The Story of Fishers Farm Park
Tim Rollings takes on many roles during the course of the year at Fishers Farm Park. He likes to take part in the Halloween events, dressing up as a zombie scarecrow in order to scare those brave enough to ride the Ghost Train. Every Christmas, he takes on the role of Dame in the popular Fishers Farm pantomime.
As a long-serving member of Billingshurst Dramatics Society, Tim can hold his own on the stage. But it his practical mind that has helped Fishers Farm Park become one of the largest tourist attractions in the south of England.
When we arrive, he is hard at work renovating a small outdoor go-karting track. But in recent months there have been more significant and extensive improvements. A new animal encounters centre opened in the spring, with ots own animal demonstration area. It continues to house some of the old favourites such as Jessie the cow, Pinky the Shetland pony, and Mabel, a Kune Kune Sow who once managed to escape to a skate park in Billingshurst!
Nowadays, the animals are just one small part of the entertainment for the thousands of young people visiting the farm each year. There’s a toboggan run, tractor rides, barrel bug rides, splash attack, giant slides, pirate ships, climbing walls, adventure forts, pony rides and magic shows.
But it wasn’t always this way. It began with a tiny animal trail (albeit one with a giant shire horse called Casper) built as an offshoot of a Pick Your Own business.
Fishers Farm began life when Tim and Trina Rollings bought a derelict plot of land, roughly about 30 acres, near to the farm house they had bought in 1985.
Trina recalls: “Tim was running his own landscaping company and he moved the business to a barn opposite the park. When this land came up for sale, we thought it was a great opportunity. We didn’t have a purpose for it or an idea in mind. We just wanted a bit of land on our own and thought it would be fantastic to live on it eventually even though there was no dwelling there.
“Tim’s business was going well but he has always been someone who is willing to take a risk. He is a bit of a
gambler in that respect. Because we had borrowed heavily to buy the land, we had to think of ways to pay the bank back quickly. Firstly, we stripped the turf off and sold that, and then we decided to do Pick Your Own fruit. Tim’s father was a soft fruit grower so we had lots of expertise to call on, and we grew strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and redcurrants.
“We hit the ground running to a degree, but Tim was still running his horticultural business so the fruit picking was mainly down to me to run. It was time consuming, but of course was seasonal so during winter we relied solely on the money Tim brought in as I was looking after our children.”
Encouraged by the success of the fruit picking, the Rollings’ looked at ways of generating more money from the land. They applied for planning permission to convert what was then the Victorian cow stalls into holiday cottages, and were awarded a grant from the South East England Tourist Board to partly fund it. This was followed by a small camping area.
A number of visitors to the Pick Your Own had also enjoyed seeing the animals that the family kept as pets. This put Tim and Trina on a new path…
Trina said: “We needed a reason to live here as the council had denied us planning permission to do so. We thought about young stock, as they need constant supervision, and that animals would be the way forward in terms of being granted planning permission to live here. That led to the idea of converting one of the buildings into a tea room and maybe creating a small trail around the farm.
“The first hand drawn, trail is hanging on the wall in the café. I wrote and drew it and we made photocopies to hand out to visitors. It was a tiny trail with numbers one to six on as that was all of the animals we had!”
Fishers Farm welcomed its first visitor in 1990. Jim Helyer, a local farmer, donated some old farming equipment for the museum, and the collection has been expanded over the years. But for the Rollings, it was a step into the unknown. We had no idea how the park would be received, as there wasn’t such a thing around,” remembers Trina. “There were theme parks but there were not even many working farms open to the public. We didn’t really know where we were going.
“But the farm park started to pick up and we found we needed to employ people. Tom was still running his own business at this time, and it had been me mainly running the farm at that point. I would be mucking out the animals, baking the cakes, and running the fruit picking too. Our children Tom and Bex were very hands on. When she was about five, Bex said: ‘Are we going to be cleaning holiday cottages until we die?’
“Tim and I also used to drag them around to all the working farms that we could find. We would make them go on all the play equipment, and everywhere we went we took away an idea, if not several. We were inspired, and because Tim was, and still is, so wonderfully practical, he was able to build nearly everything himself.
“Looking back, it seems like the farm grew incredibly quickly, but really it was organic growth. We have always listened to what people have said, and Tim has always been full of ideas, much like Tom is now.”
Tim admits that he often wakes up early in the morning with an idea of what he is going to do next, but it was Tom who designed the new animal barn, which means that animals can come in and out without any contact with the public. Whilst Fishers Farm has always encouraged children to touch the animals, diseases such as foot and mouth has led to the family preparing for worst case scenarios.
Kate Rollings, who runs Marketing and PR at Fishers Farm, said: “Foot and mouth disease and also the E.coli outbreak at the farm in Godstone in 2009 had a massive effect on farm parks across the country. We decided that we needed to have an animal area that could be shut down but still leave us with an attraction that could be run and left open to the public.
“So if the worst case scenario was to happen and the government was to decide that people could no longer touch animals, which we hope will never happen, we can at least shut the doors on this and you still have the adventure park.”
The foot and mouth crisis led to the closure of many farms, and Fishers Farm was close to being one of them.
Tim recalls: “There is no doubt about it, we hit a niche market and we were successful for many years. We galloped to keep up with demand.
“But during the foot and mouth outbreak, I did wonder if that was the end. We were simply told to close and I couldn’t believe it. I thought that surely we would be able to keep the cafes and the play areas open, but we were not. I went back to DEFRA many times with numerous questions but all we had was the message to stay closed. We couldn’t even open the café.
“We were shut for five weeks. But we just knuckled down from there and somehow managed to get through it. Four other local farm parks went bust. Another issue that can make or break a season is the weather. I don’t know what you can do to combat the weather! My father was a farmer, and he always combated the weather, or tried to, but it is a nightmare.
“Whatever you’re doing rurally – gardening, farming, landscaping, or running a farm park – it is massively affected by the weather. The weather has now been bad for well over 12 months and it’s really knocked our industry. If it rains before 10am it is killer. On one of our peak days, rain before 10am will mean that instead of a very healthy 1,200 people through the park, we will have 250, with 35 staff here. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that the sums don’t add up.”
Tim and his team may never combat the weather, but they have managed to make it through those perilous situations; Fishers Farm is in good health. The park employs 35 people, many of whom have been there since the very beginning. One even stayed in one of the old gypsy wagons that are on display many years ago!
The tiny tea room has long been replaced by a 120-seat restaurant serving between 200-500 hundred meals a day during the season. Trina continues to make her home-made cakes with the Victoria Sponge and Flapjack being her specialities.
Recent additions include a pirate ship, again designed by Tom and Tim, and a Squirrel Scramble through the trees. Now that the Animal Encounters Barn is complete, the indoor soft play area is next up for expansion. But for many visitors, it is still the animals that steal the show.
Long ago, the most notable resident was Casper, a shire horse who at over 19 hands was one of the largest shire horses in the world. Sadly, Casper had a fall and a twisted gut led to Peritonitis. To the great sadness of the
Fishers Farm staff, he had to be put down.
Yet still, the pony rides remain popular, and animals such as the three new kids, Bish, Bash and Bosh enthral new generations each season. Every year, the new arrivals are given names beginning with a certain letter so that visitors, and staff for that matter, know how old they are.
Trina said: “I think many children wouldn’t choose to come here for the animals but the adults do as they like to see the children interact with the animals. I think a lot of kids will come because of the adventure play areas.
“Up until the new animal barn being built, we were putting on animal shows in the theatre every day, which originally included milking demonstrations. It was an education for the young people, and it was all hands-on
experience for them.
“We bottle feed the goat kids and children in the audience help us. It is wonderful to watch the kids’ faces, and for a lot of them it is the first time they come into contact with any animals at all. Now Tom has designed the new animal barn with a purpose built animal theatre we can have these demonstrations again and use the theatre for evening entertainments, school productions and the pantomime.”
The Fishers Farm team put on a pantomime in the theatre each year, and it’s becoming increasingly popular over its ten day run. Kate, who produced last year’s play with Tom, said: “Tim is usually the dame and Trina is always the fairy, absolutely covered in glitter. In Cinderella, we include Pinky the Shetland pony.
“I wanted to include Jessie the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk last year but we were worried she would poo on the stage! A few of us are members of the Billingshurst Dramatics Society, maybe more than ten of us, and we are quite lucky as Sue Pollard is our theatre manager. She is a trained actor and knows how to operate the lights properly.
“It’s a perk for the staff. Tim normally gives us a little bonus for doing it, but it is quite strict. You have to go to all of the rehearsals, and it is a lot to commit to. We do 14 performances in a week up to Christmas and three on Christmas Eve. We receive great feedback. Some people think we are using professional actors! We’re not of a West End calibre but it is a polished and professional performance.”
Tim and Trina are now separated, but continue to work together closely to run the park. As well as taking personal satisfaction in having built up the award-winning tourist attraction, they both take pleasure in providing a great learning experience for the young members of staff.
Trina said: “I think the interesting time is when we do our staff training and we look out to a sea of youngsters who were not even born when we started. It’s good for them to know the roots of the business. It wasn’t just handed to us on a plate; we built it up and made it what it is today. It is an example to them that you can build your own
business and you can make a success of it.
“Because we do nearly all of the work ourselves, be it fencing, mechanics, building and design, there is a great learning process for them and that holds them in good stead.”
Tim still works hard on the farm every day, and says there is no end of things to do. He said: “At some point in the last 23 years, I should have said ‘I will leave it like this’. But I have very little respect for money, so the whole buzz for me is to be out here building new things and then watching people enjoy it all. For me, that’s everything.
“I’m fortunate that I can work with my family. I do have a very good relationship with Tom. He has his strengths and I have mine and we agree on 99% of things. He has his say on the farm, and there is a great mutual respect.
“As for the future, I don’t care what Tom does with it.
I would hate to depart this world leaving my children with any instruction as to how their family should further my life’s work!”
For more details on the farm visit http://www.fishersfarmpark.co.uk/