Seeds of change

Carole Edney (55) and her husband Martin Edney (54) and their two children Josh Edney (21) and Gaynor Edney (24), holding their 2011 Gold Award they were awarded by Tourism South East, Beautiful South Awards for Excellence
Carole Edney (55) and her husband Martin Edney (54) and their two children Josh Edney (21) and Gaynor Edney (24), holding their 2011 Gold Award they were awarded by Tourism South East, Beautiful South Awards for Excellence
Picture: Shutterstock

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In this day and age, farmers are having to look at ways of diversifying. Rachel Jones meets a family who turned to tourism.

Martin Edney works on the land that two generations of his family have farmed before him.

Old Stables interior at West Marden Farm

Old Stables interior at West Marden Farm

But he’s also likely to be found greeting guests, giving them lifts to local restaurants or even making a mad dash to deliver a bride’s forgotten shoes to her wedding venue.

Martin, his wife Carole and their grown-up children Gaynor and Josh are among the growing number of farming families who have diversified their business activities and are now involved in a lot more than agriculture.

At West Marden in West Sussex they offer bed and breakfast in their centuries-old listed farmhouse and cottage holiday accommodation in other former farm buildings.

And they do it so well that they have recently won a Gold award from Tourism South East for the best self catering accommodation in the south east of England.

While Martin, 54, and 21-year-old

the south east of England.

While Martin, 54, and 21-year-old Josh look after the farming business – working 1,000 acres of arable land – Carole and Gaynor concentrate on the hospitality side.

But as they like to make clients feel as if they are house guests rather than customers, they all contribute to the accommodation side.

‘We aim to make people feel really welcome,’ says Carole 55.

‘We want it to be a home from home with that bit extra. So we’ve had bridal parties running around shrieking with excitement in their jim jams and I’ve walked into the guests’ lounge area and people have been sprawled out fast asleep on the sofas.

‘You quickly get to know if people want to be left alone or chat.’

Then there was one bride who stayed at West Marden Farm the night before her wedding and went off to the venue with her beautiful dress but forgot her shoes.

‘She realised just as she was about to go in. But she didn’t have to get married in her trainers because after they called we found the shoes and Martin raced over with them’ says Carole.

She believes that commitment is key to running an award-winning b&b and can only come from enjoyment.

‘We love doing this, we love meeting new people and welcoming them back.’

Sat at the big table in their farmhouse kitchen, Martin nods in agreement.

‘People might have the space, but you also need the skills for a business like this.’

The family also give guests lifts to good walking points on the South Downs and local restaurants.

It is perhaps touches like this that have won them a string of awards, including Visit Britain and AA four and five-star gold awards and even an AA Friendliest Landlady award for Carole in 2009.

‘It wasn’t just for me, it was a hospitality award for us really,’ she laughs.

But business is also about playing to strengths, say the Edneys, and theirs, like many farms, is in the property and location.

The countryside around the farm is beautiful and the b&b, with its cosy guest lounge complete with inglenook fireplace, is full of character.

The holiday cottages are stylish and cosy. But it’s the historic nature of buildings like this that add something special to farm holiday retreats.

The guests at West Marden Farm’s Keepers Cottage, basking in the warmth radiating from a heated floor and looking out at night on a yard with trees illuminated by lighting, probably aren’t thinking much about cows.

But this was once a milking parlour where cattle would be herded from the collecting yard (now boasting a swimming pool) to be milked.

The Old Stables cottage has lived up to its name in the past, but was also once full of bull pens. And Barley Cottage at the front of the property was an 18th century cart stall.

Gaynor, 24, also runs an interiors business from the granary.

These old buildings still stand on the original staddle stones once used to raised the building from the ground to protect the grain from vermin

But there are no such problems these days, Carole is quick to point out.

The family decided to diversify in the mid ’90s and have gradually converted buildings into accommodation over the years.

‘In the ’90s grain prices were pretty low so we were looking for something else and we had all these redundant buildings,’says Martin.

‘Thankfully it has turned out to be a great idea and it has allowed us to stay here and continue farming.

‘I don’t think the farming would have failed, but this is making a great contribution to our income.’

Martin grew up on the farm and, apart from a spell at college and travelling in Australia, has lived and worked there all his life.

He loves his occupation, but embraces the future.

And besides, offering people farm accommodation is having another unexpected benefit.

‘Guests often want to know all about what we do here,’ says Martin, who grows wheat, oilseed rape and malting barley.

‘And that can only be a good thing.’