Diversification might be something of buzz word in the North East farming community, but few have embraced the concept as wholeheartedly as Richard Shell.
After spending several years in banking in Scotland, the ambitious 24-year-old has returned to the family farm in Northumberland with big ideas to create what he hopes will be a one-of-a-kind wedding venue that will not only provide a stand-out experience but will - if all goes to plan - support the farming business at Doxford Farm for many years to come.
The concept for Doxford Barn Weddings revolves around the conversion of two barns, which once housed a farm shop, but which have lain vacant for several years.
What is currently a courtyard will become the Great Barn - a oak-beamed facility, retaining many original features, that can house 160 dining guests.
A 18th century stone reception room, The Cart Shed, then, will cater for smaller ceremonies, while The Forge, which will the original bellows and fireplace, will act as further reception.
The development will also contain a bar, while Doxford Lake, the farmhouse gardens and lawn on the 550 acre site will provide a picturesque setting for speeches, drinks reception and photographs.
Crucial to the concept, though, is the idea of providing a wedding ‘experience’ rather than simply a wedding day, the intention being that guests will have exclusive access to the facility for several days, giving the bride and groom time with family and friends in the run-up to and aftermath of their big day.
It helps, of course, that Doxford Farm already boasts seven self-catering holiday cottages, providing accommodation for up to 40 people less than 20 yards from the wedding venue.
“I believe there’s a need for something like this in the area,” said Richard, who will be managing director of the new venture, taking on around 10-15 part-time employees.
“This kind of project is very popular down south, but not so common up north.
“Northumberland is the tenth most popular county to get married in, and my mindset is that we can fill that niche.
“We’re not here to tell people how they should run their weddings, but what would be impossible elsewhere will be possible here.”
For Doxford Farm, diversification in itself is nothing new, Richard’s family having innovated consistently through the years to support their farming operations.
His mother, Sarah Shell, for example, was among the first to embrace the farm shop concept with Doxford County Store - a business that only became unviable in the aftermath of foot and mouth.
The self-catering holiday cottages, meanwhile, have been there for around 30 years, while the farm started offering bed and breakfast around 40 years ago.
Richard represents the third generation of the family to work there, his brother John and father Tom taking care of the arable and livestock farming elements.
The plan now is that the wedding business will fit seamlessly into the overall enterprise, keeping it strong even through tough economic times.
“I did my university dissertation on how the next generation of farmers can maintain viable businesses,” Richard said.
“To me, the answer is diversification - looking for alternatives to bring additional revenues is crucial in making sure you’re looking after the land in the way you should.”
Richard, however, believes the knock-on benefits could extend much further within the community and is keen to make use of local suppliers where possible.
North East real ales, for example, will feature in the Turnbull Bar - named after Richard’s grandfather Douglas Turnbull - while catering teams from The Plough in Alnwick and The Jolly Fisherman at Craster will ensure quality local food features on the menu.
“I left Northumberland for work reasons and a lot of my friends also left,” Richard said.
“So, my thinking is that if you can keep business in the area, you can keep locals in the area.
“That’s high on my priorities and I’m sure it’s something other people would want to support as well.”
Indeed, Richard has had an enthusiastic response so far.
Not only is the business receiving regular enquires - and even some bookings - but local businesses have been more than happy to jump on board.
“Everybody I have approached about playing a part in this has been immensely welcoming of what we’re offering,” Richard said.
“The feedback has been very, very positive.
“The way I see it is that if we’re using Pilgrims Coffee, from Holy Island, for example, people will enquire about that it will bring benefits for that business too.
“I really hope that a good business-to-business relationship can be built here.”
In all aspects, it’s a huge project that’s required not only considerable sums of money, but - with the need for listing building and change of use consent - a fair amount of work in the planning process alone.
A planning application is now in the hands of Northumberland County Council, with Richard expecting a decision to be taken next month.
By January, then, building work should have begun, the plan being that the venue will open its doors in June or July next year.
“It’s an ambitious project, but I’m more excited than nervous,” Richard said.
“I worked hard in Edinburgh to pay for it, so hopefully that will pay off.
“You’ve got to take risks to do well in life, but I’m confident it will work. I’m determined that it will.”
Doxford Barn Weddings will be holding an open day on November 15, between 11am and 5pm, during which Richard will share his vision with the public.
“There will be a number of suppliers here on that day as well,” he said.
“People can come along and talk about their requirements and make provisional booking if they wish - we’re working on a first come, first served basis.
“It will be great to get the locals in too so they can see what we have to offer.”