Farm Of The Week: On your marks with the fit farm pioneers

A novel way to battle the bulge is capturing people’s imagination in North Yorkshire. Ben Barnett met the masterminds.

Jason Forrest with sheepdog Jess

Paula and Jason Forrest hope they have come up with just the thing we need to keep good that pesky, reoccurring New Year’s resolution to get fit.

Getting in shape can be a daunting prospect and farmer’s wife Paula, an exercise professional and weight management consultant, knows all too well from years helping clients beat the bulge that just getting started is often the biggest hurdle.

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Paula, who until recently was contracted by Darlington Primary Care Trust, hopes that a stay on her and her husband’s remote farm in the far north of North Yorkshire, will be enough motivation to make exercise a habit.

As far as the couple can tell by trawling the internet, their working farm – Barforth Hall Farm – just outside the village of Winston on the border with Durham is the only one in the country that offers a ‘fit farm’.

Diversification was something the couple mulled over for ages before they took the plunge and decided to do something unusual but closely aligned to Paula’s own skills.

Over 400 acres, both at Barforth Hall and on a plot in Newton Aycliffe, Jason grows the four staple crops of wheat, barley, potatoes and oilseed rape, and while it pays the bills, the couple knew that doing something else to add value would help keep their business on an even keel in years of bad weather and poor harvests.

Barforth Hall Fit Farm opened in September and has already welcomed 22 paying guests.

A weekend package, for an introductory price of £279, covers accommodation in a private wing of the farmhouse, meals and snacks, well-being sessions and a variety of exercises tailored to the individual needs of guests. Paula is trained to deliver all the different options but she calls on the expertise of a band of trustworthy freelancers to help her out.

Over a cup of tea, Paula, 48, explains where the idea came from.

“I had studied for a sports science degree as a mature student and worked in exercise science and weight management.

“I ran a team dealing with GP referrals and I would be the first person they would contact when someone had high blood pressure, and from there we would get people started on an exercise programme.

“I found I was quite good at it and had some success but I was on a three-year contract with the PCT and I knew it was coming to an end.

“We were sat outside one day thinking about what we need to get done to the house. The wing next door had been neglected and at first we thought of the usual, opening it up as a holiday home but I thought about everything I was doing in weight management and I realised this would be the perfect place for people to come and get started.

“I thought it was time to do something for myself and look at what we have got here. It just seemed to be the right time – you see all the reports and programmes about people wanting to lose weight and the obesity crisis.”

The farm itself is tucked away amid rolling countryside and has heritage features dating back centuries. The farmhouse has Grade II protected status and the surrounding land features the ancient remains of Barford, a village believed to date back to the Iron Age which was wiped out by the plague, and the ruins of a monastery – St Lawrence Chapel – built in the 12th century.

Exercise regimes on the farm are adjusted for different guests. They can be as testing as guests like, ranging from boot camp-style drills where Paula and her team push their clients to the maximum to much more gentle affairs, taking in yoga and countryside strolls.

For circuit training, hay bales are used as exercise stations.

Paula can’t promise instant results but her regimes are designed to set guests on their way to good exercise habits.

“I never claim that someone will come here and there will be a miracle. It’s a case of coming and getting away from everything else going on in your life and having a bit of ‘me time’, and having people on hand who can get you started.

“Most people who have stayed here so far have said how peaceful and lovely the spot is.

“I think people are looking for something different. Guests seem to like the whole concept of the countryside and the farm as a place to get fit, and we’re not about forcing everyone to do lots of exercise.

“It’s about well-being for body and mind, and we have one-on-ones with guests so we can tailor a programme around their own needs.”

So far the majority of guests have been groups of six to eight females having a get-together but Paula sees the potential for hosting corporate team building ‘away days’.

Setting up the farm to incorporate the new concept has been hard work.

Jason’s parents bought the farm in 1989, before Jason and Paula, who have two children, Dominique, 22, and Dakkan, 25, moved in in 2002. By then a whole wing of the farmhouse needed refurbishing. In late 2010, the couple submitted an expression of interest to the Rural Development Plan for England and were invited to apply for a 50 per cent match-funding grant, but by the time they obtained change of use planning permission, the grant was no longer available.

Luckily, Paula came across the European funded LEADER programme which had grants available for small, rural diversification projects.

They were awarded just over £40,000 in match funding to complete the project and, when bad weather hit, it was a race against time to spend the money before the strict June 2013 deadline.

Now the fit farm is complete, it has three en-suite bedrooms, a fitness suite, communal kitchen and dining area, and a log burning hot tub and relaxation area outside.

Jason, 50, says: “The diversification of the fit farm project makes the future feel more prosperous than the uncertainty of just relying on farming.”

Paula can be found tweeting from the fit farm at @barforthhall