They say farming is in the blood – but anyone from a farming family knows that isn’t true.
It isn’t in the blood.
It’s in the marrow of your bones, in the skin of your fingers, cracked and raw from freezing nights in the lambing shed, from the stoop of your back from lifting heavy bales, from the depths of your soul trying to make it work, make a living, make a life.
There’s no quitting. There’s no giving in. When your farm is ripped from your grasp, your family home sold to make way for a new council estate. You move on. You make it work somehow.
Roger Nicholson was 16 years old when life as he knew it changed forever.
He had spent a happy childhood at Bank End Farm in Worsborough, helping his Dad Charlie farm the land that had belonged to the Nicholsons since 1650.
By the time he was eight, he’d become quite the expert at driving the Shire horse, his small frame perched on the metal seat of the hay rake behind, clinging on to the reigns as it navigated across the hay meadows. He would rush home after school each day ready to milk two cows by hand.
But even now, 70 years later, that smell of fresh milk can still catapult him back to a simpler time – when his knees were covered in scrapes from the many adventures that were offered a boy living in more innocent times. By the time he was 13 years old, Roger knew in his bones he was exactly where he should be. He was never happier than when he was outdoors, with the animals under his care. Roger led a varied and happy life at his family farm in Worsborough Dale – but the crushing news that it was being compulsory purchased came as a shock to the family.
They stood to lose not only their home but also their land and their livelihood. The council was building a new housing estate – and the land they had chosen was the Nicholson’s.
But Charlie Nicholson was never a defeatist – and with pragmatism that he passed down to his son, he realized that, in reality, the compulsory purchase could be seen as an open door. They’d been given a chance to try a new challenge. He was thrumming with excitement when he told his family his plans to move the Nicholson’s to a new farm – and he had his sights firmly set on one place.
Cannon Hall Farm in Cawthorne was a historic, 126 acre farm with a historic house. It had the potential to be great – offering not only beautiful landscapes but also space to grow. Cannon Hall Farm was going under the hammer; the aristocratic family who’d lived there had long gone. The manor house had become a public museum run by the council but the land was available.
Charlie took his life savings and headed to the auction.
Cannon Hall Farm became a part of the family. And so the family embarked on their new challenge – but sadly Charlie would not live long enough to see if his big dreams would pay off. Within twelve months of moving to Cannon Hall Farm, Roger returned home from school to be told his dad had died suddenly.
He was only 16 – grieving, shocked, and scared but he had to step into the role as head of the family, establishing a completely new business and making it work. There had been such buoyant excitement and plans for the future – but Charlie had been the larger than life character driving it forward and without him, Roger felt unmoored.
Roger poured himself into the business – he was well-liked in the farming community with many of Charlie’s old friends and neighbors offering him assistance. And by the time he was 18, he’d established Cannon Hall Farm as a viable business.
But by the mid-1980s the honeymoon period was over. Roger had struggled to make the business work – he’d worked as hard as he could, but poor market values on produce meant he’d never make much of a profit. The overdraft was building year on year. It had become very clear that being ‘just’ farmers was not working.
Roger had visited a handful of public farms around the UK and thought he saw a way forward. Could Cannon Hall Farm become a visitor attraction that people would actually pay to visit?
He had carefully mapped out a vision for the future which would give his boys secure jobs to come home to. His vision – to open the farm to the public and build the business into a tourism venue. He scraped together money for a few small improvements and the farm opened to the public for the first time on Good Friday, 1989.
Roger took £100 on that first day – an absolute fortune compared to his precious income levels – and never looked back. It was the trigger that would end up becoming the catalyst for change – and Roger recognized that tourism was their future.
The ramshackle farm buildings became a firm favorite with local families, who loved the experience of feeding goats and lambs. They used an old farm building as a tearoom, and Cannon Hall Farm transformed from a small, mixed family farm – to a visitor attraction with a working farm that was bigger than ever.
They added adventure playgrounds and a farm shop. Every time they took a risk and invested in the future, turnover, jobs and visitors increased. Around ten years ago they embarked on a huge investment program in the farm. First came the iconic roundhouse, then a new £1.5 million farmyard, the demolition of the existing farmyard and the opening of the Hungry Llama indoor play.
They developed the very first farm visitor center of its type in the world – one that allowed visitors to watch with the farmers during their day to day work – which can be as varied as assisting in a birth, milking, shearing or tractor work- from the safety of a viewing platform. And 30 years after that first vision, Roger succeeded in not only creating jobs for his three sons…but in building a multi-million pound tourist attraction that employs over 270 local people.
Roger is now 76 years old – but he’s in the barns every single day – training the next generation of farmers and educating visitors to help them understand how important British farming is.
And he even has his own fanbase, a new generation of visitors that watch his series of live online broadcasts, led by his sons, educating people about being a farmer and what it entails. His hard work was rewarded last year, when the farm was named Best Large Visitor Attraction in the White Rose Awards – and by landing a deal with a TV production company that saw Cannon Hall Farm be showcased to millions of people through the Channel 5 TV show Springtime on the Farm.
Farmer Roger has his legacy – the Nicholson’s have kept the treasure that is Cannon Hall Farm safe for the next generation.