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Press Cutting: Turnastone Court Farm
The article below is a reproduction of a Daily Telegraph article published in February 2003 and still available on the Daily Telegraph website archive concerning the acquisition of Turnastone Court Farm by the Countryside Restoration Trust. It is © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited and subject to their conditions of use.
A corner of old England comes back to life
A Herefordshire farm's ancient pastures are to be preserved as a haven for wildlife. And that's just the start, finds Charles Clover
Turnastone Farm: it was saved by the Countryside Restoration Trust
12:01AM GMT 22 Feb 2003
This week we have a triumph to celebrate: the saving of a remarkable grassland farm from the plough and the potato harvester. Our heroes are Robin Page and his colleagues at the Countryside Restoration Trust.
Last July, I had the first of many calls about a farm in the Golden Valley, Herefordshire. Turnastone Court Farm, 247 acres, was up for sale and a local farmer had applied to Defra to dig up its hay meadows and pasture, some of which had not been ploughed for more than 400 years.
First there was a booming message on the answering machine from Robin Page. Robin's messages range from rumours and conspiracy theories about what Defra is doing, to libels on senior public figures and wit and wisdom about what is going on in the countryside. The last is always worth investigating.
Then came a call from Ian Hart, a retired land surveyor, now an author and conservationist. He explained that the farm - which included a seven-bedroom 19th-century farmhouse, the village shop and a cottage - belonged to two sisters, Irene and Annie Watkins, who used few of the fertilisers that eradicate wild flowers. Their Hereford cattle and Clun sheep were famous at local shows.
The farm was a gem. Ian had found quaking grass, lady's bedstraw, knapweed, bird's-foot trefoil, common spotted orchid and burnet moths - all characteristic of unimproved hay meadows - on about 80 acres, together with anthills on a sloping pasture, which indicated that it was a long time since this piece had been ploughed.
But what made Turnastone Court even more remarkable was its history. It was where a 16th-century landowner, Rowland Vaughan, a member of a well-known Border family, was inspired to undertake a feat of water engineering by observing the endeavours of a mole.
The story goes that one March day, after a dry and chilly winter, Vaughan caught sight of a strip of verdant pasture stretching out from the bank of the brook. On closer inspection, he found a channel had been dug by a mole, which allowed the brook's water to melt the frost, fertilise the soil with silt and irrigate a valuable first flush of grass.
Inspired by this discovery, Vaughan devised a system of trenches and sluices linked to brooks and to the River Dore. His Trench Royal, 10ft wide and 4ft deep, eventually stretched three miles, from Peterchurch to Abbeydore, and was navigable by boat. His " drownings" of the meadows in spring and summer yielded early grass and an extra crop of hay. His scheme was so successful that his 1,500-acre New Court estate rose in value from £40 a year to £300.
Vaughan published a manual on " drownings" in 1610 and planned a kind of Utopian settlement to provide the local unemployed with work. However, Ian Hart could not interest the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts or Plantlife in saving this piece of landscape history. Robin Page and his trust were, meanwhile, on the case - but they did not appear to have the money.
After final offers were lodged, I heard that a woman from Yorkshire had bought the farm. Then, six months later, I picked up another of those booming messages from Robin saying that the sale had fallen through and the Countryside Restoration Trust's persistence had been rewarded.
I had to see this farm for myself. Last month I went with Robin and Nigel Housden, the trust's projects officer, to meet Ian Hart at the farm. On the way I learnt that the trust, which numbers among its trustees David Bellamy, Jonathon Porritt and Zac Goldsmith, had paid £1.27 million for the farm, borrowing £870,000 from Triados, the green bank. The trust confidently expects to repay this out of income.
But more money will be needed. The farmhouse is a time capsule, with butchering facilities in the cellar, hooks for hanging hams and the remains of vast barrels that have been used to store home-grown cider. But the front wall lets in water and the house needs sympathetic (expensive) renovation. The farm buildings, many built from local stone and Grade II listed, are tottering. The cottage is in a similar state and the village shop - which, with its Raleigh bicycle sign and two ancient petrol pumps, is straight out of the 1930s - is inhabited but run-down.
Hedley Wilding, 85, and his son Robert, 55, who live there, were delighted that their cottage was not, now, going to back on to potato furrows, which they were convinced would flood. Hedley remembers the valley full of people: now it has just the former presenter of One Man and his Dog. But the new owners and the old occupants are well-matched. As Robert puts it: " This farm is as natural as you could get. You know when summer is coming because the curlews come back into the field and start calling beside the river."
The Golden Valley is relatively narrow, with wooded sides. Chanstone Wood SSSI, which adjoins the top of the farm, is home to the silver-washed fritillary butterfly. Turnastone's small church is surrounded by snowdrops. Ian took us to a slope where limestone cornstones sit on top of the local red sandstone, creating a habitat for orchids.
Will the trust be a more suitable steward of all this than an ordinary farmer? And how will it make the farm pay and protect its wildlife?
Robin hopes to let the farm to a sympathetic tenant who is prepared to raise true Hereford cattle taken from the closed herd at the trust's farm at Much Marcle, the gift of David Powell, chairman of the Hereford Breeders Society. He will do up the cottage, develop the farm buildings as a visitor centre, and wants to discover more about Vaughan's works. As to the ecology, he intends to monitor it for a year or so to see what comes up, a lesson learnt at Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire, which now has the densest breeding population of skylarks in East Anglia.
" We're not just buying this farm," Robin says, " we're saving it. We want it to be sustainable and profitable. We want a traditional farm, producing quality food, creating jobs and fitting in with the local community." He resists the idea that it should go organic, but is considering his own Wild Farm food label to " add value" to its produce.
All this will be tough in a farming recession, but the trust has a record of pulling it off. All credit to Robin, who has moved the trust into the big league - over 1,000 acres in total. The Government ministers and their advisers (such as Lord Haskins and Sir Don Curry), who have so far given the trust a wide berth, may owe him a visit to see how it is done.
- For further details of the Countryside Restoration Trust: 01223 870932.
More information on Turnastone Court Farm can be found here.