In the summer of 1957, aged 27, I was looking for a farm to buy. Priory Farm at South Nutfield happened to be the market. On my first visit, travelling down Sandy Lane in my blue Morris Minor pickup van, I had what I now believe was a premonition. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, except to say it was one of a heightening of the senses, of excitement, a feeling of destiny.
Shortly afterwards, I attended an auction at Redhill Town Hall with my advisor, Maurice Crowe of Crowe Watkin and Watkin. Priory Farm and Little Cormongers Farm were being sold as one lot. The Farm didn’t reach the reserve price but Maurice came up with a solution, telling me: “I think I know someone who will buy Little Cormongers if you are prepared to pay for Priory Farm.” I said I was. He went over to a Mr Dickinson, a few words were exchanged and the sale was arranged.
I paid £13,000 for Priory Farm: all the old Victorian buildings, bailiff’s cottage, two farm cottages and 140 acres of farmland.
After about four years my father lent me some money to install a broiler house, for fattening 8,000 chickens. This meant that we had some money coming in once every ten weeks, as opposed to once a year with the corn and a few spasmodic cheques during the spring and summer from the lambs. After 10 years of trying to make a living in this way it became clear that, with a growing family, we were heading for some dire financial difficulties. Farming was suffering in the same way as many other small businesses. Economies of scale were becoming essential to survive. So, in 1968, I sold half the farm. This left me with around 70 acres. With some of the released capital I invested in modern pig buildings but there remained the question of what to do with the 70 acres of land.
In the late 1960’s, I read in a horticultural farming magazine that Pick Your Own had been successful in America. Was this the way forward? I thought it was worth a try. So, in 1969 I planted my first acre of strawberries, which opened to the public to pick in 1970. Unwittingly, I had become a pioneer in this new method of selling fruit and vegetables in the UK.
At the same time, my pig farming business started to expand. Eventually I built up a herd of 200 sows. and became involved in breed improvement work. Together with other farmers in the South East we set up a company called Accredicross Pigs which sold young sows and boars to commercial pig farmers across the country and as far afield as Europe, Australia and China. It seemed I had reached the pinnacle of my success in 1981 when I was awarded the prize for the “Champion Carcass” at The Royal Smithfield Show in London!
During the 1970’s, the expansion of the Pick Your Own was an exciting time: the public were eager to get out into the countryside and enjoy fresh air, natural surroundings and the pleasure of gathering truly fresh produce. We started with strawberries and then went on to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables over 80 acres.
The 1980’s saw a steady expansion which enabled us to buy back some of our land. During this decade, my two sons joined me in the business. Nic in 1984 (having returned from working on an Australian farm) and Anthony, after a spell in the City, in 1989. Nic took over the growing and Anthony’s role was to develop the Farm Shop and facilitate the move into the old Victorian buildings, its present home. When Anthony took over the Shop, it was situated in the greenhouse that formed part of the Plant Centre.
In 1985 I asked my Partner/Manager Francis Hallowes to start growing bedding plants in a polythene tunnel. Little did we know that this was the very start of what was to become our thriving Plant Centre.
Running alongside Pick Your Own, the fledgling farm shop and bedding plant project was our pig farming business managed by Tony Turner.
Tony started at the Farm in 1962 and is still working as hard as ever 45 years later. When we gave up pig farming, he went on to help with the growing and selling of the PYO crops and general farm maintenance. Tony began with a herd of 15 Landrace sows, which gradually rose to 200. At any one time, he could be looking after up to 2,000 pigs, including the piglets.
By the early 1990’s our pig business was reaching a natural end. If we were to continue we needed to expand. There was also the consideration that visiting customers and pigs were not a sensible mix! Furthermore, it was at a time when was a move away from intensive pig farming. And so the last pig left the Farm in 1992, the same year that the Farm Shop opened in its present buildings. Since giving up the pigs it has been a struggle to settle the business: to find new enterprises and continue to nurture the fledgling ones we had already started.
The decline of Pick Your Own in my view came from a change in fashion, a change in people’s lifestyles as they became busier, and the increase in production costs. Added to this, supermarkets became more prevalent and began to offer a wide range of fruit and vegetables throughout the year. Seasonality was becoming a thing of the past.
It was also difficult, in a declining market, to match supply and demand. On top of all this we had some bad seasons because of weather – we lost money three years running - finally closing the fields to the public in 2001. This was a move which disappointed our following of loyal and enthusiastic pickers, but it simply wasn’t viable to continue.
With this in mind, in 2001 we set up an Events and Corporate Entertainment business (Priory Events) in partnership with colleagues and a Mountain Board business (Ride The Hill) to make good use of our lands.
Priory Lake has been an important feature of Priory Farm since origin of Nutfield Priory in the late 1800’s.
We have developed fishing by adding two more substantial lakes – Hungerford in 1981 and then Hogtrough in 2000. Priory Farm Lakes is now a members-only fishing club offering good fishing in stunning surroundings. It has built a strong membership and continues to do well.Fishing
Virtually every tree you see around our fishing lakes has been planted by Ian Ford, who has also been an enormous help in establishing and developing the lakes. Ian started at Priory Farm as a general farm worker in 1970 aged 15. His abilities over the decades have been invaluable and range from tractor driver, mechanic, builder, plumber, electrician, grower, repairer of anything, to the imaginative creator of all the seasonal displays erected in the field opposite the Farm Shop.
Francis Hallowes was the mastermind of this operation and the business steadily grew, with various additions to the structure over the years. As I write in 2007, The Plant Centre now covers 40,000 square feet and specialises in hanging baskets, patio pots, herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs alongside the original bedding plants, together with all the accessories for keen and amateur gardeners alike. We also feature an innovative range of plant pots, arbours, trellises and topiary.
This developed into what became the Coffee Shop, which specialised in handmade food and freshly ground coffee. It soon became a very important part of the business and enhanced the experience of a “day out” at Priory Farm.
This developed into our Handmade Food range and the Farm Shop also provided food through the Effortless Entertaining catering menu. With fabulously good timing, in our golden celebration year, we were thrilled to be awarded two Gold Awards for our handmade food by the Fine Food Guild.
Wendy, my wife, started a gift area in the Farm Shop during the 1990’s which constantly develops and is now a popular and attractive part of the Shop.
In 2006, responding to requests from our customers, we once again dipped our toes in the water of Pick Your Own. The response was positive, and so earlier this year, in spring 2007, we re-opened a Pick Your Own operation. It is much smaller than it was in its heyday, and we have no plans to resurrect a very extensive Pick Your Own business. But our customers are enjoying the experience of spending time in our fields, picking wonderfully fresh fruits, and we are continuing to sell these crops in the Farm Shop and make good use of them in our Handmade Food. We have always embraced the ethos of selling local food to local people and remain true to this in every way possible.
We have long held a dream to be able to allow our visitors to stroll around the stunning countryside that makes up Priory Farm.
In 2007, to mark our 50th year, this dream came to fruition with the opening of The Discovery Walk. The plan is to allow this to grow slowly and mature over the coming years. Hopefully, this year we will be able to offer visitors and passers by a splendid show as the 50 million poppy seeds and 50 thousand sunflower seeds bloom in the summer. The 100 silver birch saplings will take longer to mature and we will enjoy watching them flourish. The pathways will be developed and extra points of interest added.
It is exciting for us to be planning an on-going project with an enthusiasm that, after 50 years of highs and lows, remains undiminished!
JOHN SHINNER, 2007
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Priory Farm, Sandy Lane, South Nutfield, Redhill, Surrey RH1 4EJ