Ulnaby farm brings history to life in Darlington

PUBLISHED: 00:15 27 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:58 20 February 2013

Farm shop manager Donna O'Sullivan with some of the frozen joints from the freezer

Farm shop manager Donna O'Sullivan with some of the frozen joints from the freezer

Ian Dods's family has farmed at Ulnaby since the 1920s. But it wasn't until recently that its historical significance was investigated

Ulnaby Hall farm near Darlington is a mixture of a fascinating historical landscape, showing the remains of a long disappeared medieval farm village, and traditional breeds of livestock, similar to those which would have lived there in the middle ages.

Ian Dodss family has farmed at Ulnaby since the 1920s when his grandfather Norman took over the tenancy. Just a couple of years later he was killed in a riding accident, and Ians great-grandfather took on running of the farm until the early 1940s when Ians father was 16 and old enough to run it himself.

Ian says that in those days before mechanisation, the farm which is only just over 300 acres in size, had five members of staff and nine horses. Ian has been running Ulnaby since his father retired a few years ago. Until recently it produced intensively reared beef for supermarkets.

For several years Ian had wanted to open up the farm to the public both for walks, and to diversify by selling some of his produce on site. Originally his beef was taken from commercial breeds of cattle like the Limousin which, Ian says, can get quite nervous around people.

I was a little bit concerned about safety, about people walking round modern-day fields with Limousin cattle in, because of their wildness. It is not only about the safety of the people, but if modern-day cattle see strange people they get spooked, and can run and jump fences and escape from our land into neighbours fields.

The answer was to change to traditional breeds, which tend to be more relaxed around people. Ian settled on the Belted Galloway, with its distinctive white band around its middle. He was particularly attracted to their hardiness.

I wanted the cattle to stay out as long as possible, theyve got two coats on them, theyre more rugged, they can stand up to the cold more.

They also taste great because of the extra fat within the muscle and therefore the meat. They look good too. Theres just something about them, says Ian. They just look like a cuddly bear.

Ian also passionately believes that modern farming is too intensive. Most commercial cattle are sent for slaughter when they are under a year and a half old but the traditional breeds at Ulnaby wait until they are two and a half years old, some even longer.

There are several other traditional breeds of cattle on the farm including Shetlad, Red Poll and now Ian is experimenting with Highlands, with their long shaggy ginger coats and fierce looking horns. They look fierce, but are in reality quite placid. These will live even longer.

I think the older they get, the better they are and we will take them to 36 or 37 months.

As well as the traditional cattle there is an even older relic of agriculture from an earlier age at Ulnaby, one which was featured on one of Britains best loved television programmes last year.

Ian had known since he was a child that there had been a medieval village on the site, but in those days nobody seemed interested. It wasnt until the mid 1980s that it was scheduled as an ancient monument.

Five years ago Ian saw some aerial photographs taken in 2000 which showed the true extent of the medieval remains. This sparked his curiosity, leading him to send one of the photographs to Channel 4s Time-Team, they were interested and decided to come and dig at Ulnaby.

It was very exciting, they were fantastic, all the members of the team, and the cameramen. But they were up against it. They only had three days but the weather was appalling.

They didnt reach any firm conclusions on the question Ian was most interested in having answered. Ive all along been more interested in finding the origins of the village with the name Ulnaby suggesting sounding Danish origins, but we never got quite that far back. The earliest evidence of occupation was found to be from the 12th Century.

What Ian found most interesting was the news that the medieval farmers on the site grew crops just as he does to feed his animals, as did his father before him. Not only that but between 70 and 100 people lived there when the village was in full occupancy.

Ulnaby now is very different, much quieter than it would have been 700 years ago, but the kind of animals there do give a feeling of what farming was like in a different age.

Ulnaby Farm Shop is open January to end of February, Tuesday to Saturday 10 am till 4pm. From March 1 to December 31 it is open Tuesday to Saturday 10 am till 5 pm. Sundays 11am 4pm. The shop is open on Mondays during School holidays and bank holidays and for educational visits.

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