Anna’s vision turns crumbling Cantley barn into award-winning wedding venue employing nearly 50 people

Southwood Hall owner Anna Key and Events Manager Eleanor Whitty

Southwood Hall owner Anna Key and Events Manager Eleanor Whitty - Credit: Archant

When regulations over fertiliser storage were tightened up, the old listed barn on the Keys' family farm could no longer be used for that purpose.

Southwood Hall owner Anna Key and Events Manager Eleanor Whitty

Southwood Hall owner Anna Key and Events Manager Eleanor Whitty - Credit: Archant

Farmer's daughter Anna Key, 40, was left scratching her head over what to do with a building that had no doors and a gable end that needed urgent repair.

Just seven years after she had the unlikely vision of turning it into a wedding venue - and four years after the first ceremony was held - Southwood Hall in Cantley has won one of the industry's top national awards.

Miss Key and her events manager Eleanor Whitty were presented with the trophy for Best Countryside Venue at the Wedding Industry Awards held in London's Cafe de Paris.

And her plans for the future - 'farmers have to think out of the box' - will see the business become an even more significant employer in the Broadland community.

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Miss Key said: 'Later this year, we will start building work on another barn, a mile and a half from the current site, to convert it into a self-catered wedding venue where people will be able to buy their own wine and bring in outside caterers if they wish.'

And that £150,000 investment will be dwarfed by a £1.5m project the following year to convert farmyard buildings into a luxury destination day spa, likely to employ a further 30 staff on top of the present 17 full-timers.

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She said she had worked for her late father Nigel Key as office manager for 20 years and had driven through the diversification as a way of supporting their mixed farm.

'My father had three employees when we started on the project - now at peak times I employ 49 people including casual staff,' she said.

Following painstaking refurbishment costing a substantial six-figure sum, Coronation Barn had been ready for its first wedding in 20l1.

She said: 'At the beginning it was just myself and casual staff. We wanted to do five weddings in the first year but we did 49, it just rolled. We don't advertise, it is just word of mouth.'

Marking her success down to 'service, service, service', she said their award acknowledged the commitment of her entire team from the wedding co-ordinators, chefs and maintenance team to housekeepers and their event-day service team.

Since opening, about 250 couples have staged their weddings in the grounds of Southwood Hall, either in the barn or the gardens; more than 270 couples have held their wedding receptions at the venue, too.

To win through the regional heats Southwood Hall had to answer key questions about their business and ethos and couples were asked to provide anonymous feedback. In the national competition, the venue was competing against six other regional winners.

Miss Key said it was their focus on listening to couples and really understanding their needs that has been the key to Southwood Hall's success.

'I genuinely try to do things differently instilling in the team not to focus on packages or sales but listening intently to our clients and their individual visions for their wedding,' she said.

'You don't have to have a three course meal, some people choose a picnic dinner rather than formal dining; they can use the space as they want.'

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