Farm of the Week: Country retreat that has stood the test of time

Mandy Sowray in front of the B&B accommodation at Laskill Country House near Helmsley (GL1006/24d)
Mandy Sowray in front of the B&B accommodation at Laskill Country House near Helmsley (GL1006/24d)
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WHEN FARMER’S daughter Sue Smith arrived at Laskill Grange 50 years ago with her husband Alan their small farm in the North York Moors was vastly different to today, but some things don’t change and the need to find new sources of income to supplement their often meagre agricultural earnings was as prevalent then as it has become now.

Early into their tenure Sue started a B&B enterprise, subsequently adding further holiday accommodation in the years that followed by converting redundant farm buildings into cottages. The holiday business has shown continued growth and is going stronger than ever with daughter Mandy running Laskill Country House next door, purchased just seven years ago. Add in the Quaker Meeting Room also bought and you have the sum total of the hamlet of Laskill that was once owned by the monks of Rievaulx Abbey. It has been quite a journey from humble beginnings as Sue explains.

“My father-in-law bought us nine dairy cows and we milked for around 20 years, building up the herd to 35 Friesian cows. We came out of dairying when the ministry was offering a good incentive for dairy farmers to leave the sector. We had a beef and sheep enterprise from then on but I also had poultry, with turkeys and geese that I raised for the Christmas market.”

Sue’s move into the world of looking after visitors as well as livestock came at a time when the countryside was being explored in much greater numbers with the expansion in tourism by car.

“I’d started with B&B accommodation in the farmhouse 47 years ago and around 30 years ago we started converting what had been the old cow byres, milking and machinery sheds into holiday cottages. I was the first in this area to have a barn converted.

“We had no money when we started with just 70 rented acres but it was such a wonderful place to raise a family and to see our children Mandy and Peter grow up. We rented here for 20 years before we were lucky enough to buy it and when Alan’s father retired we took over the running of his Manor Farm in Hawnby that runs to around 400 acres. Over the years we also took on the tenancy of two other farms between here and Hawnby that give us a farm acreage of around 1,000 acres today, which Peter farms.”

Alan passed away 12 years ago after a battle with leukaemia.

“Alan was a wonderful husband and a really good farmer who was well respected by others. As a measure of that respect over 500 came to his funeral service. We farmed together at Laskill for 38 very happy years and I’ve had an amazing time. It’s such a beautiful, tranquil area and that’s why we attract the number of visitors for our accommodation. Many come back year after year and just this week we had a phone call from someone who was here for their honeymoon 40 years ago and are now to return for their ruby wedding anniversary.”

Peter took over the running of the farm from his father with Mandy and Sue dealing with their respective holiday accommodation enterprises. The farm is a beef and sheep operation with a suckler herd of 150 beef cows and 900 breeding ewes. Hereford and Aberdeen Angus bulls are used on the heifers for ease of first calving with Charolais and Limousin bulls used thereafter. The herd generates its own replacements with fatstock going to both ABP and Dawn Meats.

“Lambing starts at the end of March each year and runs to the end of April. It’s a combination of Swaledale X Teeswaters, Mules and Texels with lambs taken to Thirsk livestock market. The numbers we have makes it a pretty relentless time for Peter, his son Lloyd (23) and another farm worker as they try their best to get most of it done in a three-week window. Peter, partner Rebecca and Peter’s son Lloyd live at Manor Farm and that’s the hub of the farming operation these days.”

While the Smiths’ farmland has nearly always been totally grassland Peter has a 25-acre field acquired two years ago for growing cereals or this year potatoes on the top of Boltby Bank.

In addition to his on-farm experience Peter has had his share of competitive success and is a past English shearing champion. He also represented England in the world championships in South Africa.

“There was a time when Peter only saw summers as he spent six months sheep shearing in both England and New Zealand. His son Lloyd is due to go out and shear in New Zealand this October.”

Sue was number 11 of 13 children born to her parents that included ten girls. She has two sisters who live in New Zealand and her family has developed strong connections. Mandy very nearly stayed when she visited.

“I loved it over there and did a year in Masterton in the Wairarapa region. I was offered a full-time job while there and rang mum to say I wasn’t coming back, but in the end I didn’t stay. I came home, started a family and now have three grown up children James (24), Matthew (22) and Annabelle (19).”

Mandy came back to Laskill to assist her mum in running the holiday accommodation business at Laskill Grange, but a chance conversation with the owners of Laskill House about whether they would sell led to the latest acquisition and has now been renamed Laskill Country House.

“Weddings and all kinds of celebrations are the slant I’ve taken since we purchased Laskill Country House. We have a wedding licence and I now do 12 weddings a year. I keep it at that figure because 12 brides coming at you constantly is quite sufficient. I like to get to know my couples and they are all special.

“When people say can I put together a wedding package I say just come and talk with me. In the winter we are popular with shooting parties for dinners and using the accommodation here and at mum’s. What our guests really enjoy is all being around the same table for their meal. I have a table that can seat 27.”

Sue and Alan set the ball rolling from Laskill Grange in the 1960s that Sue, Mandy and Peter are running highly effectively today.

“Peter is an excellent farmer as his dad was,” says Sue. “Where we have succeeded with the holiday and now wedding accommodation is that we try to make everyone feel special. That’s something you can do without a cost. Looking after animals is what Peter does, looking after people is what we do.”