Nicholson brothers from Barnsley’s Cannon Hall Farm on their new book Living Our Best Lives

The Nicholson family at Barnsley’s Cannon Hall Farm boast TV deals and industry awards. But a new book details years of struggle before their success. John Blow reports.

Brothers David and Rob Nicholson at Cannon Hall Farm.
Brothers David and Rob Nicholson at Cannon Hall Farm.

“We’re surrounded by sheep in the field at Gunthwaite between Cawthorne and Penistone,” declares Rob Nicholson when he and brother Dave tune into our Zoom call.

Run of the mill stuff for a farming family.

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Yet something about his manner as he flips the phone around shortly after to share the beautiful South Yorkshire countryside is reminiscent of the breezy style which has made them a hit with online and television audiences.

Rob Nicholson with one of the farm's piglets.

“Can you see all the lambs round us?,” he says.

“Looking into the distance there, it’s the most picturesque place you could ever imagine but people don’t always appreciate Barnsley as having the best reputation.

“A lady came to me in the shop the other week and she says, ‘I love your programme – you’re just the right amount of Barnsley, you make me proud to come from the town. And that meant a lot’.”

Brothers Rob, David, Richard and their father Roger, along with the wider family, have certainly made an impression.

Recent highlights include a Points of Light Award from 10 Downing Street for their spirit-lifting work streaming daily videos which reached 150,000 people during the first lockdown, appearing on various Channel 5 programmes and are now organising what they hope will be “big party” for 10,000 people later this year.

Not content with juggling such ventures, though, the family also has a book out.

Living Our Best Lives is written with author Nicole Carmichael, who was raised in York but lives in London, with the family’s input.

Because it wasn’t always a life of Christmas cards from the Prime Minister at Cannon Hall Farm, and the book details years of struggle.

Rob says: “My mum and dad are really special. They’re getting older – you know, we’re all getting older – and their health isn’t just as robust as I’d like it to be but we’re trying hard to get that to where it needs to be, and I just wanted to chronicle their life and the journey that we’ve all been on, from getting a letter from the bank manager saying ‘Look, if you don’t sell up now, you’ll have no equity left in the place, you’ve never made a living, you’re not going to make a living, face facts’.

“And we fought back from that in the mid-80s to the point now where we’ve got a reasonably thriving business. We work hard, we work every day in it but it’s going in the right direction. So I just wanted their efforts to be put in print as a tribute to them, really.”

David, 50, adds: “We’ve all made sacrifices, but they’ve made the biggest really, I’d say.”

More than 60 years ago, their paternal grandfather, Charlie, bought Cannon Hall Farm after his previous land, Bank End Farm in Worsbrough, which had belonged to the Nicholsons since 1650, was compulsorily purchased for council housing.

“Luckily, Cannon Hall Farm came up for sale and they were able to buy it – £7,100 I think they paid for it,” says Rob.

“Then, really tragically, my granddad, who I never met, died six months later, leaving my dad, as a 15-year-old boy, to take on the farm. He says in the book he made many mistakes but hopefully, you know, he did learn from them – but it’s a tough gig being 15, nearly 16, and having that responsibility to look after.

“He struggled for quite a lot of years through the 1960s and 70s, got to the 80s – that was crisis time, that’s when the bank came knocking and said ‘Look, you owe too much money now, you’re never going to make any – you need to sell up’. He had the idea to open up to the public.”

What an idea it transpired to be – the farm is now on of the region’s top attractions, hosting in normal circumstances around 320,000 visitors a year.

It took around four years to get the farm looking right before in 1989 they opened to the public.

Rob says: “We took 20 quid first day, 40 quid the second day. Easter Sunday we took £120 and then Easter Monday £140. I’ll never forget the amount, and we were thrilled with that. We thought, crikey, there’s a living here to be had.”

He adds: “You could see no positive outcome until we got the idea of opening up to the public and it was a case of ‘Build it and they will come’, and thankfully, they did. And we’ve managed to progress gradually since then to a point where we won Yorkshire’s best visitor attraction the last time it was on [taking a bronze at the White Rose Awards].”

However the book’s not all doom and gloom, and includes just the sort of surreal and charming anecdotes one can expect from bygone rural Yorkshire.

One is of their grandfather’s prize show bull, Sam.

“If it won he’d take it to the pub,” says David, “and he’d buy it a pint of stout.

“And it would bellow with delight as it drunk it down.”

Comical, also, was the figure it cut next to their grandfather.

“He was five foot, the bull was six foot, so he was always looking up at it,” says Rob.

Humorous tales of Ozzy Horseborn and Jon Bon Pony get a look in along with other friendly and familiar animals. “We’re farming family memories now as well as animals and crops,” says Rob.

The latest series of Channel 5’s Springtime on the Farm returns for four nights from Monday at 8pm, capturing life during the busiest time of the year as hundreds of thousands of lambs, goats, piglets and calves are born when the new season takes hold.

Farmers from across the country will be featured in the series as well as the Nicholson brothers and a host of familiar faces.

Meanwhile, the family has also built up a community that pays for extra online content, and even sell T-shirts and hoodies.

Rob says: “I’m certainly feeling lucky really. It’s been the worst year ever for so many people and whilst it’s been a struggle, I’ve had a granddaughter born...We’ll have done 31 episodes on the telly. We’ve just had a really good year.

“Hard work, but we’ve given it our all and the main thing is all our family’s healthy. We’ve done the lockdown seriously and no one’s got Covid and, touch wood, everyone’s doing well. We’ve had our vaccines.”

As the business opens again on April 12 the brothers will be planning to host the 5 on the Farm Festival between August 28 and 30 – an industry showcase fronted by stars such as Ben Fogle.

Rob, 52, says: “I said the other day that if I never left Yorkshire in my life, I would be perfectly happy and I mean that.

“Not that there aren’t loads of nice places all around the world but Yorkshire’s got everything – it’s got the coast, it’s got unbelievable scenery.

“I’m an absolute Yorkshireman at heart – I’m more Yorkshire than David is, because we had a DNA test.”

Now that’s family history for you.