The village that fought back

IAN CLARKE It’s the community that refused to follow the trend of rural decline. Ian Clarke discovers how the North Norfolk village of Burnham Deepdale has created a template of transformation for others to follow.


We all know about Old MacDonald and his farm with the “baa baa here” and the “moo moo there”. He was a pretty traditional sort of agricultural chap, we're led to believe. The well-loved tune has never been updated to take account of any diversification which has taken place down on MacDonald's Farm as the “cluck clucks” were presumably slaughtered due to a bird flu scare and “oink oinks” were probably wiped out by swine fever.

But forget nursery rhymes and set aside rural downturns for a moment.

The feelgood factor that has been created in one small North Norfolk farming outpost would have seemed more like an unlikely fairytale just five or so years ago.

New ideas to create new income on farms have become commonplace. B&Bs, produce shops, rare breeds centres. And so the list goes on.

But it's not often you hear about a diversification programme which incorporates opening an accommodation complex offering 20,000 bed nights a year, the chance to stay in an native American-style tipi, a base for a retail centre that includes a trendy clothing store and an interior design showroom as well as a café boasting “the best cooked breakfast in the country”, some flats and the location for a Bond film.

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Oh, and before I forget, it's all done with green energy at its heart, has won awards for the design of its buildings in an area of outstanding natural beauty and provides as many jobs as there are people in the village. More to the point, it has ensured the survival of local services rather than being swallowed up by second home development.

And, amid the climate of fear about the loss of local-ness in the face of a growing invasion, that is vital.

Excuse the breathless description, but it is pretty remarkable. For this is the story of what has happened at Burnham Deepdale, a tiny coastal community which takes a few seconds to pass through on the main A149 road between Wells and Brancaster.

Well, it used to take a few seconds to pass through. The transformation means that now not many people pass through without stopping to sample its unique feel. Where the sad inevitability of rural life has seen shops and services close in many areas, Deepdale has seen new openings and a re-birth.

The transformation is the brainchild of the Borthwick family who have farmed in the village for four generations since Bert Borthwick bought Deepdale Farm.

The new approach really started about four years ago with the opening of Deepdale Backpackers, Deepdale Camping and Deepdale Information, which have brought in many thousands of new visitors to the North Norfolk coast. These facilities were added to Deepdale Farms' Granary Group Hostel, which has been running for about 20 years.

The state of farming encouraged father and son Alister and Jason not to put all the eggs in one basket and, by diversifying into tourism, especially into virtually untapped markets, they have secured a future for Deepdale Farms.

All in all, their venture serves as the perfect model of farm diversification.

The backpackers' market now accounts for over 30 per cent of UK visitors and UK tourism spend, yet it has been virtually ignored in the East of England. But it has been the more recent new growth which has given the village even wider appeal.

Alongside the range of accommodation and tourism facilities, Burnham Deepdale has also seen the revival of the petrol station and the development of a supermarket on a site which had been threatened with the imposition of more second homes. And in the last few months the complex has developed even further with the arrival of Deepdale Café - which has seen business four times greater than predicted in its business plan - Fat Face clothing, Bunty Richardson gift shop, Tops/Fine and Country estate agents and a showroom for renowned interior designer Miv Watts.

Dalegate Market now employs over 40 people - more than the actual population of Burnham Deepdale.

According to Jason Borthwick, “it has become the hub of the local area for both locals and visitors.”

He adds: “To the traditionalists, the sight of tents rather than crops is unsettling, however the farm is still a working farm.”

The farm remains a key part of the overall enterprise and Alister will continue tending the 1300 acres which produce a range of crops, including wheat, sugar beet and potatoes.

But Jason, who has provided the inspiration for the developments, believes the story of Burnham Deepdale would have been very different if a short-termist “quick buck” approach had been taken. “The easy option would have been to create second homes,” he says. “But we never wanted to go for the easy option and we are always up for a challenge. It has taken a lot of blood, heartache and tears but we are really pleased with the outcome.”

His view is echoed by King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council leader John Dobson, who says: “It's excellent to see development like Dalegate Market and the Deepdale tourism facilities, which make the local community more sustainable and increase the local income throughout the year.”

So what about when it's cold, wet and windy in North Norfolk? While some coastal areas are reliant on hot and sunny weather to draw in the visitors, the Burnham and Brancaster section of the county attracts a more all-year round market and many visitors enjoy a bracing walk on the beach or a sailing expedition in the winter as much as the summer.

The hostel accommodation, which boasts a big log burner in the central lounge and drying facilities, together with the shops and other services are clearly tailored for the all-year market. “The hostel can be full in January,” says Jason. “There is a real buzz here even now and it can still be really busy out of season.”

Alister is concentrating on the farming aspect of the enterprise and Jason is now moving on to a new project, having started his own consultancy business based in Aylsham called Earthly Ideas. Through it, he hopes to pass on his knowledge, experience and imagination to other businesses in Norfolk and East Anglia. The main focus is diversification, eco-friendly technologies and marketing, and one of the first projects will probably be a new backpackers' hostel in Norwich.

But to ensure the Deepdale project continues to thrive, Mark White and Lorraine Marshall have taken over as tourism managers. “We were looking for someone who was in love with the area,” says Jason, “and we felt they fitted in really well and had interest and energy and will move it forward.”

Lorraine worked at the harbour office in her home town of Wells for 15 years and was commissioners' chief executive for five years.

“Returning from a backpacking tour of Greece earlier this year, we received an offer to consider joining the team at Deepdale, and our enthusiasm for a move into sustainable tourism was fired up,” she says. “We know we will thoroughly enjoy this challenging new role and, following Jason and Alister's excellent ground work, we look forward to taking this established and unique business forward.”

Mark, who has a background in events management, adds: “Our focus is to pick up on the previous development of Deepdale and carry that forward and to bring a fresh focus to the business.”

He describes the hostel as being like “Swallows and Amazons for adults”. “It is a real adventure,” he adds.

Most of us probably have a stereotypical view of a backpackers' hostel being rather austere with a boarding school-style dormitory feel.

The Deepdale complex has changed the preconceptions of the majority who have visited its four-star accommodation with its en-suite facilities, comfortable beds and fully equipped kitchen areas.

One respected national travel writer described it as “the most stylish hostel you'll ever see”.

Meanwhile, the tenants in the Deepdale units have also lined up to hail the success of the project. Dean Heaviside, director of TOPS/Norfolk and Suffolk Fine and Country estate agents, sees it as an ideal location to reach a new market on the North Norfolk coast, a view clearly shared by Fat Face, a business with nationwide outlets, who selected Burnham Deepdale as the base for its first so-called 'at location of activity' stores to cater for the sailing, kiting, walking and cycling fraternity on the East Coast.

It was the same positive story from other businesses. Elaine West, of Miv Watts Design, called it an “innovative development”. While another to relocate to Burnham Deepdale, Nicky Claydon, uprooted her gift store from Bury St Edmunds, “because of our love of Norfolk”.

The final word, however, belongs to Lin Murray at Deepdale Café who enthuses: “If you had told me a few months ago that I'd be employing over 20 people, I would have told you you were mad, but the café has been a real success.”