Last week, as the rest of the UK were ordered indoors, Richard Darlington headed outside. Confronting Storm Emma’s biting winds and wild blizzards, Richard – a working shepherd – faced a problem. He needed to find his sheep. “It’s not easy to find them in snow drifts this high”, he says, reaching his hand high above his head. Armed with a stick, Richard therefore walked the length of his land, prodding the ground below him. “Every now and again, I’d hit something. It was a sheep stuck beneath in the snow”.
Once he’d located his lost flock, Richard’s job was not to pull the animals out, but to pack them in – even more tightly. “For those trapped underground, we drove scaffolding poles through the snow so that they could get some air”. I tried to imagine the scene: dog walkers passing by as the sound of muffled bleats echoed through the steel poles. “Some people think it’s cruel, but it’s much warmer and safer for the sheep to stay where they are. I pulled one sheep out and he didn’t make it”, Richard explains. “I didn’t finish work until 3am that day”.
Bordering the wilds of the Durham Dales, Hall Hill Farm has been in Richard’s family since 1925. Operating not only as a working farm, it is also now an award-winning tourist attraction – welcoming some 75,000 visitors a year. Offering access to freshly hatched, buttercup yellow chicks; wobbly lambs; jumping goats; alpacas; gobbling turkeys; pigs; donkeys, two wallabies and the farm’s famed Sheep Races (my money’s on Fleece Lightening), Hall Hill Farm boasts one bona fide celebrity: Richard.
“I don’t have a passport, so I’ve never been abroad”, Richard explains as we enter the farm’s mist-shrouded yard. “But, I don’t need to. I just want to make sure the farm is a success and that visitors enjoy themselves. Plus one of my favourite things to do is just to go walking. You don’t need to go far for that”. He shows me photographs of the dramatic North Pennine landscape on his phone. “I can show people now I’ve got myself smartphone!” he laughs. “I only had ten pound Nokias before. I was too busy for all of that”. He shrugs, putting the battered phone back in his pocket.
I’m suddenly envious of twenty-six year old Richard, spending his days dedicated to his family farm, his animals and his now multi-award winning business. Whilst the rest of us are glued to our phones, fussing over creating the perfect ‘grid’, Richard is living a (very) real life – hunting for snow hidden sheep and overseeing the creation of the “Mercedes Benz” of his farm: the new indoor soft play area. “I’m most proud of that – and maybe my new visitor toilets,” he says. “I’ll let you try them out later if you’re lucky”.
It’s for these reasons – his dedication to his farm – that Richard has been nominated for a Tourism Superstar Award by the Daily Mirror; an award that recognises his willingness to go above and beyond for his business and visitors. With English Tourism Week fast approaching, it’s an award we are here to talk to him about.
Arriving on the farm on a damp, misty morning, Richard assures us that normally you can see for miles; the shape of the North Pennines visible in the background. Today, however, a thick fog hangs over the fields: the animals faint, grey silhouettes on the horizon. Somewhere, the sound of a loan lamb rings out.
Quickly moving us into the warmth of a stable, Richard continues to talk quickly about his farm – his customers, his animals and his plans. “With lambing season coming up, we’ll be expecting over 20,000 visitors”, he says, leaning down into a warmly lit pen to grab a handful of chicks. “And I’ll also be appearing on Channel 5’s ‘Lambing Live’ show”. He says this casually, thrusting the small, fluffy birds into my hands.
Stroking the chick’s silky-soft wings, I ask if he’s nervous to be on live television. “Not really – I’ve done this stuff before. I also go ‘live’ on Facebook regularly, which does well. The farm is really popular on social media”. He says this part distractedly, frowning as a little boy falls over nearby, scraping his knee on the ground. “Mum, can you get a clean pair of trousers from the [farm] shop?” he shouts, juggling a handful of chicks. Ann – Richard’s Mum – appears from behind the door like a rapid response unit, ready to help the boy out of his muddy trousers. After quickly checking in on a volunteer (“make sure nobody squeezes the chicks too hard”), we’re off to our next stop – Richard barely drawing a breath.
It’s this natural flair for business management, multi-tasking and innovation that has led this young farmer to become something of a celebrity in the English tourism world. As we move over to the goats – the tiny, bleating kids bouncing around their pens, Richard lists a few of his most recent awards: the Northern Young Farmer of the Year, 2017; a finalist for a Visit England Gold Award; winner of Tourism Experience of the Year in the North East England Tourism Awards 2013, and now, a finalist in a national tourism superstar awards. “The young farmer award meant a lot as my Granddad had just passed away and it would have been nice for him to have been there. I think he’d have been proud”.
He shouts this whilst energetically pumping the foot pump on the hand washing station, attempting to get the frozen water to flow. “It’s important the kids can wash their hands”, he adds as an immediate afterthought – his mind quickly switching back to the task in hand.
Rounding the corner – passing giant trampoline pillows, a pen of sleeping pigs, and some honking geese – a tractor and cart appear. Climbing aboard, Richard energetically wipes down the seats for us, continuing with his story. “When I was younger, Foot and Mouth hit our farm. The army had to come in and cull 1,500 of our sheep and 200 cows. It was a really horrible time and nobody knew if the farm would survive”. As we lurched along the perimeters of the farm’s fields, Richard explains that his brother, who was only seven at the time, was so affected by the event that he eventually moved to London, giving up farming entirely. “But I knew I wanted to continue the farm, I just needed to work out a way to do it”.
Aged 18, Richard decided to study Agriculture at Newcastle University, making sure he was close to home so that he could save as much as possible. Rather than going out, or spending his money on vats of WKD vodka, Richard used his student loan to buy 500 sheep for the family farm, helping to restart the business. After graduation, he then set up a nutrition company, dedicated to cows and sheep. Working on the farm during the day, Richard devoted his time to the new company at night, working until midnight most evenings. Within a couple of years the business was a roaring success – the product of late nights, hard work and an obvious knack for bovine diets. But rather than continuing with the business, Richard sold the company and invested the money back into his family farm. “I just didn’t want to give up on it”, he adds, looking out over the fields as we roll slowly past.
We finish our encounter with one of England’s Tourism Superstars with a cup of tea in the farm’s warm tearoom. On the way, he points out where his Grandma lives – a little cottage just a stone’s throw from the tearoom. His Uncle’s house is opposite. I ask him what he wants to do next: what big plans does the agricultural world’s version of Alan Sugar have? “Each year, I add something to the farm. This year it’ll be the outdoor play area, but I already have some ideas for next year”. I wonder when he sleeps – does he ever want a holiday? To be a typical twenty-something travelling to Vietnam, Instagramming the entire thing along the way? “Not really”, he replies. “From here I can drive over to Northumberland, where one of the Hairy Bikers has a farm. It’s beautiful out that way. Or over the road is Matt Baker (of Blue Peter and The One Show fame) who is a mate. I have a lot going on”.
Richard, it seems, is not only a tourism superstar – patching up kids’ knees, birthing lambs and saving his family business whilst studying – but is also an unwitting champion of what we have spent the last year learning to love: the micro-adventure. “In this area of the country, county Durham and upwards, there’s so much to see and do that you don’t need to go far. It’s stunning”. His enthusiasm is so infectious that it’s difficult to disagree with him.
Quickly draining his tea, he gives us each a huge, warm hug. Lamb feeding is about to start – bottles of warm milk being handed to rows of little hands – and Richard (of course) is overseeing it. “Enjoy the rest of your time in this part of the country”, he says “and check out High Force – my favourite place to walk!” And with that, he is gone – disappearing into a crowd of frenzied five year olds and wriggling lambs.
Richard Darlington, you are a true tourism superstar.
We visited Richard and his farm as part of our role as Visit England Ambassadors ahead of English Tourism Week, yet all views and stories are our own (and Richard’s!) To vote for Richard in the English Tourism Superstar Awards, please click here. And please do – he’s an asset to England’s tourism industry.