How a farm’s future was transformed

Thirty years ago the Nicholson family were advised to sell their failing farm, but instead they turned it into a successful attraction. Sheena Hastings reports.

Chef Tim Bilton and Richard Nicholson.

WHILE the Dales and honeypot villages and towns of North Yorkshire tend to draw headlines and millions of visitors each year, we can sometimes forget that there are also stunning areas in East, West and South Yorkshire.

The wild beauty of the Pennines can be overlooked, and yet there are peerless views and unspoilt charm at every turn. Anyone who thinks there’s little beauty around Barnsley is mistaken.

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The village of Cawthorne, five miles west of the town, has ancient credentials, a fascinating museum of military history at Cannon Hall – and a top-rated visitor attraction next door at Cannon Hall Farm, which until 1957 was the home farm for the Hall.

Tim Bilton.

Set amid hills of every shade of green punctuated by woodland, it encompasses almost 200 acres of prime South Yorkshire that tens of thousands of visitors enjoy every year. A mixed used farm with hundreds of head of livestock including rare breeds, it has been an open farm since 1989 and only closes to the public on Christmas Day.

Visiting on a glistening November weekday morning, a sprinkling of pre-school children and their parents rub shoulders with elderly people.

Unlike high summer, when school groups and families pour into the farm, at this time there’s more breathing space and a clearer view of the many fine beasts from purpose-built galleries that run around the edge of the farrowing houses and barns.

From beef and dairy cattle to sheep, pigs and rare breeds of goats, alpacas, llamas and Shetland ponies, the animals here all look happy, well cared-for and beautiful. The galleries mean the work of the farm can continue unhindered.

Robert Nicholson's daughter Katie in the farm shop.

“A couple of years ago some visitors got a bit more than they bargained for when one of the cows was having a difficult labour and we were preparing to do an emergency caesarian when she tried to make a run for it,” says Richard Nicholson, one of the family who’ve owned the farm since 1957.

“It was all under control, but it was quite a moment of drama for people who’d just walked in to have a look at some lovely cattle.”

The farm has several guides who look after groups including the 30,000 schoolchildren who visit annually. The farm holds 300 head of suckler cattle each year. They’re brought from Northumbria at 18 months old and ‘finished’ here with a healthy diet of homegrown maize, mileage and molasses. There are also 500 breeding ewes and 60 sows that produce 1,300-1,400 piglets.

I learn that a sow is pregnant for three months, three weeks and three days, and as we wander through the sheds there are several new mums suckling up to 12 piglets – with each one establishing a preference for a particular teat that they return to for each feed.

The barns and sheds are large and airy, with under-floor heating and fresh straw everywhere. The farmyard, recently re-built as part of an ongoing £3.5m building programme, is impeccably clean.

Some of today’s visitors are watching ferrets racing through tubes. “What we used to do before we had telly,” quips Richard. We walk on past Europe’s biggest tube maze and the adventure playground. Building of a large new function room, indoor play area and animal petting area is in progress.

The cafe is humming with brunchers and the coffee and cake gang. The enormous farm shop and deli – together equalling the size of a small supermarket – are heaving with fresh meat products from the farm and cakes, breads and pastries from the in-house bakery.

All is bright, fresh and appealing. Little wonder that this place is so busy even in November, and is set to turnover £5m this year.

What we’re looking at is a huge success story for the family and the area – a working farm, visitor attraction, retail and catering enterprise that also offers educational facilities and events like summer 2014’s Underneath the Stars folk festival – which headlined local lass Kate Rusby and brought brought 8,000 music lovers to a 12-acre field here.

A food festival and hopefully more music will be added this year. CHF employs 150 in high season and around 120 the rest of the year – with 11 members of the family involved one way or another, with the limited company run by brothers Robert, Richard and David Nicholson and their mum and dad Roger and Cynthia.

Roger was left to run the farm at the age of 16 after the death of his dad Charlie. By 1984, like many other smaller farms, Cannon Hall Farm (then 126 acres) was well into the red, and the bank advised the Nicholsons to sell up while there was still a little equity in the property.

They ignored that advice and instead sacked the banker. “We nearly went out of business,” says Robert, who’s managing director. “We were too small a beef and sheep business to be profitable. So we set about diversifying – first of all converting three Georgian farm building into houses and selling them.”

While other farmers saw diversification as one small farm shop selling vegetables and chutneys, the Nicholsons had more ambitious ideas. They opened to the public in 1989 and have over time added farm shop, deli, tea room, educational facilities, and there will soon be a 350-seat restaurant.

It’s hard to see how much more value could be squeezed out of the acreage, and all the profits go back into the development of the business, which has won various accolades including Top Visitor Experience in the White Rose Awards.

“We all have our areas of responsibility,” says Richard. “David is very much on top of logistics, I look after marketing and advertising, Mum is company secretary, Dad’s area is the animals and Robert has a finger in every pie. As well as being farmers, we’ve had to become self-taught business people. But you have to learn; you can’t stay in the dark ages.

“Barnsley Development Agency have been very supportive of CHF, and helped with training and financial management consultancy. Just over year ago, went down to Whitehall to meet Nick Clegg and Michael Heseltine to discuss the business possible support from the Regional Grown Fund, which is money aimed at helping areas like Barnsley.

“As a result we were given £280,000 which is going into the current improvements and additions, helping to keep jobs here and bring more people into the area.”

The recently extended butchery unit has added to the farm’s offer, and the ability to hang meat for longer was part of the attraction when the Nicholsons made a new working relationship last year with award-winning chef Tim Bilton.

Bilton, who’s from near Pontefract and trained both in France and in the kitchen of Raymond Blanc’s Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, had moved after five successful years from The Butcher’s Arms near Holmfirth to own and run a restaurant and tearoom at The Spiced Pear in Hepworth.

“My wife Julie and I booked dinner there for our anniversary and were completely blown away by the food,” says Robert. “Tim came out to talk to us and we really hit it off. The Spiced Pear is the kind of very classy restaurant we’d like to be associated with because we pride ourselves on the quality of our meat.

“I went back another day, unnannounced, with a package of different cuts and Tim suggested we got more of our staff over and had a cook and tasting session. He was really impressed with the meat, and so he came over to learn more about how we keep the animals and to see our set-up.”

There was a meeting of minds and since then CHF has supplied all of the restaurant’s beef and lamb. It’s a collaboration that taps straight into the ‘keep it local’ philosophy Tim Bilton espouses. With his own kitchen garden opposite the restaurant, seasonal produce features heavily on the menu, with other items generally being sourced within a 50-mile radius.

“I talk to the Graham Mallinson, one of the butchers at the farm every week, and we discuss what cuts I want. I’m particularly fond of more old-fashioned cuts like brisket,” says Tim.

“If I want meat that’s hung for longer than usual, that’s not a problem because their facilities are so large. The great thing is that Cannon Hall Farm’s standards are very high and so are mine.”

The Nicholson are constantly looking to improve, says Robert, 47. “We never feel we’re ‘there’ and think all the time about how to maximise our offer. Important to the success so far is that we have a fantastic team who really care, low turnover of staff, and a business that involves 11 members of the family. We all really like what we do and want to make it better all the time.”

Cannon Hall Farm, Bark House Lane, Cawthorne, Barnsley S75 4AT. Tel 01226 790427

• The Spiced Pear, Hepworth is on Sheffield Road, New Mill, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire HD9 7TP. 01484 683775,