Gainford couple shaping up for a fitter future for their manor house and 250-acre farm

Barforth Hall Fit Farm and Rural Retreat, at Gainford, aims to help not just guests kick-start a healthier future, but Paula and Jason, too

Paula Forrest, with her family, son Dakkan, daughter Dominique and husband Jason, at Barforth Hall Fit Farm, in County Durham
Paula Forrest, with her family, son Dakkan, daughter Dominique and husband Jason, at Barforth Hall Fit Farm, in County Durham

People often say to Paula Forrest that she doesn’t look like a farmer’s wife.

“I think they have this old-fashioned image of a woman in a pinny baking in an old farmhouse kitchen or looking after the hens, but in this day and age, farmers’ wives have to go out to work to bring in extra money.”

The 49-year-old is a trained fitness instructor with a sports science degree who has also managed an award-winning weight management programme working within the medical profession.

Nostalgic flower-sprigged aprons, scrubbed kitchen tables piled high with freshly baked bread and cakes, and rustic wire egg baskets, have rarely, if ever, been part of her everyday working repertoire.

That’s not to say she avoids donning the wellies and waterproof coat when the need arises.

It’s a blustery, squally Monday March morning and Paula is standing in the middle of a field in a curve of the River Tees, shouting into her mobile phone as the wind whips her voice away.

There’s been an emergency with one of the sheep, and as husband Jason is unavoidably detained elsewhere, Paula has stepped up to the mark. It’s what farmers’ wives do. While most these days may have paid jobs outside the home to help make ends meet, they still have to play an active part in farm life.

Paula is no different, except she’s now come back into the fold as the Forrests strive to ensure their 900-year-old manor house and the 250 acres of mixed arable and livestock land that go with it, survives into the future.

Sixteen months ago, Paula launched what – for the North East at least – must be one of the most unusual and unique farm diversification ventures.

Exploiting her background as a health and wellbeing expert in nearby Darlington, she has turned the family home at Barforth Hall Manor House, on the Durham-North Yorkshire border, into a residential fit farm.

Barforth Hall Fit Farm and Rural Retreat, at Gainford, aims to help not just guests kick-start a healthier future, but Paula and Jason, too.

A fusion of fitness, nutrition and relaxation, the centre makes full use of Barforth Hall’s historic and natural country amenities, set, as it is, in a sheltered spot on the banks of the Tees surrounded by rolling hills.

The business was Paula’s idea, but it won the backing of Jason, 51, whose parents took over Barforth Hall Manor House, and its associated farm, in 1989.

Paula, Jason, and their children, son Dakkan, 27, and daughter Dominique, 24, moved in at Christmas 2000.

By then, the romantically named Chapel Wing of the nine-bedroom house, the dining room and courtyard of which, date back to the 1200s, was disused.

With their children having flown the nest – Dakkan is a personal trainer and Dominque a junior doctor in Brighton – and the farm needing an injection of cash, Paula and Jason began looking at their options.

They mulled over diversifying before finally deciding to launch an enterprise closely aligned to Paula’s own skills.

She says: “Jason and I didn’t like the fact it was just the two of us rattling around in this big house. And it’s a house that needs to be kept up and running.

“With farming being very up and down, it is not a lucrative business. It couldn’t have supported the work that needs doing.”

The easy route would have been to invest in holiday cottages or open a bed and breakfast.

But Paula continues: “With so many in this area, it wasn’t really an option. I wanted to offer something different and for me, I felt because of the obesity epidemic and my background in health and fitness, launching the fit farm was the perfect solution.”

It is certainly unique to this area. There are boot-style farm camps running in the Lake District, but nothing offering a mix of meditation, relaxation, nutrition, exercise and male and female beauty treatments.

The initiative – which received £40,000 match funding from the Rural Development Programme for England, which is jointly financed by Defra and the European Union – has hit the ground running.

Catering for between eight and 12 guests at a time, Paula says: “Everyone who hears about it thinks it’s a great idea and guests have said what a peaceful and lovely spot this is.

“People are looking for something different. Guests like the idea of the countryside and the farm as a place to get fit, and the business is ticking away nicely.

“It is allowing us to think about doing the repairs we need, and in conjunction with the farming side, I think it will keep developing and allow us to secure the long-term future of Barforth Hall.”

That now includes Dakkan, who has returned home and is splitting his time between helping his dad on the farm and utilising his skills as a personal trainer to work with his mum.

“Dakkan is not just going to be a farmer in the years ahead, he is going to be juggling both sides,” Paula says. “The health side is now just as important as the farming for us.”

Barforth Hall Fit Farm makes full use of its tranquil and rural setting.

The exercise routines devised by Paula exploit the landscape, farm facilities and environment.

They can include Nordic walking, involving a one-mile ascent to the nearby village of Eppleby, press-ups using hay bales and fitness circuits along the river.

There are many rare historical features, too, which offer a pleasing backdrop, including the remains of the 12th-century St Lawrence Chapel, a dovecote and a Saxon bridge.

Paula builds in seasonal changes to her exercise programmes. The Forrests run a livery for between 16 and 20 horses, and Paula recalls last spring getting visitors to do their bicep curls overlooking the paddock where there were foals frolicking.

“The distraction can help you get through the exercises,” she says with a laugh.

Paula wants her guests to be inspired to make positive changes, or to at least be set off on the right path to a more fulfilling and healthy life.

Hopefully, the same can be said for Barforth Hall Manor House and farm.

“Gone are the days of the traditional farm. Diversification has to be a consideration for everyone now and farmers need to be looking at what else they can be doing,” Paula concludes.

“For us the future feels more secure than the uncertainty of just relying on farming.”

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