After a close shave, Wensleydale toasts success

Ian Herbert,Northern Correspondent
Saturday 04 November 2000 01:00 GMT

It is something of a mercy for North Yorkshire that Wensleydale cheese has gone down rather better with the nation than it did with the love interest in Wallace and Gromit.

It is something of a mercy for North Yorkshire that Wensleydale cheese has gone down rather better with the nation than it did with the love interest in Wallace and Gromit.

The product's tendency to bring Wendolene, the subject of Wallace's attentions, out in a rash caused her to decline an invitation to step over his threshold and take cheese with him. Wallace's crestfallen riposte: "Not even Wensleydale?" and his philosophical conclusion that there will be "all the more for us, Gromit" are the brand's only mention in the cartoons, but four years on they have established it as the nation's fastest selling cheese.

Sales success this week enabled Wensleydale's 900-year-old creamery, in the North Yorkshire village of Hawes, to top off a five-fold increase in size by buying up its only serious rival, Fountain's Dairy, at nearby Kirkby Malzeard. The deal will provide the new capacity the firm needs to produce Wensleydale cranberry, the latest in a line of blended cheeses that have been comfortably outperforming traditional varieties for months

Cheshire cheese sales are currently down by 14.7 per cent, Lancashire by 14.5 per cent and even Cheddar, which accounts for 78 per cent of the £906m British cheese market, is down by 1.8 per cent because buyers prefer delicacies such as white Stilton with strawberries or Wensleydale with ginger, apricot or cranberries. The Wensleydale turnaround has been achieved against the odds in a long and dramatic history, which dates back to the 11th-century when it was established by the French monks of Jervaulx.

Unsurpassed among its many saviours was a gruff 1930s Wensleydale farmer, Kit Calvert. The dairy was in the throes of one of its periodic bankruptcies and local farmers had been offered money to take their dales milk to a national dairy miles away, when Calvert called a meeting of warring cheesemakers in Hawes in 1935 and gathered enough support to set up a Wensleydale co-operative.

Similar spirit was needed in 1992 when Dairy Crest, a subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board, decided to transfer production to Longridge, Lancashire. Cycling's Milk Race, then sponsored by Dairy Crest and which passed through Hawes, was boycotted before five businessmen, including four former directors, bought the dairy and its six remaining staff, who were then running a dairy delivery business with a few vans and other companies' produce.

When cheese production restarted at the dairy in 1993, 340 tonnes were produced annually by six staff, yielding a £2m turnover. This week's merger took the workforce to 175 and turnover to about £15m. Success appears to be down to targeted marketing built around the dairy's authentic Wensleydale output. It is produced only by the milk of 50 local farmers.

The dairy has already clashed with the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food over the omission of its product from a European Union list of 300 protected foods and drinks including Newcastle Brown Ale and West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. It's inclusion would protect it from at least three other Yorkshire "Wensleydales", all made outside the dale.

Wallace and Gromit's influence has also been unmistakable. After Wensleydale was plugged in A Close Shave - the last in three Wallace and Gromitadventures which was watched by 10.62 million BBC2 viewers on Christmas Eve 1996 - the creamery bought a merchandising licence and immediately began churning out 200g Wallace and Gromit cheeses. Now retailing at £5.50, they have sold 500,000 a year ever since, one of the biggest global merchandising successes of all time, earning more than £50m a year.

Overall, Wensleydale sales increased by up to 15 per cent in 1997 and have held firm ever since. In the Wensleydale dairy's surveys, 99 per cent of people associate the cheese with Wallace and Gromit. The next export market to be tackled will be the US.

Since American consumers know the cartoon but are unfamiliar with Wensleydale, a Wallace and Gromit branded version of the more recognisable Cheddar will be exported instead. Profit often comes before pride in Yorkshire.

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