'We farm tourists' - Meet the farmer transforming a north Norfolk haven into a holiday hotspot
PUBLISHED: 07:00 19 April 2019 | UPDATED: 10:35 19 April 2019
Copyright: Archant 2019
With Brexit on the horizon, farming diversification has become an agricultural buzzword. Jessica Frank-Keyes met the Marsham farmer who transformed a rural Norfolk farm into a secluded glamping enclave...
When you think of Norfolk's acres of farmland, you're more likely to picture flocks of grazing sheep and fields of sugar beet, than fairy-lit campsites, secluded hot tubs, and silent discos.
But tucked away on the fringes of the unspoilt north Norfolk countryside, a short, muddy drive off the A140 up Kittles Lane, is a farm where the major crop is not wheat or rapeseed, but tourists.
Meet Clive Meeks: proud owner of Top Farm, in Marsham.
A former working farm dating back to 1890, it's been used as a caravan site since the late 1970s.
But since taking over in 2001, the former sales manager has transformed its picturesque surroundings into a thriving destination for cosy weekends, unforgettable weddings, and Woodstock-worthy 'mini-festivals'.
The farm's sandy soil now boasts 75 acres of sweeping sunset vistas, lantern-strewn bell tents and spacious shepherd huts.
And coupled with its brand partnerships, with partner firms offering everything from canoeing to hot tubs, the site has seen a boom in visitors, and hosts 20 three-day events every summer.
In 1987, Geoff and Mona Suffling, the third generation at Top Farm, were able to purchase the former rental site - nestled in the hills between Aylsham and Stratton Strawless - for themselves.
The couple, who introduced a caravan site to the farm in 1976-77, then passed it on to their daughter Evelyn, and her husband Clive, 61.
“We took it on in 2001,” said Mr Meeks.
“Back in the 1970s they started a caravan site to help with income.
“We've got people here who've been coming since 1987.”
The couple, and Mr Meeks' stepson Paul, have transformed the farm into a holiday-makers' paradise, with underground water and electricity supplies going to the site's cabins, huts and lodges.
But the farm, which backs onto Marsham Heath, is no longer used as arable land, and its livestock is limited to the “myriad” cats which saunter around the property, and occasional grazing of sheep from nearby flocks in its meadows.
But guests can still enjoy getting back to nature as Top Farm offers a taste of rural life, from ladybirds and butterflies to barn owls soaring over the fields at sunset.
“I've grown one thing in my life and that was a runner bean in infant school,” said Mr Meeks, who grew up in Norwich.
“When people ask 'are you a working farm' we say: yes.
“A lot of work goes on here but we farm tourists.
“The soil is sandy and very light. If you worked 200 hours a week and used all the chemicals known to man you could probably scratch out a poverty living.”
And Mr Meeks said concerns about the UK's impending exit from the EU meant changes to the agricultural industry's offering were becoming more widespread.
After Brexit, the UK will have to leave the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which has subsidised British farming since 1973.
And the UK government intends to change from a system of land-based subsidies to one where public money is only paid to farmers to reward 'public goods', such as environmental work.
“[Diversification] is a model that's become more and more popular,” Mr Meeks added.
“Brexit and the uncertainty around EU subsidies in farming are causing anxieties and people are looking for steady income.”
In his days in sales, Mr Meeks said he experienced the benefits of affinity partnerships with brands.
And it's knowledge he's brought to the running of the glamp-site, which has teamed up with firms including The English Shepherd Huts Company, run by Craig Nield, and Norfolk Spa and Leisure, run by Robert Burton.
They offer luxury experiences on-site while cutting down on costs, as the partners take a cut of profits and Mr Meeks avoids hefty upfront fees for the amenities.
The farm is divided into a permanent caravan field, lodges, a woodland shepherd huts area, and a festival site with glamping pods - all named after Norfolk villages including Great and Little Snoring - and the option to install anything from a bar, zip-wire, or waterslide.
Guests at Top Farm range from those who have camped there since the 1980s to couples, hen parties, and families in The Lodge or cosy hideaway Stiltz.
“We've had people hire the festival field for 80th birthdays,” said Mr Meeks.
“One lady had four ceilidh bands and was the only one still dancing. You also get weddings, and 30th or 40th birthday parties.”
• A stay is priced at between £20 a night for a tent and upto £150 for a weekend night in a luxury lodge.
Recycled materials at Top Farm
Top Farm's pods and lodges may already be an unusual way to experience camping.
But the materials used to produce the shelters are themselves sourced from an unexpected place.
The farms two lodges, Stiltz and The Lodge, as well as the camping pods on the festival field are built from panels intended to be used in the construction of an extension to a hospital in Hertfordshire.
“They're structural insulated panels, known as SIPS,” said Mr Meeks.
“They're very, very good insulation and are a totally recycled product.”
The festival site also features a disco, complete with silent disco headphones, and a wall of insulating straw to keep noise to a minimum, a kitchen, stage and outdoor seating area.
And the panels were also used to construct an extra indoor space in the garden of The Lodge, known as The Smokehaus.
The farm is also having solar panels installed as a renewable energy source.
Farm diversification in Norfolk
Other Norfolk farms who have diversified in recent years include:
• Wiveton Hall in north Norfolk, the setting for the hit BBC show Normal for Norfolk, also offers a cafe, holiday cottage business, bell tents and a maize maze.
• Poulty processor Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), near Attleborough, launched an initiative last year to encourage arable farmers to diversify into poultry farming with a package including a stay on an 'academy farm' to learn the poultry trade.
• While Barnards Farm in Wymondham recently opened the canine business hub, Centre Paws, including a professional pup grooming service, agility trainer, exercise field and dog friendly cafe, Blackberry Tearoom.
• And at Yare Valley Farm, in Surlingham, the owners expanded their rapeseed oil production which had been used for fuel into a range of edible products, as well as introducing green energy sources and a farm shop.