Farm Of The Week: Tying the knot down on animal farm

Gill  Hall with her daughter Bronte by the Hobbit hole on Skipbridge Farm near Green Hammerton.
Gill Hall with her daughter Bronte by the Hobbit hole on Skipbridge Farm near Green Hammerton.
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Teenage entrepreneurship is seeing one farm capitalise on its setting as a wedding party venue. Ben Barnett reports.

Eighteen-year-old Bronte Hall has found her calling in life is at home on her family’s smallholding. Having left school two years ago the teenager is taking the lead in running the family business, by using their plot in the Green Hammerton countryside as a wedding party venue.

Novel in its setting, the bride, groom and guests share the 11 acres at Skipbridge Farm, between Harrogate and York, with a menagerie of farm animals, from horses, alpacas and goats to rheas, geese, sheep and Kunekune and Mangalitza pigs – not to mention a duck called Pancake and a jackdaw christened Captain Jack.

Skipbridge Country Weddings started two-and-a-half years ago after Bronte’s older sister, Katie, staged her wedding celebrations on the farm. Bronte, who works on the venture with support from her parents Gill and Gordon, holds a maximum of 12 wedding parties a year for up to 200 guests each and this summer was the busiest yet.

Gill, 50, who has a full-time job as a fostering team manager, said: “It’s a greenfield site with quirky features and we give people the choice of getting outside help in or they can do it all for themselves. It’s been hugely developed by my daughter.”

Bronte, a former pupil of King James’ School in Knaresborough, realised she wanted to carve out a career for herself in hospitality after seeing how well the farm worked as a venue for Katie’s celebrations.

“She wanted to get married at home and that’s how we knew it was possible,” says Bronte.

“When I left school I didn’t really know what to do so we talked about it and I decided to set up the wedding business. I had worked with my brother doing weddings in the past and decided that I quite enjoyed it.

“We know a lot of people who have got married and they have been nice occasions but we thought we could offer a wedding celebration that’s extra special.”

This year, Skipbridge hosted seven wedding parties and ten are already booked in for next year.

“We dress the venue with outdoor furniture, games, whisky barrels, straw bales and blankets or, if the couple want something different, we can put them in touch with suppliers,” says Bronte.

“We work on the theme with the bride and groom and a day before the reception we all get together to set it up.

“My favourite part is the actual wedding day. We always say that because all our family get involved; we always fall out in the build-up but on the day when it’s done we are pleased with a fantastic job and we’ll all be best friends again.”

When the family is not hosting weddings the site is open as a caravan park with five pitches and it’s won awards from The Caravan Club.

What was a working farm for generations is now a very diverse business operation.

Gordon, 55, a builder, has converted a grain store into bed and breakfast accommodation called The Old Granary House and other farm buildings into houses – one is occupied by eldest daughter Katie and her husband. Katie, 28, is a chimney sweep and the couple’s other child, Tom, 25, is pub manager at The Chequers Inn at Bilton-in-Ainsty near Tockwith.

The rest of the farm’s accommodation is used to give care leavers a place to stay as they make the transition to independent living, an arrangement run in partnership with York Council and North Yorkshire County Council. Gill and Gordon are also foster parents.

Gill explains how the farm’s diversification took shape: “A lot of it has been organic. One thing led to another. When we moved here the land was rented out to farmers and it was owned by someone else but several years ago we bought the acreage back and started a caravan site which we’ve been running for four years now with our neighbours. We never really expected it to be much of a success really but it’s been phenomenally successful.”

Becoming a wedding venue was a whole new world though.

“When we decided to start the wedding venture, it was a bit scary. We thought no-one would want to do it here but we were convinced by friends who suggested it when they visited and from there Bronte has taken the lead.

“We thought it would be something of a slow burner, that local people would find it was somewhere they could come and put a few marquees up, but we are getting inquiries from all over – from couples in Leeds and Hull.

“People are travelling to come here which is really interesting. We are fielding two or three inquiries a week and we are pretty much booked up for 2014 and we have three bookings in for 2015.”

Bronte says she loves being involved.

“It’s my life. I know I’m very lucky. June to August are really busy and May is a very popular time to get married. We have a roller-coaster summer and then we have winter to wind down and field inquiries for the next year.

“My grandma and grandad are our keen maintenance team and take great pride in the grass. With the summer we have had this was our first proper year.”

Bronte has ideas for developing the business in the future.

“Because dad’s a builder he is forever knocking things down and rebuilding things in different ways. He dug a pond and made a ‘hobbit hole’. He’s really into Lord of the Rings and had always wanted to make one.

“He sunk a container into the ground and covered it with earth. It’s used to store the lawnmower at the moment but we plan to use it for weddings as a chill-out area. Eventually, we’d like to add more marquees and expand with a second venue somewhere else.”

Skipbridge Farm has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Gill reflects: “I always think of an old photo we have hanging on the wall which shows what it used to be like here. It was a working farm and now we are living here, yet there has been other generations who have lived here and had a life before us.”