Being made redundant has been the best thing to happen to Steve Dunwell and his family. Liz Hands talks to them about making the ultimate lifestyle change
With 25 pitches open at the moment, Steve and Anne are expanding that to 60, with a new shower block and children’s playground to be finished by Easter 2012.
They have erected three wigwams to offer a luxurious camping experience and are increasing that to 10 in a special wigwam village.
Already, they have hens, alpacas, ducks, guinea pigs and rabbits and are intending to develop a 15-acre smallholding.
“People laugh at me,” says Anne, “but I want to get a retired dairy cow, a couple of pigs, some goats. We want to start growing veg to sell in the farm shop.”
The couple are brimming with optimism for their new venture.
“It’s great to be developing a new business as a contrast to all the doom and gloom you hear about,” says Anne.
But when they first moved, they were far from sure about their decision.
“Three weeks after we got here, the snow hit and we felt like we’d landed on the moon,” says Anne. “The kids couldn’t go to school, we had 4ft snowdrifts on the lane and it was so cold in the farmhouse. We had an Aga, which I’d never used before, and log-burning stoves. It was beautiful but it was hard.”
“There was also the doubt over whether we would get planning permission,” adds Steve.
“And we had the huge burden of our mortgage, but all we could do was sit it out.
“We kept the shop open until Christmas, but I don’t think we saw a single customer from mid-November. We advertised Christmas lunches and arranged to have reindeer down from Kielder forest, but they got snowed in. I think we had something like a 40 pence turnover during that time.”
Steve had taken another job in case the farm didn’t work out. But as business began to pick up, he felt he had no choice but to resign.
“When we look back, the first gamble was buying it without planning permission for the campsite,” says Anne. “The second gamble was Steve handing his notice in. But if you work for yourself, you have to give it 110%. You both have to be here giving it your all.”
Watching the family at work, their children are helping out with breakfasts and looking after the animals, it’s hard to believe they’ve been here for less than a year.
The children have settled into their new school, St Joseph’s in Hexham, although getting there from such a rural setting has taken a bit of getting used to. They are picked up by taxi to meet the school bus in Haltwhistle, which then takes them on to Hexham.
“It’s a long day for them,” says Anne. “But when we go back to Leeds to visit family, they miss this, they miss the open air, they miss the animals.”
The couple are worried about the loss of the tourism campaign Passionate People, Passionate Places, which was driven by the about-to-close development agency One North East.
They are trying to encourage visitors to stay for more than one night, as they find people pass through on the way to Scotland without realising all that Northumberland has to offer.
“It shouldn’t be down to individual businesses to promote Northumberland as a whole,” says Anne. “In Yorkshire, where we’re from, you can’t walk anywhere without seeing another 50 people on the same trek. Here you can walk for miles and not see another soul. It’s one of the few unspoilt areas left.”
It is the unspoilt nature of the area that is bringing return custom to Herding Hill farm, with parents urging them not to buy slot machines, computer games or televisions because they love the fact their children have to make their own entertainment.
And Steve and Anne’s ultimate ambition is to secure a future for their own children.
“We’re not doing this to become millionaires,” says Steve. “And we don’t want to hand things to them on a plate because we want them to stand their own ground.
“If they want to get involved in the business that’s great but there’s no pressure. As long we can afford for them to do what they want to in the future, then we’ll know we did the right thing.”