SIMON Raine’s enthusiasm for the way of life he has chosen is as irresistible as the range of cheeses he lovingly nurtures in the unlikely setting of an old prisoner of war camp.

Getting on for 80 years ago, HUT 16 at Harperley, near Crook, was used as a workshop by German and Italian prisoners while they waited for the end of World War Two.

Now it’s the setting for a heart-warming business success story: a small, pristine dairy producing between 100 and 120 kilogrammes of cheese every week using an average of 1,000 litres of milk from a neighbouring farm.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone mad, but I just love it,” says Simon, who hardly ever seems to stop smiling. It’s as if someone has pointed a camera, told him to “say cheese” and it’s stuck.

“I enjoy the isolation of working on my own in the dairy during the week then meeting amazing people on my delivery rounds or at farmers’ markets – it’s fantastic,” he says.

When businesses were widely consulted about what made Durham so appealing for inward investment and setting up or growing a business, a list of factors was put forward: excellent transport links, a world-class heritage, an internationally-respected university, a can-do attitude from organisations across the county, excellent business locations and stunning countryside.

But by far the most important ingredient was people: their resilience, flexibility, adaptability, positive work ethic, realism and sense of humour.

The consultation led to the launch of the Powered by People movement to promote Durham as a great place to do business in.

Simon is a shining example of why the campaign makes perfect sense and deserves the support of businesses across the county.

The Weardale Cheese company is a world away from the father-of-three’s former job as managing director of a York-based company which distributed telephone directories and Yellow Pages.

When the internet threw a spanner in the works, Simon sought inspiration from his County Durham upbringing.

He was born in Bishop Auckland and grew up in St Helen Auckland. His dad, Ken, worked for the Milk Marketing Board and National Dairy Council, so Simon jokes that he was force-fed yoghurt and cheese.

“It was in my blood,” he says.

Before joining the distribution company Simon also worked for Northern Dairies, starting with delivering milk and working his way up the ranks.

When he needed to find a new way to make a living, Simon went back to his roots. He saw a gap in the market for Weardale to have its own cheese and, through a family connection, HUT16  provided the ideal production base.

The family savings were used to convert the premises and the business was launched in January 2015, with Durham names being carefully chosen for the product range.

He sold his first cheese – the appropriately named St Cuthbert – at the St Cuthbert’s Day Fair at Durham Cathedral.

Since then, Weardale Cheese has become an important part of the growing County Durham food sector which contributed around £320m to the local economy in 2017.

St Cuthbert is a lightly blue, semi-soft cheese. Simon also makes a blue version of the traditional Weardale Cheese called Prince Bishop; a semi-soft, white mould rinded Brie de Weardale and Bonny Moor Hen, a smoked version of Weardale. The lightly-herbed Weardale Nettle and a Spanish-inspired Diablo, with smoked paprika and chili flakes, complete the range.

Today Weardale Cheese products are sold through outlets across the North-East.

Instead of driving up and down the A1 to York, these days Simon is meeting “wonderful people” while making deliveries to the county’s network of farm shops, restaurants and pubs, or attending farmers’ markets and food festivals.

It makes him well placed to judge the power of people when it comes to the culture of County Durham.

“The food economy is so important to County Durham and it’s a joy to see how it all knits together,” says Simon, who is ably supported in the business by his wife Julie.

“You see the passion, resilience and integrity of Durham people all the time, so putting people at the heart of promoting the county is absolutely spot on.”

As if he’s not busy enough with cheese production, deliveries and attending rural events, Simon is also on the speaking circuit where he tells his inspirational story – called Confessions of a Cheesemaker – to groups including the Women’s Institute, social groups and the University of the Third Age. Naturally, he takes nibbles with him.

School visits giving youngsters an insight into running a business are also part of his tireless schedule.

“It might sound corny but I’m a proud County Durham lad and I want to put something back,” says Simon.

He admits it’s “pretty full-on” but there’s no time for regrets.

As MD of the distribution company Simon had a healthy salary, a pension and company car, but the corporate benefits have all gone. Instead, it’s back to basics: producing cheese round-the-clock and getting out and about to every corner of County Durham to sell it.

“It was a calculated risk, but I didn’t want to look back and wonder why I hadn’t given it a go,” says Simon, who now lives in Hamsterley.

“It’s a small-scale living and hard work but it was always more about following my passion and creating something special from scratch.

“Even if it all fell apart tomorrow, I can look myself in the mirror and know I gave it a bloody good go.”

With that, Simon Raine rushes off to make another delivery of Weardale Cheese, this time to Knitsley Farm Shop at Consett, then Durham Indoor Market.

“Lovely people,” he says.

  • If you’re a business in County Durham and would like to be a part of the Durham Powered by People movement, please go to durhampoweredbypeople.co.uk or email PoweredByPeople@durham.gov.uk.