Some people live life on the move, never really establishing a physical sense of ‘place’ – rather, creating a ‘home’ by surrounding themselves with the people who feel like home.
For Eileen Ferguson, home is very much rooted in Northumberland – the place she and her family call home. It’s part of her DNA. A place that has shaped her life and allowed her family to grow and flourish.
It’s a place she feels incredibly passionate about, so when the opportunity came to give something back to the community that raised her, she jumped at the chance – and the rest is history!
“Ad Gefrin is my baby,” she starts, with a smile.
“It’s the baby that I had when my last child flew the nest. I’d been a mum that stayed at home throughout my children’s education and I was ready to start work again.
“I was always involved in the family business [Redpath and Ferguson lineages], but I really wanted to work full-time again. I needed to combat the empty nest syndrome.
“At the same time we had this disused haulage yard in Wooler, which had been in my family for almost 100 years – operating as Redpath Bros Haulage from the 1920s until 1998.
”We really needed to redevelop it because it was in decline. We’ve had lots of ideas about what we could do with it over the years. The location of it is fantastic – it’s like a gateway property to Wooler.
”But it was in disrepair and I felt ashamed and embarrassed that we’d left it like that.
“Both my husband and myself are third generation business people. When we met we both had transport companies and we amalgamated them, but this was one site that wasn’t required, so it was redundant.
“Because I’d been brought up here in Wooler and it was part of my father’s legacy, I didn’t want to just give it away for nothing. We could’ve sold it 20 times over as a housing project, but that wasn’t what I wanted for my hometown.
“I remember Wooler being a thriving high street – there was a real buzz about the place. I wanted to do something that would help to regenerate the area.
‘How could we do that?’ I asked myself over and over.
Eileen’s role as a mother was top of her priority list, but her brain was always ticking away in the background as she pondered a big project – a big move for the family, and for the local and wider community.
The cogs were turning for quite a while, and although she didn’t know it at the time, it was during the Ferguson family’s holidays to France when the idea was born.
“We used to take the children to the south of France most summers because we were fortunate enough to have a villa there.
“We would drive down, have our holiday and then take about a week or so to drive home. On the journey back, we used to stop off and visit vineyards.
”Every time we did it, I would say to my husband, ‘I wish we could grow grapes in Northumberland because it would be brilliant to have something like this in Wooler’.
”Alan would laugh and say, ‘I don’t think the climate is quite right back home!’.
“We used to visit Mercier Champagne, go on a tour through the cellars – which the kids thought was fantastic – then we’d come out and get a taste of champagne and buy some to bring home.
”My kids grew up thinking this is what happened at the end of every holiday,” she laughs.
The seed was planted, but it was business as usual for the family – managing a busy home life as well as a successful firm.
A few years passed before Eileen turned her thoughts to whisky…
“I’d always thought that whisky was very Scottish, but it wasn’t until The Lakes Distillery opened and we went over and experienced it, we thought… well actually, what does Northumberland do well?
”It grows barley – and a lot of the barley that grows on the banks of the Tweed gets made into malting barley and gets taken to Simpsons Malt in Berwick before being transported to Scotland.
”Half of the banks of the Tweed are on the Northumbrian side – in England – so why can’t we make use of the biggest maltster in England.
“So, suddenly this grain of an idea emerged and we thought, ‘maybe we could!’.
We talked to some people and got a bit of interest and encouragement. I remember talking to one friend who was a lawyer. We were out for dinner and I asked his opinion and he said, ‘go for it!’.
”As women, we often feel like we can’t do things; we struggle a lot with imposter syndrome.
”He was really quite instrumental in helping me make my decision – that was back in 2017, but the
idea had been bubbling since about 2010.
“In April 2018, our children came for Easter lunch and we explained what we were going to do. We told them that we were going to have to spend their inheritance to get this off the ground, because it was a massive risk. They all said, ‘yes – go ahead, do it!’.
“Then I said to them, ‘would any of you like to work with me, because this is big?’.
To my utter amazement, my stepson Chris said yes and I thought, ‘wow – why? You’ve got a PhD in archaeology from Oxford!’.
“Funnily enough, he’d been on the University Challenge and the only questions he answered were the ones about alcohol!”
Following that conversation, the wheels were in motion and it was time to start putting plans into action. The boardroom? The kitchen table – where all great ideas are born.
“We literally started from the bottom – we had to get an architect, we had to find out
about whisky, we had to do everything,” says Eileen.
“We had spent quite a bit of time at whisky distilleries doing tastings in the years running up to it. It was kind of a learning exercise for us.”
During the planning process, when looking at ways in which they could involve and evolve the local community, the Fergusons came up with the idea of broadening the experience with a museum, which, in turn, would not only celebrate Northumbrian heritage, but also serve the town with employment opportunities.
“We decided that if we were doing it, we would use the history from our region. Gefrin is just four miles along the road, where there was an Anglo Saxon royal palace. It was discovered through aerial photography in 1949, but excavated between 1953 and 1962 by Brian Hope-
”When they were excavating, they found a lot of Anglo Saxon artefacts there. It turns out north Northumberland actually has quite a lot of history sitting underneath it – really rich history that hasn’t been told.
“Chris knew every bit of history because when he was doing his PhD he studied Anglo Saxon Northumbria.
“That’s when we came up with the name Ad Gefrin, after calling it ‘The D Project’ for a little while.”
Celebrating the best of Northumberland is at the very heart of Ad Gefrin, and whether visitors are whisky-lovers or history-buffs, the whole experience has been created to work effortlessly together – inviting us on an intimate journey into the time and place that inspired the project.
The team welcomes visitors with that same spirit and hospitality – through the art of exhibitions, events, distillery tours and tastings, the bistro, bar and retail offering.
“The museum and distillery are quite symbiotic really,” says Eileen.
“Whisky, of course, takes a long time to produce, so we wanted to create something to encourage different markets, using our rich history to do that.
”Another thing that we are really good at in the North East is hospitality, so we wanted to incorporate that into the experience too. And, in fact, the two go hand in hand,” she adds.
“In the Anglo Saxon period, people came from all parts of the world – especially Scandinavia – to experience our unique hospitality. So, like they did back then, you’ll be greeted in the ‘Great Hall’ and asked to ‘leave your weapons at the door’.
“In the museum you’ll find artefacts and stories that bring the history to life. In partnership with The British Museum and other major lenders, we have artefacts that have never been seen before, all relevant to Anglo Saxon times.
“For people who then go on to the whisky distillery, they’ll have a tour, from the milling to the mashing and then the distilling. You’ll get a chance to see the casks maturing and when you finish all of that, the whisky tour ends in style in the Tasting Room.”
What has been so lovely about the birth of Ad Gefrin, the development process and
now the execution, is the involvement of the local community.
It’s not just a family affair in the sense that it is the brainchild of the Fergusons, there’s a real family feel to the place – from the team bringing the vision to life, to the supporting local businesses, suppliers, stockists, tradespeople and more.
“We’ve been thrilled with the support from the local community,” says Eileen.
“Which was incredibly important to me, because that is what this is all about. When you know you’re going to do something like this, it’s quite hard to put your head above the parapet because you’re thinking, ‘what if they don’t like it?’.
“I think our region has been forgotten about for some time now. So it was almost like, ‘hang on… we’re not going to be the forgotten town anymore’.
“The community calls it ‘our distillery’ which is really lovely. They talk about it as if it’s been there forever.
”I think, like us, they’re quite proud of it, because it has all been done to the highest level. There’s nothing like it in the area – we’re bringing something unique to a town that has been in decline for a long time.
“I think what also helps is the fact that we are proud of being Northumbrian. My husband and I did our family trees when we got together. We got his family line back to the 1200s and they were in Ford and Etal, and I got mine back to the 1500s in Kirknewton.
”So, in all of those generations, we are Northumbria through and through. Because of that, we love where we live and we’re incredibly proud of our heritage.”
For Eileen, Alan and the rest of the family, this very special venture is all about giving something back to the place where they started. The place where they started their family, where their families started their businesses, and the place they continue to call home.
“Our family business, Fergusons Transport, had a huge Millennium project down the road in Blyth. We built Eddie Ferguson House, which was great for the community.
So I said to Alan, ‘you had your Millennium project, can I have mine now – in Wooler?’.
The family are not only building a booming business, they’re building a legacy – a legacy they hope will span their lifetime, their children’s lifetime, and their grandchildren’s lifetime.
“I hope that it is still standing in 50 years’ time,” she says.
“I hope that my grandchildren will be involved. We will make no money out of it because we’ve spent a lot putting it together, but we’re hoping to run it as a business and pass it on to future
generations – leaving a legacy, not only for us, but for the whole town.
“I would like to see the people who grow up in north Northumberland sticking around and not feeling like they have to move away for work. We’ve got the perfect work/life balance here, so if we can create more job opportunities, there’s no need for people to move away from the area.
“My children all moved away for university and spent time working in London, but they all love to come home. I think you can take the child out of the North East, but you can’t take the North East out of the child.
“Hopefully the distillery will create new opportunities for people up here – things we haven’t had at our fingertips before. We might have kids from Wooler who want to be a distiller when they grow up. How cool is that? That’s an option now – and it’s incredibly exciting.”
There have been many milestone moments for Eileen and the family during the development process at Ad Gefrin – from lightbulb moments during vineyard tours in France, to kitchen table business plans and more recently, the arrival of the stills.
“When the stills came, that was one of the most emotional days of my life,” Eileen starts.
“I’d just come back from a skiing trip in Canada, so I was coping with an eight hour time difference, and I’d also been to see my father who was in a care home at the time – he was 96.
”I realised that he was very poorly and that he didn’t have much longer with us. I said to him, ‘look, dad, whatever you do – don’t die tomorrow morning’.
“So I spent that day with the whole community, watching as the stills arrived in style, knowing that my father was towards the end of his life.
”One of the proudest moments was when I saw the trucks driving along Wooler high street and Jake, who had worked for my father for 50 years, was driving the first lorry. I told him he wasn’t allowed to retire until the stills arrived.
“The second truck was being driven by my daughter who, in lockdown, had trained as a truck driver. I couldn’t stop the tears when I saw her. I was so proud.
“It was all a bit of a blur. Afterwards, I went back to see my dad and told him all about it and he had tears running down his face.
”He gripped my hand, gripped Alan’s hand and it was as if to say ‘ok, you’ve done me proud – you can have my site’.
“The next morning at 8am, I got a phone call to say he was unconscious. It’s a very emotional story, but it was so special.”
Ad Gefrin officially started distilling at the end of 2022, with the site opening its doors to the public on Saturday 25 March 2023.
Eileen, the Ferguson family, the Ad Gefrin team and the wider Wooler community can’t wait to share this incredibly unique project with the world.
In the meantime, whisky-lovers can get their fix by experiencing the brand’s first blend – Tácnbora – which is stocked in a number of local businesses across the region, including: Turnbull’s in Alnwick, CentAle in Newcastle, Grape & Grain in Morpeth, Carruthers & Kent in Gosforth and many, many more.
“We wanted to start telling our story before the opening,” says Eileen.
“And it has been incredibly well received. We have stockists that run from Belford in Northumberland, right down to Durham.
”It was important for us to use the great links we have with other family businesses in the region. It’s wonderful that these suppliers who we have been using for years are giving back and supporting us in turn.”
As Eileen smiles from start to finish during our chat, incredibly passionate about Ad Gefrin and all that is represents for her, her family and the local community, she reminds me – and herself – how important it is to remove yourself from a situation from time to time, creating space to switch off and ‘just be’.
“Throughout this whole process, I’ve consciously made time to step away and enjoy the other little things in life that make me tick,” she says.
“We’re season ticket holders at Newcastle Falcons, so you’ll often see me there. I think it’s so important, especially when you have your own business and you’re running it with your family, to make time for hobbies.
“Another hobby of mine, which always sparks people’s interest, is that I breed alpacas. I’ve got 40 alpacas – which is slightly different, but I love it.”
A business born around a kitchen table. The ingredients? Champagne, a whole load of whisky tastings and a genuine love for the Northumberland town that Eileen still calls home.
Ad Gefrin is a national landmark, a Northumberland gem, and a family business built for the community – putting Wooler on the map for years to come.