Lancashire safari - the bid to launch eco-tourism at Wyresdale Park

On top of Nicky Nook - Jim with his parents, Sally and James Whewell

On top of Nicky Nook - Jim with his parents, Sally and James Whewell - Credit: Archant

It may not be the Serengeti but the stunning countryside around Nicky Nook will make a perfect location for eco-holidays. Roger Borrell reports.

The hall, built in the 1850s

The hall, built in the 1850s - Credit: Archant

The prospect of going on a wildlife safari in Lancashire is not as far-fetched as it may sound. In fact, it will be happening quite soon if Jim Whewell and his family have their way.

They own the 800-acre Wyresdale Park, an estate close to the pretty village of Scorton which sits midway between Lancaster and Preston.

While the family home is Wyresdale Hall, the iconic heart of the estate is Nicky Nook, the fell that has been a favourite for generations of walkers seeking brisk exercise and spectacular views. ‘There is the hall and the hill,’ says Jim. ‘But Nicky Nook is the defining characteristic of the estate.’

Like many owners of old estates, the Whewells are having to adapt to the pressures of the 21st century and that means finding new and innovative ways to earn the substantial amount of money required to keep the place going.

Wedding preparations in the Apple Store Café

Wedding preparations in the Apple Store Café - Credit: Archant

Shooting and fishing, overseen by Jim’s father, James, remain a core element of Wyresdale along with tenant farms, lakes, upland and open fells, peat bogs, classic pastures and 100 acres of ancient woodland.

Wyresdale was once a viable 10,000 acres when owned in the Victorian era by the Ormrod family, bankers and cotton manufacturers from Bolton. They had the Gothic revival hall built in the 1850s and spent 20 years transforming the area into one of the county’s premier sporting estates. They also developed what is thought to have been Europe’s biggest fishery, supplying trout worldwide. At one time it required its own narrow gauge railway into Scorton.

The estate broke up in the 1930s and the Riddell family bought the hall and grounds and Jim’s great-grandfather, Shepherd Whewell, purchased much of the land. In the 1960s, Jim’s father and his uncle started re-uniting parcels of the estate including the house, and concentrated on hunting partridge, pheasant and mallard. But trying to maintain such a costly concern on the income of 800 acres started to become a strain and action was needed to find new revenues.

The family was pointed in a different direction when they featured on Channel 4’s Country House Rescue, a show where presenter Ruth Watson gives blunt advice to owners of estates and stately piles struggling to keep their heads above water.

The impressive hall at the hall

The impressive hall at the hall - Credit: Archant

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‘The message was that we live in the middle of a tourist honey pot but it was all passing by our door,’ says Jim.

When he decided to move on from the business he founded in the south of England with his sister, Sarah, running highly successful festivals such as The Secret Garden Party, he and his wife moved back home to Scorton. Jim grew up there during what he describes as a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood.

The family’s first step was to convert the brick outbuildings and glasshouse in the walled garden into the Apple Store Café, run by Jim’s hard working mother, Sally, and her loyal band of helpers. The quirky surroundings and the quality of the food means people no longer simply pass them by.

The next step was tapping into the ‘glamping’ market with two different experiences, Feather Down Lodges and The Orchard Bell Tents, both situated by the boating lake.

The Orchard is designed for couples, young families or large groups with guests able to book a single bell tent for a weekend or take all ten for a special occasion. Each is spacious, well furnished and has a king-sized bed.

Meanwhile, the five canvas lodges all look out on to the lake, set in mature woodland, and provide luxurious top-of-the range facilities. You can even have a cooked breakfast delivered to your door.

Now, the estate is moving into a new phase after restoring a large collection of Victorian farm buildings – a full set of stables, haylofts, a shippon and a piggery – into unique spaces, especially for weddings. With ‘glamping’ providing accommodation for wedding guests and the option of catering from the Apple Store, this is proving a hit with couples looking for something different for their big day.

Wedding parties are able to use the spaces in the barns imaginatively – one party decorated it with 1,000 hand-folded paper birds – and consequently it’s booked for weekends throughout next year.

‘We are keeping it flexible,’ says Jim. ‘If people want to hire the space and do the rest themselves that’s fine. We also want to use it in future for cultural events, education and workshops.’

The next phase will be to launch eco-tourism at Wyresdale, partly guided and often hands-on for visitors. It’s a subject close to the family’s heart and Jim’s wife is studying for a PhD in subjects that are likely to have practical applications for the estates proposed environmental projects.

Jim and the family are working on a series of schemes to restore and improve habitats to return the land to something closer to its original state. This includes restoring the 17 acre lake to its former glory through dredging and bringing back marginal plants. This would allow for further recreational use such as open swimming.

They also have a 12 month programme to rid the estate of the highly invasive rhododendrons which dominate many acres along with other non-native species. Woodland, parts ravaged by disease, also needs restocking.

‘We want the estate to be a broad church, a big tent if you like, for everyone to visit whether it’s for an ice cream or a glamorous wedding and live the dream for a day.

‘We have taken it gently. We are doing it in small steps, phase by phase and doing it sensitively so we don’t lose the character of Wyresdale.

‘If you don’t make the hall into a hotel or give it all to the National Trust it’s always going to be hard work and you’ll never have much spare money. But, on the plus side, you get to live in a big house which is great in the summer.

‘In ten years time I would like to see us as a destination providing amazing days out for families and a location for people wanting a week’s holiday. We want to have a reputation as a wonderful place for anyone who loves wildlife and the natural environment.’

Extending the lodges would allow more people to stay for wildlife holidays as well as weddings. ‘We also want to run short courses in appropriate subjects such as horticulture. We don’t want people to come here and be spectators but to participate in what we are doing,’ adds Jim.

One of the wooden beams in the old barn bears the legend ‘Expect Miracles.’ It was a mantra used by a yogi who was holding sessions there in eastern mysticism. ‘It struck a chord so it we decided to put it on the beam,’ laughs Jim.

It’s a bit of fun, but the Whewell family know they can’t expect anyone but themselves to make this rural gem a success story.

Park life

Wyresdale Park perches on the western slopes of the Bowland, an area of outstanding natural beauty. It has varied habitats and from Nicky Nook far-reaching views, from the Welsh coast across to the Isle of Man and the Lake District Fells.

From the late 17th century, the lordship of Wyresdale descended with the Dukes of Hamilton until 1853 when it was sold to the Ormrod family.

Wyresdale Hall, the home of the Whewell family and not open to the public, was designed by the highly regarded Lancaster architect, Edward Paley. It has several distinctive features including some fine stained glass windows.

At the time the project cost around £50,000 which is £4 million in today’s money. The hall now has Grade II listing.

In 1900 the estate advertised that it had 1 million trout available for sale to stock rivers and reservoirs across the country.

In the early 1900s, the artist Dame Laura Knight stayed at the house and said she was ‘inspired to paint the grounds, the byres and the fells.’

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