Innovative redevelopment gives rural economy shot in the arm

18 November 2016

Driving through the Essex countryside and its picturesque rural villages you get the feel of timelessness, as if they are enclosed within a bubble impermeable by the advance of time.

However, landowners and farmers are adept at changing with the times, working tirelessly to enhance the beauty of our natural landscapes and embracing change to improve the future prospects of all who live in rural communities.

Modern farming’s ever-changing economic picture has brought the viability of diversification projects as additional income streams firmly into the spotlight. There is a need to increase productivity and resilience, which could be through building new on-farm infrastructure or by creating alternative income streams through housing, leisure or retail, which can help make the core farming business more secure.

As well as providing an opportunity to create another income stream and build resilience into the business, farm diversification activities can also provide benefits for the wider community by providing additional job opportunities – helping to boost the rural economy.

Travelling south along the A1017 and crossing the Suffolk-Essex border, you can find Baythorne Hall, a 14th century house surrounded by once redundant farm buildings that CLA members George Unwin and his brother Matt are reviving.

A disused granary and a variety of barns and buildings are in the shadow of the Grade I listed building, all sitting on a flood plain alongside the River Stour.

“We have farmed here for five generations, and the business has evolved greatly over the years so that buildings that were used for traditional farming practices have become redundant over the last century or so,” explains George.

“All the farming takes place over the road in big concrete grain stories and huge buildings to store the machinery, and these old timber-framed and stone buildings have been, for about the last 50 years, just storing junk. They fall within the curtilage of the house, so we are required to keep them standing – but they are an important part of the site and lovely buildings.”

After a decade in the wine trade, George decided that he wanted to come back to the family farm as well as wanting to start his own business. His parents had dipped their toes into the water in regards to diversification with a building converted into a holiday let, but George was enthused by the potential offered by the disused granary.

“Having had a lot of contact with chefs while I was in the wine trade, we developed the idea for a wine merchant with a cookery school,” he says. “We started working on plans for this building in 2011, got permission in 2013 to start the building process, and it was opened in November 2014.

“The development wasn’t without its struggles: the configuration of the parking on this site used to be different and you almost had to be out on A1017 before you could see what you were doing. The Highways weren’t happy with that as access if we were attracting customers to the site, so we had to create a new entrance to the site which was rather costly.

“We also had to get a new flood risk assessment (one had already been undertaken when the holiday let was created) and overcome the regulations that come with the proximity to the Grade I listed house.

“We wanted to create a modern, contemporary building into the old frame, but one of the constraints was the outside of the building had to remain as close to the original as possible. We got there eventually and we have developed a wine merchant business that’s run on the ground floor as well as a shop.

“The cookery school is run upstairs with guest chefs coming in who specialise in certain areas such as Italian, Indian, and so on. This has been a real driver to the site and getting people engaged with what we’re doing here. We also have a room that can be used for multiple uses, such as wine tasting events and dinner evenings. It’s getting busier and busier all the time.”

This isn’t the end of the story, with the success of the business now the driver for George and Matt to tap further into the potential of the barns that have yet to be converted and create a premium retail destination in a beautiful rural location.

“We currently have an application in for the development of a cafe on site here as well as some office space,” George says. “We’ve also got an idea for a retail courtyard, which would help create a site that attracts people for three or four different reasons.”

The countryside is alive, evolving and adapting, with farmers and landowners such as George and Matt preserving farm businesses and buildings, and providing economic opportunities for those living in rural areas.

The speed of change is accelerating in the 21st century countryside, ensuring the landscape can remain reassuringly familiar and the villages are viable and vibrant. The bubble has burst and is now a sphere of innovation and commerce.