Reviving the land that time forgot

An old photograph provides a link to the past for the Chaplin-Brice family, whose efforts as 'serial entrepreneurs' have seen them overcome declining agricultural returns and make a profit from the family farm
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The Independent Online

Twenty years ago Sarah and Graham Chaplin-Brice inherited a tumble-down farmhouse and outbuildings amid poor hill land in a quiet corner of the Lake District. At first, the holding looked little more than a heap of rubble on a Cumbria hillside.

Twenty years ago Sarah and Graham Chaplin-Brice inherited a tumble-down farmhouse and outbuildings amid poor hill land in a quiet corner of the Lake District. At first, the holding looked little more than a heap of rubble on a Cumbria hillside.

But Low Bridge Farm does have one outstanding asset: ambience. Secluded yet not remote, it has the most beautiful setting in the glorious and unspoilt valley of St John's in the Vale, some three miles south of the popular market town of Keswick.

So began the challenge of a life-time for this resolute couple who from day one decided they would somehow derive a life and income from this small farm. Where others might have been thwarted, they stayed and created a home where their family would have an enviable rural upbringing. The only problem was how to make this small hill farm profitable. But they have proved it can be done, and "diversification" has become the resounding household maxim at Low Bridge Farm.

"We were bowled over by the farm's setting in this magical valley, and we were determined to make a go of it," says Graham, a former education executive.

"It's been difficult, especially these latter years when we've had to be fairly innovative to bring on several new projects," he said. "But it's so stunning here and really has that 'wow' factor every morning when we get out of bed."

The Chaplin-Brices have proved to be innovative land-owners. From the outset it was clear there was little to be earned from a relatively small flock of sheep on 50 acres of craggy hillsides. So they let most of their grazing to an adjoining farmer, making his holding more viable. And they began a process of creating, one-by-one, fresh income streams out of their cluster of ancient buildings.

Low Bridge Farm now has a popular tea garden adjacent to a busy footpath crossing their land: a camping barn which sleeps eight, boasts an occupancy rate of 73 per cent, and is fully booked from Easter to September; as is their self-catering flat (courtesy of a redundant hay loft); a craft workshop is let to a local potter who sells at nearby farmers' markets; 17 acres of woodland have nature trails and are annually cropped with around 100 Christmas trees; and there is a woodland display centre that has just been opened in the the barn creating more economic activity in the area.

"They're serial entrepreneurs at Low Bridge End," says Carl Bendelow, project manager of Cumbria Farm Tourism Initiative (CFTI) and part of Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency which offers support and guidance to those bold souls who still want to hack out a rural living.

Carl says: "I first met them when they were developing their camping barn which is very popular and let through the Lakeland Camping Barn Network. They're leading lights in that Network, and we've also helped them develop new marketing opportunities with the YHA."

CFTI also assisted them in developing their tea garden for thirsty hill walkers, and cyclists wheeling down the St John's Vale. They also helped the Chaplin-Brice family source advice and grants from other agencies, in particular Cumbria Woodlands who helped develop the new woodland information centre in the last spare corner of their traditional Cumbria barn.

"The Chaplin-Brices are an excellent example of how a rural family can overcome declining agricultural returns by diversifying into other activities, and in particular, tourism. And there's lots of assistance around to help and support them," adds Carl.

He believes each rural initiative created brings with it secondary economic knock-on effects which keeps rural communities alive and feeding off one another. "The woodland centre on their land is free entry, but lots of people want a cup of tea while they're there, or might buy something from the pottery workshop during their visit."

Eldest son William, 20, has just completed a two-year HND in forestry management at Newton Rigg College in nearby Penrith, and will shortly set himself up as a consultant providing a conservation and woodland service. He says this will ensure he stays based in the Vale, and can create his own future here among the fells.

The Chaplin-Brices have some interesting ancestral roots in Cumbria. Sarah's great-grandfather was John Mackereth, estate manager to Beatrix Potter who bought, and bequeathed to The National Trust, many fell farms over the course of her life. Sarah's other great-grandfather Arthur Chaplin, bought a small estate of two fell farms and a large house in St John's in the Vale in 1911. One of those holdings was Low Bridge End Farm.

Sarah says: "Even if somebody came along with millions, we wouldn't sell this place. We don't really think of Low Bridge Farm as belonging to us - we look upon ourselves as custodians of the property for future generations to enjoy.

"We have an old photograph of my grandfather and grandmother, great-grandfather and great-grandmother, all sitting in a wonderful old jalopy on the St John's Road just outside our farm here. If you stand at the same scene today, nothing has changed in 100 years, and the remarkable thing to note is you can earn a living without destroying the visual amenities of an area."

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