In a previous life Karen Wilkin enjoyed jet-setting careers.
In her 20s and early 30s she worked both as a fabric buyer for Textilion and as a designer for North East-based outdoor clothing and equipment company, Berghaus.
Her work saw her travel the world. To the envy of friends and family, one week she could be in Greece, the next Thailand or India.
Now the furthest the 52 year old strays from her home in Seahouses on the beautiful north Northumberland coast, is to the farmers’ markets at Kelso or Morpeth and the odd carefully selected food festival.
Her cosmopolitan life changed when on a return visit to see her parents in Seahouses where she had grown up, she met her husband Patrick Wilkin, 42.
He was working on one of the commercial fishing boats plying their trade from the village’s picturesque Victorian harbour.
She fell pregnant with their eldest child, Dagan, 21, and decided she’d had enough of living out of a suitcase.
In 1999 she and Patrick took over the reins at the family run Swallow Fish and Karen went from being a fashionista to a fish wife.
Laughing she says: “When I first met Patrick I never wore jeans. I dressed in nice, designer clothes and had lovely hair. I have seen a big change in my life. I have no regrets, though.”
Not that everyone would fancy the idea of swapping fashion for fish.
While Dagan – who in his spare time moonlights as lead guitar with classic rock group States of Panic – has joined his parents at Swallow Fish, the Wilkins’ eldest daughter, Brogan, 19, is less enchanted with the family business.
Her life is taking her in a completely different direction. She has just opened her own Brogan’s Beauty salon in Seahouses.
Karen certainly hasn’t felt like a fish out of water since she and Patrick – who comes from a long line of Seahouses-based fishermen – took over Swallow Fish.
They acquired the business that operates from the aptly named Fisherman’s Kitchen in South Street from John Swallow, whose family had started the venture way back in 1843.
Karen says John had treated Patrick like a son and her husband had initially gone to work for him in the early 1990s.
It had been intended that John would mentor Karen and Patrick when they bought the business off him. But he sadly died in August 1999.
“It was horrendous,” Karen recalls. “But luckily Patrick’s background was in the harbour and the fishing boats. His father was a fisherman and Patrick had always been involved with the industry.
“Running your own business is a major hurdle to jump, but Patrick wasn’t wet behind the ears. He had worked with John and gone with him to North Shields and Eyemouth to buy fish, so he knew what he was about and what he should be looking for.”
Karen’s comments about travelling to North Shields and Eyemouth are telling. It’s ironic that while Swallow Fish is only a stone’s throw from Seahouses’ harbour, the Wilkins can’t source all their wet fish from their doorstep.
In its heyday Seahouses supported 10 herring yards. By the 1970s around 30 boats, including a small fleet of trawlers, still fished out the harbour. But by 2003 the last of the trawlers had gone, bringing to an end the golden age for the port.
Now it’s just crab and lobster boats and pleasure ships taking tourists to the nearby Farne Islands that ply their trade.
“You can’t land herring on the North East coast anymore,” Karen explains. “We have to get it from Iceland or Norway. We have no option. It’s a real shame that we can no longer sell locally caught herring, especially as the herring industry was once so vital to Seahouses.
“Seahouses once boasted a massive herring fleet. But not one trawler is registered now in Seahouses.
“We have to reserve our herring stocks in Iceland and Norway so we can be sure we get the best quality.”
Thankfully, some fish can still be obtained locally. Wild salmon and sea trout come from Beadnell Bay along with sea bass and grey mullet. Crabs and lobsters come via Seahouses and Beadnell and oysters from Lindisfarne.
Other wet fish is brought in from North Shields.
Much of the herring is destined for Swallow Fish’s famous smokehouses. They were originally set up to cash in on Seahouses’ supremacy as a herring port.
First opened in 1843 when Swallow Fish came into being, they are among the oldest in the country. While they closed for a period, John Swallow reopened them in 1980, and some of the equipment dates back to the turn of the last century.
They are a huge part of both Swallow Fish’s and Seahouses’ heritage. During the week the smokehouses, which Karen likens to being inside “a bat cave” because the walls are so black, are filled with kippers (herrings), smoked fish and shellfish.
The Wilkins still employ the same smoking methods carried out on site all those years ago. They use traditional oak sawdust with no additives, preservatives or colourings, which allows the natural smoky flavour of the fish to come through.
It’s one of the reasons Swallow Fish earned the accolade of being one of celebrity chef Rick Stein’s original food heroes.
They’ve also won two gold stars for their traditional oaked smoked haddock and one gold star for their kipper pate at the prestigious Great Taste Awards – regarded as the Oscars of the food industry.
Swallow Fish’s 171 year heritage and ceaseless pursuit of quality is, Karen believes, at the core of the firm’s continued success and what she believes will take it on into the next century.
It was the heritage that attracted Karen to the venture and still holds her interest. And it is what brings many first time customers their way.
“I came back to Seahouses after being away for so long and I realised there was so much I didn’t know, and I suppose I have been on a voyage of discovery ever since,” she says.
“Other people are intrigued by the fact we have such old smokehouses and that brings a lot through the door. But then we tend to find it is the produce and the high quality that brings people back again.
“We draw them in with one and then catch and hook them with another.
“We are very proud that we have a mail order list of more than 3,000 people across the UK and customers as far away as France, the Netherlands and Germany.”
Visits to the smokehouses aren’t officially available – Karen realises they are missing a trick – but the Wilkins will usually oblige with a private tour for anyone who asks.
Their most famous visitor dropped by in July 2012 when the Prince of Wales, who was on a tour of the area, stopped off at the shop and inspected the smokehouses.
Swallow Fish currently employs six people, including a 16 year old apprentice who is due to start on July 1, and they have a part-time post to fill.
The new apprentice will train as an artisan fish processor with Patrick via Northumberland College. Patrick will teach him the ancient process of smoking the fish so the unique skill will be kept alive as well as the mail order, retail, wholesale and customer service side of the enterprise.
He will then be ready to be employed working with the fresh fish, shellfish and running the smokehouses.
It is all part of Karen and Patrick’s plans for the future – one that will hopefully include Dagan one day taking over the business.
“We are positive there is a future for Swallow Fish,” Karen says. “We are adamant that we don’t want to be swallowed up by the giants. We need to keep the heritage here in Seahouses.
“We are working on developing our products, like smoked scallops and monkfish.
Our smoked haddock has won a national award already because it was smoked in a traditional way.
“I want to tell people that you don’t need to use modern methods to smoke fish. And I want to keep spreading the message that fish is healthy, nutritious and so easy to cook.”
One of the ways she is doing that is by teaming up with Kirsty Cruickshank of For the Love of Fish, a former fishmonger who now specialises in running cookery classes and bespoke workshops.
The pair have been making a name for themselves as a light hearted double act doing demonstrations at food festivals and other events. They were one of the many hits at this year’s Journal Taste of the County at Northumberland County Show on the last May Bank Holiday – perhaps because their dishes don’t always go to plan!
But the crowds like their honesty, gentle banter and easy to achieve at home fishy dishes.
Karen thinks the message is getting across – especially with the younger generation. “One of the things that’s really pleased me of late is how many kids are eating fish again. It’s great when we get children coming in to our shop with their parents wanting a tub of smoked prawns rather than a bar of chocolate.”
There are as yet no plans to expand Swallow Fish beyond Seahouses.
“We would like to, but we will leave Dagan to hopefully do that in the future.
“But what’s important for Patrick and me is that Swallow Fish stays in Seahouses and that people keep coming to us as it brings business to the rest of the village.
“The business has been a core part of this community since 1843 and we would love to think when we retire that we have laid the foundations for the next 171 years.”
Swallow Fish, The Fisherman’s Kitchen, 2 South Street, Seahouses, Northumberland, NE68 7RB. Find out more about Swallow Fish and order online at www.swallowfish.co.uk