Abandoned as a baby, Carol Cavendish grew up escaping through fairytales. Now she tells Lucy Oates how she has built her own land of make-believe in North Yorkshire.
As a child, Carol Cavendish sought sanctuary from her unhappy school life in fairy tales. The books that she spent hours reading allowed her to escape into a world of make-believe and were the start of a lifelong love affair with children’s literature.
Now a mother of five and successful entrepreneur, Carol is working with her partner, Karl, to transform a smallholding on the edge of the North York Moors into North Shire, a magical place for families to stay that draws inspiration from her favourite fictional characters.
“I’m dyslexic, so was pretty much written off at school,” says Carol, who is also penning a children’s book of her own.
“In the 1980s you got pushed to the side; you were considered a bit thick. I remember being put in special classes and I hated it.
“I didn’t like going to school anyway as I always wanted to be near my mum; I’d been left at the hospital as a baby and adopted by a family from Sheffield. My mum used to read me bedtime stories and leave books by my bed. I taught myself to read and would hide away with books by Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and fairy tales.”
Given her difficult start in life, Carol is determined to ensure that her five children, who range in age from two to 18, experience a carefree childhood.
“I know what it’s like to be an unhappy child; I remember the heartache. I believe children should always be happy.
“As a family, we try to do things for other children too – during the refugee crisis we hired a van, drove to France and went to the hidden camps that you don’t see on the news; it was heartbreaking.”
Since Carol met Karl 10 years ago, they’ve built the large, secure family unit that she always craved. Fittingly, given her love of literature, on more than one occasion parallels have been drawn between the Cavendish clan and two famous fictional families – the Larkins from HE Bates’s Darling Buds of May and the Weasleys from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
It’s a world away from Carol’s former life as a single mother to her two eldest children, Daisy and Charlie.
She worked as a professional singer, performing soul, jazz and blues music with a 20-piece band, but met Karl when she trained as a mixed martial arts instructor.
“I started teaching mixed martial arts because it allowed me to be with my kids, whereas singing didn’t. I wanted to be a proper mum.”
Carol had made the monumental decision to sell up and move to New Zealand when Karl entered her life and she’s only half joking when she says: “He saved us all – he really was like a Prince Charming. He brought us all together as a family.”
Having previously enjoyed a stay in a traditional gypsy caravan in Scotland with her children, when Carol spotted one for sale online, it was the catalyst for a dramatic lifestyle change. At that time the family lived in a terraced house in Sheffield, but having bought another three caravans, they began searching for a family home where they could also build a new business.
“I’d always had this idea about finding a fairy tale place; it was what kept me sane,” admits Carol.
Their quest took them all over the country and they ended up living with Carol’s parents for a year. They were on the verge of buying a derelict farmhouse when Carol did a final trawl on the internet and spotted a smallholding close to the village of Liverton, 15 miles north of Whitby. When the couple headed to North Yorkshire to view it, she instantly knew she’d found what she was looking for.
“It was calling me. It had been a petting farm attraction called Bunny Land, but it had fallen into disrepair and was a dying business. It was in tragic shape really, so we decided to take it in hand and do something totally original. When our gypsy caravans arrived on site after a year-and-a-half of waiting, it was the most amazing feeling.”
The property comprises six acres of land, a stone farmhouse and an assortment of outbuildings, but they also inherited 250 rabbits, 200 guinea pigs, six cats, a peacock and a handful of cockerels. Most were rehomed, with the exception of Merlin, the peacock, who still lives with the Cavendish family and has been joined by a peahen.
Almost seven years on, Carol and Karl have added three new members to their family in the form of daughters Rosie, Holly and Poppy, but have been busy nurturing their new business venture.
Carol says: “We launched North Shire two years ago and it has been a lot to deal with but, from a business point of view, all the little challenges are a great learning curve. Buying this place has been the best business course you could ever go on.”
A cottage next to the farmhouse that had previously been rented out has been transformed into Storybook Cottage, which is just as whimsical as its name suggests. Carol’s creativity and imagination know no bounds. The cottage’s staircase looks like a huge stack of books and a ‘hidden’ bedroom is accessed by climbing into a wardrobe, in homage to CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Everywhere you look, there are charming finishing touches designed with little people – and the young at heart – in mind. Set beneath pine trees in the paddock are several gypsy caravans and shepherd’s huts,.
Boasting views across the moors to the sea, a Hobbit House is accessed via a round, yellow door carved into a grassy embankment – just like something from JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It has round, stained glass windows and quirky fixtures and fittings, including a bathroom sink made from a huge jam-making pan.
Black cats, peacocks and chickens free range around the grounds, which are decorated with fairy lights, fairy doors, toadstools, wood carvings and a rock formation reminiscent of Stonehenge. Seen through the eyes of a child, a visit to North Shire is like stepping into the pages of your very own fairy tale and this was always Carol’s intention: “We wanted to create somewhere light and magical. We’d really like to inspire parents to support children that need help, especially those who are struggling or not ‘perfect’ in the academic sense.
“Fairy tales are what kept me going and they’re the reason we’re creating North Shire. We want children to be able to come here with their families and have a complete break. My adoptive parents were the biggest sceptics when we told them our plans, but they love it now.”
The Cavendish family were overwhelmed by the success of a Fairy Festival held at North Shire last year and are creating more accommodation – five additional Hobbit Houses and a Hagrid’s Hut inspired by the Harry Potter stories. In the not-too-distant future, they plan an enchanted barn for weddings and events, a café and a new, extended Weasley-style kitchen for Storybook Cottage. Carol also plans to launch a spin-off interiors business.
She says: “It’s about being brave enough to start your own business, but also about being unique and thinking outside the box. Take your vision or dream and go for it; you only live once. It’s scary, but doing what you love and loving what you do is vital.”