A visit to Wheelbirks makes you want to live on a farm. Maybe it’s the fact you’re in one of the most remote and stunning parts of Northumberland countryside? Or the sound of hens clucking across the farmyard? The sight of the oldest pedigree herd of Jersey cows in Northumberland may also have something to do with it.
Another possible reason is the Richardson family. Brothers Hugh and Tom inherited the farm from their father Michael in 1998, making them the fifth generation of farmers to manage the farm. Their knowledge and passion for farming, food production and education within the industry is admirable, as is their community spirit (Tom recently finished playing the pantomime Dame at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham, a role he takes on most years, slotting in rehearsals between feeding and milking the cows).
Tom’s wife Lucinda is equally passionate about farming and rural affairs. She gave up her career as a midwife to open and run Wheelbirks Parlour, which opened in March 2010 as a direct response to the family’s ‘diversify or die’ philosophy. ‘Although we weren’t directly affected by the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001,’ says Lucinda. ‘It gave us a reason to reflect on the sustainability of our business. It made us realise that our cows are our unique selling point, so we sold our sheep flock and purchased equipment to make ice cream, attended courses and launched our ice cream business in 2002 with the money we made.’
Initially the family started selling ice cream and Jersey milk from their farmhouse porch using an honesty box, a tradition at Wheelbirks that dates back to 1925. The quality of the ice cream soon became a phenomenon in the area, and very quickly shops, pubs, restaurants and tourist attractions such as Alnwick Gardens started buying it in bulk quantities. ‘It took another nine years until we actually did what we always wanted to do and open Wheelbirks Parlour,’ explains Linda. ‘It’s a place like no other in the area; somewhere people of all ages can come and enjoy fresh, locally produced and real homemade food, drink and ice cream. We took our time, travelled the country visiting other farms that have diversified and made notes on everything we liked and everything we didn’t.’
It’s hard to describe what The Parlour actually is. It’s something between a restaurant and café, a place that celebrates great food and ice cream. One eating area is housed in a beautifully restored stable block dating back to 1875 and is furnished with antique tables and chairs Lucinda sourced from all over the country. It looks out onto a pretty orchard full of 100-year-old apple trees. There’s a pre-school play area with soft toys and a Wendy house, and there’s also a quiet relaxing area with log burner, comfy leather sofas and a sign that says ‘No Children Please’ for those wanting to relax in peace and quiet. At the other end of the building is a separate eating area with brightly coloured tables and chairs and the jewel in the parlour’s crown: the ice cream cabinet. Every flavour you can imagine has graced this cabinet (almost 100 in total), such as amaretto and honeycomb, liquorice and caramel, New York cheesecake and seasonal flavours such as spicy gingerbread. There was even once a garlic sorbet produced for the local garlic festival.
‘The reason our ice cream is so popular is because of our homemade – or should I say farmmade – process,’ says Lucinda. ‘Visitors can see the cows the milk has come from. It’s educational and something we’re very proud of. This is the same for our unpasteurised milk.’ Wheelbirks is the only farm in the North East, and one of only 25 farms in the country, which still sells milk that hasn’t been pasteurised, so it’s no surprise that they have a loyal following of milk buyers, selling between 200 and 300 litres per week. ‘What’s coming across the farmyard now is what has been milked this morning,’ laughs Lucinda, pointing to the window at two members of staff. ‘It’s just so fresh. It’s a very natural product and you don’t realise what supermarket milk has gone through until you taste our milk.’ With a herd of 40 Jersey beef cattle, the parlour also sells a range of pre-packed cuts of beef, which is a slightly sweeter, naturally lean meat.
It’s hard to believe that this is actually a working farm, but Hugh and Tom are full-time farmers, working all hours of the day (and night). ‘Sometimes it is a challenge to combine a working farm with the intense activity of the parlour,’ says Lucinda. ‘But Hugh and Tom are brilliant at what they do. Our farm doesn’t only comprise our dairy and beef herds – each year we harvest 20 acres of oil seed rape and 140 acres of winter barley. We whole-crop a portion of our barley to feed the cows in winter, which rewards us with an increased butterfat content in our milk. This not only increases the price of our milk but makes it taste even creamier. Our 140-acre forest also demands our attention with the continuous cycle of brashing, thinning and weeding, which then allows felling and replanting every five years. Tom is a qualified tree surgeon and also runs Wheelbirks Tree Surgery.’
After spending just a few hours at Wheelbirks and in the parlour it’s quite amazing to see just how much work goes into the running of a working farm. But although the days are long and the work both physically and mentally exhausting, the Richardsons are proof that hard work reaps rewards. Their farming tales (passed down the generations throughout the last century) are inspirational, their beef (talking from experience) is delicious and their ice cream really is the creamiest I’ve ever tasted. If you don’t believe me head to Wheelbirks and try it for yourself. You may just find that it makes you want to find out more about farming too, and if you do, you’ll certainly be learning from some of the best, most dedicated farmers in the North East.
07717 282014 www.wheelbirks.co.uk