Philppa and Sebastian Hughes

How many farmers today are "deliriously happy" to be working the land?

Bill Taylor may just have found one.
Posted by Bill Taylor

For the past ten years, Philippa and Sebastian Hughes have run Holne Chase Country House Hotel on the southern edge of the Dartmoor National Park. It is much loved and much acclaimed - a highly successful rural business.

However, the more the accolades tumbled on to the door mat, the more it seemed that Sebastian longed for a harder life on the high tors of Dartmoor itself. He wanted to get into farming at a time when most sane people were running hard in the other direction.

In the winter of 2004, the couple received an anonymous telephone call saying that Holwell Farm might be for sale. Lying in the shadow of Hay Tor, it is a wild and beautiful place, but the farm itself was running to ruin.

"It was a November morning when we first saw it," said Philippa. "We stood in the green lane and the rain was just horizontal - a good old Devon day. The gate was held together with bailer twine and we fell in love with the place.

"We thought, 'Is there any way of doing this?' Sebastian was desperate to get back into farming. It's in his family, in his blood. But it was very much a case of our hearts racing against our heads." That madness has consumed them for the past two years and turned the couple into unlikely television celebrities. Their struggle to save Holwell Farm has been turned into a documentary series now showing on the Discovery Channel. The story goes to the heart of the current debate about whether our future farmers should be park keepers or food producers.

"We wanted to find a way of making it a working farm," said Philippa, "and the only way is to underpin the whole farm is with tourists. If you don't participate in agriculture, you don't have a landscape. Farming maintains the land that people want to visit. Without farming we wouldn't have the tourists; but without the visitors, we certainly wouldn't have a working farm."

The result is an interesting hybrid. The old pig house, calf house and stables have been turned into five-star holiday cottages with loving and expensive attention to detail. The biggest house sleeps ten people and rents for £1,000 a week. Step outside the patio door, and you're in the middle of Dartmoor.

Thanks to the income from the cottages, a forgotten farm is coming back to life, with Belted Galloway cattle, Saddleback pigs, a herd of Dartmoor ponies, a flock of free-range chickens and some muddy geese.

"We've got just under five hundred acres," said Sebastian. "Economically, we'd be better off doing bugger all. But I just can't walk through the fields and not use them. If you want to keep the land in good heart, you have to tend it. The cottages, in turn, do much better because they've got a working farm around them. It helps to break down what has become a very serious divide between farm and city. The cottages are a necessity; a good use of farm buildings."

When city children collect their own breakfast eggs from under a warm mother hen, it transforms their shaky understanding of where food comes from. Everyone smiles when a child says: "Can we go and milk the pig now?" But perhaps they will grow up to join a new generation of consumers unhappy with the compromises of cheap imported food.

The revival of Holwell is doing its bit to encourage the whole farming economy of Dartmoor. The Hughes have helped set up an agricultural co-operative and their Tor to Tor delivery van takes beef, lamb and pork directly from a range of producer farms to local shops and consumers. The area is lucky to have a small abattoir nearby in Ashburton and Holwell will soon open its own butchering plant.

"Yes, we have been viewed by some of our neighbours as upstarts," smiles Philippa, "but we really do want to farm. Holwell will be successful. We've got the right formula. We work together with neighbours to plug the gaps in our own experience. At the same time, there's an opportunity for other farmers to experience the benefits of selling direct. The signs are very good at the moment. The Tor to Tor meat delivery service is now in profit." The conversion of the holiday cottages did its bit for the local economy, too. The work was carried out entirely by local tradesmen and wherever possible the couple used materials and suppliers from within a thirty-mile radius. It's true that the oak for the rustic dining tables came from Wales, but all the furniture was still supplied and fitted by local stores and craftsmen.

The present and future prosperity of the countryside is very much on the mind of Sebastian Hughes.

"You almost get the sense that Defra wants us to stop farming altogether. They're not interested in it. But most farmers I talk to would rather have no grants and profitable farms. God forbid, but what if there's some disaster overseas? That may change things and temper our appetite for cheap imported food. Everything going on here in Dartmoor shows that there is a growing band of people who want traceability in their food and are prepared to spend a few pennies more to get it."

Not everyone is quite so optimistic. In the documentary series, titled Forgotten Farm, we meet an agricultural adviser who helps Holwell through the bureaucratic maze of applying for the new single farm payment. "Farming is going downhill," he says. "When I was a youngster, a farmer was a well respected, reasonably prosperous individual. Today, a significant percentage of them are existing in very valuable properties, but living like paupers. Farming today has a good crop of holidaymakers, but will it produce any food?" It will if Sebastian Hughes has anything to do with it.

The purchase and restoration of Holwell cost around £2.5 million and already all the revived assets of the farm are thought to have increased substantially in value. The Hughes are serious and successful business people who put their mortgage where their mouth is. The bank manager will be relieved, but that's not the point.

"Sebastian is just deliriously happy to be farming," says Philippa. How many farmers' wives today can say that about their men?