last a lifetime.
Higgins developed her operations and logistics skills by managing factory teams at Northern Foods, Nestlé and latterly at BAE Systems.
Her passion for the Yorkshire Dales, where she now lives, and her steely focus on creating a fantastic family experience is poured into the festival which has grown to become one of the largest food and drink festivals in the UK.
It is due to Rachael’s joie de vivre alongside a healthy dollop of determination that she convinced the biggest celebrity chefs in the country to demo at the first one. James Martin and the Hairy Bikers have gone on to attend almost every year since.
“I think they really understood where we were coming from and our passion for food and drink and for making sure everyone has a great time,” says Higgins who started her career as a Northern Foods Operations graduate trainee and ran manufacturing lines for Fox’s Biscuits and Gunstone’s Bakery before moving to Nestlé in York, running the Kit Kats operation and meeting her husband Andy there “in the Smarties department,” she says with a laugh. They both then moved to BAE Systems where they led teams in the Typhoon and F35 Aircraft business units.
Starting a family made the couple reassess what they wanted out of life. They decided to follow a dream they had envisioned whilst walking along the river in York, nearly 20 years earlier – to live in a farmhouse in the middle of the Dales with children running around the countryside. “A lot of people own their own business in the Dales, especially where we live. We were inspired by them,” she says.
Higgins set up a venture by making her own crafts and selling them at trade shows and Christmas markets. In 2012 the couple opened a gift shop in Skipton, called Billy & Berties, after their two boys, where they sold their own handmade gifts alongside local crafts and UK national brands. In 2014, following the birth of their daughter, came an opportunity to buy a cafe and a health food store in Skipton, and Rachael and Andy dived in.
The couple transformed the business into Beau’s Kitchen which became the go-to local shop for vegan and vegetarian products. Inspired by the previous owners, who were also part of the team behind the Yarndale Wool Festival, Higgins came up with the concept of the Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival borrowing the format of the Yarndale event but indulging in her passion for food, drink and having fun.
“My dad died the same year my daughter was born and I think that was the catalyst. You get to a point in your life when you have to take the plunge and follow your dream, often the doing is the hardest part. I loved my job at BAE, but if you have a dream you have to make sacrifices and so I decided to make the festival work I had to concentrate on it full-time.”
It has proved to be such a success that in 2021 Andy too left BAE to join the festival team full-time. The first Yorkshire Food & Drink Festival took place in 2016 and was held in Skipton Auction Market. It was headlined by James Martin and the Hairy Bikers along with 200 food and drink exhibitors. The festival was a hit, attracting 10,000 people after a successful digital marketing campaign.
“We literally sold out,” says Higgins. “It was crazy and completely unheard of for an inaugural event. Most well-established food and drink festivals today don’t even attract those numbers. We had more than 200 exhibitors plus James Martin and the Hairy Bikers cooking on stage for us. We had to transform a small area, where they held the cattle for auction into a kitchen. We literally built everything from scratch.”
It was clear they needed a bigger venue, so in 2017 the festival moved to its permanent home, Funkirk Farm, a sheep and dairy farm just outside Skipton. The team transformed the fields with Martin and John Torode headlining the chef stage along with 250 exhibitors, cookery workshops and music.
Fast forward seven years, and the festival attracts in excess of 30,000 visitors. Planning starts a year in advance and the Higgins family move onto the site three weeks before the festival to oversee the mammoth build. When the gates open, the couple make it their mission to meet all the campers and make sure everyone is settled in and happy. They work very closely with Roger Tempest, of the Broughton Hall Estate, and the Howard family, who have run the farm for over 75 years.
“We really believe in the personal touch and the children love being involved. It is so much more than just about food and drink, it is a real experience which we plan to continue to grow not necessarily in scale, as our capacity is 40,000 to 45,000, but in what we offer,” says Higgins who would love to attract more bands to the event.
There is a host of helpers and volunteers, who are affectionately called the Pink Army, as they all wear pink high-vis jackets and many of them are members of the Higgins family including Rachael’s mum, sister, sister in law and all their children.
Running the festival is a way of life now. “It took having children for us to figure out another way to live existed,” Higgins admits. “How do you feel when you book a ticket, it's exciting, isn’t it? When you pack the car, can’t fit everything in and start shouting at the kids to get in. These feelings transport you back to being a kid yourself as you pitch the tent in your own little world in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. The smell of breakfast, dew on the tent, kids making friends with next door, running around – safe.
“We try to push the boundaries in food and drink, giving our guests more to experience, see and do, but at the same time still being real and homely, like you are just coming back each year to your mate’s farm for a big food and drink party. Even nearly eight years later I still get really excited each time another ticket is sold, it means so much.
“Not many people realise how many people and businesses come together to make the Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival what it is, and we have worked with a huge number of businesses since the very beginning too. When you buy a ticket, you are literally supporting over 350 local family businesses.” Higgins’ ultimate dream is to see in the 50th Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival
The Yorkshire Dales Food & Drink Festival takes place from July 21-23 and will feature James Martin, the Hairy Bikers and Gino D’Acampo www.yorkshiredalesfoodanddrinkfestival.com