by Phoebe Sheldon
Farms across the country are diversifying – and the growth and success of Burton’s National Forest Adventure Farm is testament to the owners and staff.
Ivor Robinson and his brother Tom, first moved to the National Forest Adventure Farm in the 1970s with their parents.
It began as a commercial farm in the Burton upon Trent countryside – but now it has been transformed into Screamfest, a Hallowe’en scare attraction.
“You have to pinch yourself occasionally to realise what’s happening and what scale it’s got to,” says 53-year-old Ivor. “It is a bit surreal at times.”
The event now attracts over 23,000 visitors a year with 184 scare actors on the books to get everyone into the Hallowe’en spirit.
There are six scares which Ivor describes as ‘movie sets’ across the farm in October: Insomnia, Creed Farm, Freakout on Tour, Love Hurts, Hillbilly Joe’s Zombie Zoo and Psycho Circus.
The atmosphere is a far cry (or scream) away from the commercial farm Ivor grew up with.
Dairy production was ongoing at the farm until 2005, a year after they introduced the maize maze – a moment of inspiration from a commute to work.
“The first thing we did, in 2004, was the maize maze. It was honestly as simple as my brother, who used to live in Repton, who used to drive to work early in the morning because we were still milking cows at that point, (hearing) an article on maize mazes on the Radio 4 Farming Today programme,” said Ivor
It was the first step in diversifying the farm – something which is becoming more and more common in the industry.
However, its success was weather dependent – which led to the creation of the adventure farm in 2011.
“The adventure farm gave us some weather proofing,” explains Ivor, who admits he was always a bit removed from the agricultural aspect of the farm.
The problem, he adds, was that like all diversifying projects, it was a big risk. They had to borrow money to start it up, and if it failed they could have lost the farm.
Ivor wasn’t just satisfied with the adventure farm though. Halfway through its build in 2011, the ghost of Screamfest began to manifest.
“I’m not a horror film enthusiast but I like live attractions,” Ivor explains.
Following a visit to the renowned Tulleys Farm in 2008, and several trips over to the United States which Ivor believes is ‘world-leading’ in celebrating Hallowe’en, plans were put in motion and the first Screamfest took place in 2012.
Opening for three nights in its first year, Screamfest saw roughly 3,500 visitors through its gates.
Since the event’s inception, it has continued to grow new legs, and Ivor says – although there have been several moments of doubt – the coronavirus pandemic gave him a chance to sit down and analyse the business.
28-year-old Ethan Elliott is Screamfest’s events and operations co-ordinator, who before the pandemic was working in acting.
“Covid came and all my work stopped,” Ethan says. Getting his role at the farm was ‘purely luck.’
Speaking to him, it’s obvious the passion he holds for the farm’s events, his favourite being Screamfest.
“I just fell in love with the farm and anything I could do for the farm,” Ethan continues.
Fortunately for Ethan, the farm now host events all year round and preparation for Screamfest starts in January and follows through to October.
Screamfest begin hiring acts and technicians in January, and casting for scare actors in June. They regularly recruit drama enthusiasts from local colleges Lichfield and Burton, who often remain working for the scare attraction for years.
Any building also starts in June, with completion aimed for September so the actors can become familiar with performing in the attractions.
With two new additions to Screamfest this year – Area 52 and Psycho Circus- the team are constantly striving to improve.
Equally they are bearing in mind the cost of living crisis. University of Derby students are eligible for ten per cent off Screamfest tickets, and earlier this summer they offered a free return visit to aid families.
“We thought it might strike a chord, which it seemed to,” says owner Ivor, who lives onsite with his family. Screamfest has enabled Ivor and brother Tom to ‘generate a living off this one site.’
The Screamfest event is open until October 31 with tickets available online.