KEEPING BUSY:  Richard Darlington, who combines life as a commercial sheep farmer with helping to run Hall Hill as a visitor attraction
KEEPING BUSY: Richard Darlington, who combines life as a commercial sheep farmer with helping to run Hall Hill as a visitor attraction

IT was almost 40 years ago that Hall Hill Farm, near Lanchester, welcomed its first visitors and since the opening date the site has undergone considerable expansion.

However, Richard Darlington, who works alongside his mother Ann, continues to run a commercial sheep flock comprising 450 Mules ewes.

They go to the Charollais tup, with lambs taken to about 45kgs and sold deadweight. The farm also has some 400 acres of arable land, which is managed by Mr Darlington’s uncle, David Gibson, in a rotation of wheat, barley and oilseed rape.

“Our lambing period is flexible, because it has to coincide with the Easter school holidays,” explains Mr Darlington.

“Lambing time is a huge attraction for our visitors and they particularly enjoy watching the lambs being born. There is always a round of applause when a lamb is safely delivered.

“If problems arise, people in general are very understanding and sympathetic, as long as everything is explained clearly. We also have a ‘Lambcam,’ so that people can view the lambing shed on our website.”

Among the other livestock for visitors to see are llamas, alpacas, ponies, donkeys, wallabies and chickens, as well as a flock of Jacob sheep and a small herd of Highland cows. These are also enjoyed by the 15,000 or so school children who travel to Hall Hill Farm as part of their studies.

Other attractions include a crazy golf course, a grass sledging track and a water wars area with water cannons. A puppet show is held daily for the amusement of the younger visitors.

The business closes in November and in January, but that does not mean that the team takes a well-deserved break.

Some 50 staff members are employed, with a high percentage having worked at the visitor farm since its launch.

“As well as maintaining the premises in tiptop condition, it is also essential that new attractions are added each year,” says Mr Darlington.

“The majority of tasks cannot be completed while we are open seven days a week and so it is always a rush to complete new projects.

“We sell annual tickets to 5,000 members and these regular visitors in particular expect to see something different whenever they call in. To maintain their interest we have themed days at Halloween and at other times of the year, including Christmas, of course.”

Hall Hill provides an opportunity for the public to learn more about farming and Mr Darlington points to a number of popular misconceptions.

“It is very common to find that people are under the impression that we need to have one ewe and one tup per lamb and likewise a cow and a bull to produce each calf. That would make the price of beef and lamb out of reach for most of the population,” he says.

“Many of our visitors are surprised to find out how quickly a lamb will mature, as they think that it takes years before they are ready for slaughter.

“We used to keep goats and there is a lack of awareness over goat’s milk, which some people have never heard of. But the most unusual remark came from a visitor who mistook a Friesian calf for a sheepdog.”

Mr Darlington credits some of the site’s success to the co-operation which exists between similar businesses around the country which have joined the National Farm Attractions Network (NFAN) organisation.

“There is a very good attitude among NFAN members. We all experience the same problems and we enjoy meeting up to share our ideas. Rather than competing against each other, we come together to find solutions that will benefit all members. I think it would be advantageous if this approach was more widespread within the farming community.”

The visitor farm business has been a resounding success and plans are underway to expand the seating in the tearoom from 80 to 250 places and to employ a chef to cook more substantial meals than the light snacks that are currently offered.

However, the day-to-day running means long working hours and a lot of hard work according to Mr Darlington, who nevertheless finds time to act as vice-chairman of the County Durham branch of the Young Farmers’ Club.

“Farming is a doddle, compared with managing a farm visitor centre,” he comments. “It is certainly not an easy option, partly because of all of the legislation that is required. In order to offer donkey rides, for example, we have to hold a riding establishment licence, while we have to have a pet shop licence for the rabbit and guinea pig petting area and we also have a supervisor in the building full-time. For the schoolchildren there are three separate legislative requirements and of course our insurance premiums are very high.

“We have to be very vigilant about hygiene and keep the place looking immaculate, as people today have very high expectations. However, we like a challenge and it has become a way of life, just the same as the farming. The two businesses are run side-by-side because I would not want to give up the livestock; I still enjoy working with the sheep.”

Hall Hill Farm Awards

THE farm has won numerous awards, including the NFAN Best Open Farm in the UK last year and second place in the Visit England Best Visitor Attraction in the UK competition.