Northumberland farm business Wheelbirks Parlour wins national award

Farm diversification project praised for its fast growth, willingness to embrace new ideas and friendly approach to customer service

 

A thriving Northumberland farm business has picked up a national award.

The Parlour at Wheelbirks, near Stocksfield, triumphed over dozens of entries from around the UK to win the Rural Enterprise category in the 2014 Farm Business Food and Farming Industry Awards.

Lucinda Richardson, who runs the business, travelled to London with her husband Tom to receive the accolade at a ceremony in the House of Commons Members’ Dining Room.

She said: “We’ve gone for regional awards before, but never a national one, but we thought: ‘What have we got to lose?’ Producing our application took a lot of work, but it was worth it.

“The judges said we had put ourselves out there with massive enthusiasm, which is really gratifying to hear, having worked so hard on it.

“On top of constantly being thanked by people who come to visit us, it’s wonderful to have somebody say that we actually deserve an award for it.”

Farming operations have been carried out at Wheelbirks for five generations - with a pedigree Jersey herd being introduced in 1925 - and are now led by Tom Richardson and his brother Hugh.

The concept for The Parlour first arose in 2002, when the outbreak of Foot and Mouth forced the Richardsons to think carefully about the future direction of the farm.

“We didn’t get it here, but we were about two miles from the culling zone,” Mrs Richardson said. “That made us think about what we were going to do and how we were going to sustain ourselves.

“No one was making Jersey ice cream, so we went on a course to look into how to do it and sold our sheep so we could buy the equipment we needed.”

From left, Richard Means from award sponsor, Strutt & Parker, with Lucinda and Tom Richardson and Giles Brandreth
From left, Richard Means from award sponsor, Strutt & Parker, with Lucinda and Tom Richardson and Giles Brandreth
 

At first, Wheelbirks sold to the likes of restaurants and hotels, gaining a significant boost when its products were accepted at Alnwick Gardens. Around 2007, the Richardsons committed to opening their own venue through a barn conversion, part-funded by Defra.

“I gave up my job as a midwife to set it up and run it,” Lucinda said. “I had no idea that, after we opened in March 2010, it would become the success it is today. But year on year, our growth has been phenomenal.

“Within two years, for example, we’d gone from having four members of staff to 40 and we still have that number on our books.”

Part of the success, she said, was down to the quality of the ice cream and other freshly prepared foods the business served.

As the award judges noted, The Parlour - which can seat around 140 people inside and a further 60 outside - has been constantly innovative when it comes to trying new things, from Christmas nativities to Open Farm Sundays, fairs and even weddings.

“Although it was just Tom and I who went to London for this award, everybody put in the work and they all deserve it,” Mrs Richardson said. “It gives us a massive feel-good boost and helps us when it comes to thinking of new ideas. It can be so tempting sometimes to think that you can just sit back because it’s doing well.

“But you can’t do that - you have to keep your finger on the pulse.”

The awards, run by Farm Business magazine, were presented by the evening’s speaker, the author, broadcaster, actor, entertainer and former MP Gyles Brandreth.

In their report, the judges said of Wheelbirks: “A very clever concept and something that is really delivering a big difference to a small family farming business.

“It utilizes its geography very well, boosts local employment and engages with the public.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer