NIGEL Turner is one of a dying breed in the 21st century – he is a real-life cowboy working the lands of the American wild west.
What’s even more unusual is that Nigel Turner is a Penistone lad.
The 54-year-old, who once played cowboys and Indians round the lanes and farms of Oxspring, now owns a 165-square-mile ranch in Arizona, complete with 300 cattle, 50 horses and a herd of buffalo.
He also has a home in Beverly Hills (“four doors down from the Beckhams,” he says), once helicoptered Margaret Thatcher around Berlin, and built up his own Los Angeles tour business, only to see it collapse after the 1994 city riots and earthquake.
“It’s been,” he says, “quite some journey from South Yorkshire.”
He’s not wrong.
It has led him to the American desert where he sits today, dressed in chaps and hat, his horse Rony tethered nearby, the furious sun beating down.
“It’s been my dream to have somewhere like this ever since I was a kid,” he says. “Growing up in South Yorkshire I was always mad keen on the Wild West. I remember my granddad would play cowboys and Indians with me or take me to Penistone Cinema to watch John Wayne films, and it’s just unbelievable now to be helping to preserve a little bit of that incredible history.
“Cowboys are a dying breed – not because there’s no young Americans who want to be cowboys but because of the industrialisation of farming, and that’s such a tragedy. It is a skill, an art, a part of history that really shouldn’t be allowed to be forgotten.
“We have buffalo here, hundreds of cattle, cowboys on horseback working the ranch. We like tourists to come and visit us but I always stress this: it is a working ranch above all else.”
So, the obvious question: How did an Englishman, whose grandfather never even left South Yorkshire and spent 50 years working as a metal grinder at Oxspring Mill, come to own a ranch in the American desert?
There’s a not-so-obvious answer, and it all starts when, as a British Army pilot, Nigel gave Margaret Thatcher a helicopter ride over Berlin.
“All the world leaders who came to the city were given an orientation air tour,” says Nigel, who left Penistone before he started school but would spend entire summers there with his grandparents, Daisy and Austin Wordsworth. “I was assigned to give Margaret Thatcher a tour and after the 15-minute flight, she was fascinated and wanted to keep going and know more.
“It struck me that all her defences had come down because she found it so amazing, and I thought I could do this for everyone. This could be a great tourist idea.”
So after leaving the army in 1986 the Newcastle University graduate moved to the US, bought an old piston engine chopper (“it was like the helicopter out of M*A*S*H,” he says) and started an air tours business based in Los Angeles.
“It was just incredibly popular,” he says. “I remember we had a story in the local paper and the night after it went in the phone at the flat – which doubled as our office phone – didn’t stop ringing.
“I needed eight hours sleep because I was flying the next morning but we couldn’t afford to lose the bookings – so I went and slept on the beach while my friend took the calls pretty much right through the night.”
At its height he reckons Heli LA, as he called the business, was flying around 30,000 tourists a year – as well as the odd LA high-flyer who wanted to arrive at parties or business meetings in style.
Then came the riots. Then came the earthquake.
“1994 was just a horrible year for Los Angeles,” he says. “Overseas tourism collapsed, and I couldn’t really survive. It was very seasonal anyway and that summer there was just no-one coming to the city.
“I’d been to Las Vegas a few times and I had this idea about doing tours to the Grand Canyon from there, so I put what money I had into buying three more helicopters and went for it. Before us, there were only really plane tours and you can’t go down into the canyon itself in a plane, you can only look at it from 1,000 feet up. With a helicopter you can go right into the rim, and I thought ‘That’s our selling point’.”
His idea was, to say the least, popular.
“We’ve flown 1.2 million people since 1996, and there’s never anything but positive feedback,” he says.
“Tourists are astounded by everything from the canyon itself to Las Vegas from the air, to the Hoover Dam, even to the desert landscape.”
But it was Nigel who was astounded during a flight in 2000 when he first noticed the Diamond Bar Ranch he would come to buy.
“There was a mountain lion standing on a ridge with her cubs and I remember saying to my passengers – they were a German family – how incredible it was. I said to them ‘You won’t ever see anything like that again’.
“I studied zoology at Newcastle University when I was 18 and I’ve always been into animals, and after seeing that I kept my eye on the ranch.”
When it came up for sale in 2002 he bought it.
As is tradition with cowboys, there was minimal paperwork.
“I shook the guy’s hand and that was more or less that,” he says. “There was a bond between us as soon as we met – we trusted each other.
“People said I was crazy to do it because I had no experience of cattle and horses, and because the place was a little neglected but it just seemed perfect to me, like all those boyhood dreams coming true.”
Nearly 10 years on he says he has not regretted the purchase for a single second. He has reintroduced buffalo to the area, boosted cattle numbers and now employs 12 full-time cowboys to help run the ranch.
Combining the property – renamed Grand Canyon Ranch – with his helicopter business, he does a package deal where tourists board a flight in Las Vegas, see the Grand Canyon by air, then land at the farmstead to spend a day on the working ranch, even sampling buffalo burgers for lunch.
For the especially adventurous he has built basic log cabins where visitors can spend the night, as long as they don’t mind the calls of coyotes in the silent desert night.
Nigel stays there half the week – and the other half goes back to Beverly Hills where his wife Lesley and two young children Eden and Sarina are based.
The sun’s setting now in Arizona.
“It’s a bit different to Oxspring,” he says. “Although I love both places.
“Sometimes I’m still amazed at how everything has worked out.”