When young farmer Stuart Ridley was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, the farming industry proved how it can be such a formidable force. Danusia Osiowy explains why the resulting campaign, #staystrongstu, captured the hearts of thousands and meets the key players behind it.
Last year, a 25-year old young farmer from Northumberland captured the hearts of thousands as he battled against an inoperable brain tumour.
Stuart Ridley’s vow to keep on fighting the condition following his diagnosis saw the launch of an incredible campaign, #staystrongstu, which galvanised the farming industry in a show of phenomenal support.
The campaign, which aimed to increase awareness of the illness and raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity and Wooden Spoon, has gone on to raise a staggering £240,000.
As testament to what he loved best, Young Farmers, rugby teams, his local auction mart and rural communities far and wide, demonstrated farming’s strength in numbers during a time of inconceivable hardship.
The collective effort and astonishing response was the reason he and the campaign were named the winner of last year’s Farmers Guardian Farming Hero at the British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
It was a bittersweet journey for the farming family, who say they found tremendous comfort in the support within the industry and wider general public.
Running a traditional upland farm, parents Celia and Melvin farm in partnership with their other two sons Kevin and Stephen, running 1,000 ewes, 45 suckler cows and 90 store cattle across 340 hectares (840 acres).
Celia says: “Right from the start, I started reading the Facebook posts after the campaign launched. Every bit of contact we had from other people just helped shave off a tiny, tiny bit of pressure.”
In February last year, the rugby-lover from Shitlington Hall, north of Hexham, who played for Tynedale Rugby Club, was planning a trip to Thailand with three friends as he began to feel unwell on a night out.
After persistent headaches and sickness, Stu, as he liked to be known, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and, soon after, he turned to Facebook to share his story and post regular updates.
A wealth of fundraising activities have been undertaken by YFC members
“More bad news I’m afraid folks, the results of the biopsy have shown a particularly aggressive type of tumour which has spread to a couple of other spots, as well as a bit on the surface of the brain.
“I start radio then chemotherapy in the next couple of weeks to try and slow it down. However it isn’t curable at the moment and I have been given roughly six months, but everyone is different and I am far from beaten yet.
“Thanks again for all the support which has been given, it has been unbelievable and really does mean the world to myself and my family.”
In the following weeks, Stu completed six rounds of radiotherapy, but sadly his condition deteriorated and he lost his brave fight on Tuesday, July 14.
Following Stu’s diagnosis, veteran rugby player Andrew Burns, who was instrumental in leading the campaign, decided to get 20 t-shirts printed for his rugby team, Tynedale Veterans, to show support.
What followed was the start of the international campaign under the hashtag #staystrongstu.
Celia says: “Before we knew it, we were sending t-shirts and wristbands around the world to those wanting to show support. They were sent to more than 100 countries across the world. You could not make it up.”
Hexham and Northern Marts, the family’s local sales point, became involved in the campaign from the outset.
Initially, the plan was to sell a Limousin cross heifer, but it quickly became a two-day event, where they would sell livestock on the Friday and a promise auction on Saturday.
Auctioneer Chris Armstrong says: “I have never seen it as busy before. Literally, every single seat was taken and we had sold about 600 tickets, but there was definitely more than 600 people on the evening.
“When we left here at 2am, we were close to £90,000 and, by the time Monday morning arrived, we had raised £102,000. It really was quite amazing.”
On winning the award, Cecilia Ridley says: “There cannot be anything harder in life to deal with than this, but the love and support throughout from friends, family and complete strangers has helped to carry us.
“The awards have helped enormously with the fact Stu has been recognised for the way he lived his life and ultimately his death. The way so much good has come from something so tragic is fantastic and Stu’s legacy lives on.”
The Farmers Guardian Farming Hero award recognises an individual or group of people who pull together in the hardest of times, strive to make a positive difference to the lives of other people and campaign to raise awareness to the wider industry and beyond.
If you would like to nominate, simply enter the details of the person or people you feel should be considered by clicking here.
For more details about the awards, visit www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk.
Bellingham Young Farmers, Stu’s local club, became involved when Hexham and Northern Marts asked members to support their fundraising event.
Sarah Little says: “We ran the silent auction and it was phenomenal. Stu was the heart of our club and everyone loved him. We will continue to fundraise going forward and keep his memory alive.”
The county’s Stand Up For Stu comedy night raised £3,000 and the club continued with fundraising activities, which included a Wot Not challenge, cake sales, marathons and fun runs.
Following closely were members of Tynedale Rugby Club, who held Stu’s Super Sunday and #staystrongstu sevens, which saw players past and present and non-players gather for an afternoon of activity and games.
Tynedale member Joe Mills says the event was the biggest the club had ever had.
He says: “It made the club more of a hub. People who hadn’t been down in years, people who hadn’t played in years began hearing what we were doing and it physically brought people down and rekindled friendships and camaraderie. It has definitely brought the community closer.”
The campaign also captured the attention of England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster, who supported the initiative along with Jonny Wilkinson, who visited Stu and donated a signed t-shirt, which raised £950.
The ongoing #staystrongstu campaign has now become a fully-registered charity.
Celia, who applied for the status, recently heard it had been granted charity status by the Charity Commission. The cash raised through the campaign will be going to benefit The Brain Tumour Charity, Wooden Spoon Charity, Teenage Cancer Trust, The Rainbow Trust, Tynedale Hospice at Home and The Freeman Hospital’s Ward 34.
Three weeks ago was the return of Stu’s Super Saturday, held at Tyndale Park, Corbridge, and thousands turned out as the support continued.
The first match was veterans vs. hoppers and colts, followed by a touch rugby game in the middle. Guy Opperman, the family’s local conservative MP, survived a brain tumour and played in a very personal show of support.
Action also included a farmers vs. academics match, while there was plenty more for all ages to enjoy with a tug of war, bouncy castle, live music and beer tent among the highlights.
The #staystrongstu sevens tournament will also return on June 18, alongside the beer festival in Tynedale, with 10 teams already registered.
Celia has recently travelled to London from the family farm at Wark, Northumberland, to help lobby Parliament for more research funding into the condition.
When asked why she believed Stu’s story had struck a chord with so many thousands of people, Celia attributed it to his popularity and the way farming and rugby communities come together in times of crisis.
She says: “Stu was a popular lad. He was a hard worker, farmer’s son, YFC member and a rugby player. It makes for a heck of a combination and everyone was right behind him.”
Speaking about the way farming communities pull together in times of great adversity, Chris believes when standing united, there is no greater industry.
He says: “It really illustrates farming people for what we are. Great characters, great resilience and great support between our own kind. Stu’s story galvanised the whole industry up and down the country.”