Mrs Dowson - Chilling tales from the queen of ice cream
PUBLISHED: 09:25 27 May 2014
The mum-of-three heading up the Ribble Valley's drive for tourism has a dark secret lurking in her shed. Roger Borrell investigates
As you can see from our photographs, Amanda Dowson and her family don’t look like the sort of people who take pleasure in frightening the life out of visitors.
Apart from experimenting with some rather spine-tingling ice cream flavours – mustard, black pudding, tomato and asparagus to name but a few – their Ribble Valley farm, under the Mrs Dowson’s brand, is a picture of calm, perfect for a family outing.
Lambs gambol, ducks quack, pigs snuffle and, thankfully, the pet skunk rarely kicks up a stink.
However, lurking in the background is an enormous farm shed containing your worst nightmares. No, it’s not the Countryfile team; this is the Frankenstein of all farm diversifications.
Inside this barn you will find pure theatre. Room after room looks like a Tim Burton film set on steroids. Measuring 100x60ft, this complex is like a giant Rubik’s Cube of rooms which change mood to suit the age and nervous disposition of the visitors.
From June, for instance, it becomes Mystery Mansion, a not-so-scary house where youngsters will be intrigued rather than terrified. Using a map and helped by a kindly, if eccentric, professor they must travel through the house on a fun quest to uncover a secret. It is designed to be educational as well as an adventure.
Once the summer is over, fasten your seatbelts. Then it becomes the playground of the grown-ups under the guise of Scare Kingdom. Here you will find Halloween horrors, Phantom of the Opera-style events – and even weddings. Yes, someone has booked a horror-themed wedding celebration. Presumably two of the guests wear the same outfit – a kind of frock horror, perhaps? This remarkable place even has its own Victorian-style theatre.
But don’t run away with the idea it’s a souped-up fairground attraction. It represents a £250,000 investment and is unique in Britain.
The rooms are dressed with furniture and fittings sourced from antiques fairs and flea markets across the world and the spooky library is lined with books bought from a defunct solicitor’s office.
The attraction, complete with its own operators and actors, has been put together in partnership with Jason Karl, who is chief creative executive of a company called AtmosFear, described as the UK’s first scare entertainment production company.
As well as being a regular visitor attraction, it will be available to hire for private parties or businesses wanting a day out with a difference.
‘This basically extends our season,’ says Amanda, who is chairman of the Ribble Valley Tourism Association. ‘Once Lambing Live is over and the farm stops operating as a visitor attraction, this gives us another opportunity.
‘I imagine there are some friends in the farming community who think we are completely mad but we’ve found the whole thing great fun. We’ve loved doing it and we can’t wait to see it in full swing.’
Mrs Dowson’s is based at Hawkshaw Farm, on the A59 at Clayton-le-Dale. Her husband Eric has been running the farm since taking over from his parents, and they have three children – Elliott, 22, who is helping to run the dairy herd, Ethan, who is 19 and concentrates on events, and 12-year-old Amelia, who enthusiastically pitches in wherever she is needed.
Away from farming and frights, Amanda is expected to start another two year stint as the chairman of the Ribble Valley Tourism Association and, as you would expect, she is a passionate advocate of her home area. ‘Tourism is our biggest growth industry and we want to push forward letting people from the outside know about the Ribble Valley, to stop them automatically heading for the Lakes.
‘They need to know we have brilliant hotels, inns, restaurants and B&Bs, amazing food producers plus a host of visitors attractions from Bowland Wild Boar park to the Clitheroe Castle. And once we get them here, we want them to stay longer.’
Amanda understands that there are those in the Ribble Valley who don’t want to be overwhelmed by visitors but she also knows that a vibrant rural economy is essential for employment so young people don’t have to move away. And that means developing non-traditional businesses.
She and the family came through the trauma of Foot and Mouth Disease – ‘it still gives me goose-bumps to think about it’ – and they’ve bounced back with a substantial and growing dairy herd, a visitors centre with a busy café, the Mrs Dowson ice cream business, which gets rave review, plus Scare Kingdom.
‘You have to keep evolving, moving with the times. That’s true of the Ribble Valley and it’s true for us, right down to the ice cream we make. We’ve worked with Jamie Oliver and we’ve learned to try to give everything an interesting twist.
‘Five years ago if we had 100 visitors in a week we thought we’d done really well. Now we’ll get 200 a day.’
No wonder Amanda is fond of an old farmer’s saying: ‘If you don’t move, you rust.’