Riding to Camelot - Sarah’s 37-year odyssey

David and Sarah Robertson run Valley Farm in Wickham Market. David and Sarah Robertson run Valley Farm in Wickham Market.

Saturday, December 14, 2013
6:00 AM

Camelot the camel chomping his feed with an air of laid-back contentment was an unexpected sight on the Deben flood plain on a cold November morning.

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But then, with equestrian centre owner Sarah Robertson, you quickly learn to expect the unexpected.

Her delightful farm diversification, Valley Farm Equestrian Centre at Wickham Market, is a flight of fancy made real, created and crafted over many years.

Bright blue pea-fowl strut across the stable yard and the pristine horses’ accommodation is adorned with paintings by some of the centre’s summer guests.

Across the well-tended fields and gardens Sarah’s unusual menagerie goes about its business. White geese and rhea strut, donkeys bray, and bright-eyed alpacas and pigmy goats look up appealingly.

The business is testament to Sarah’s old-fashioned faith in ‘jam-jar’ accountancy - wait until you have enough in the jam jar before committing to a new buy or venture.

Almost all she makes is ploughed back into her on-farm ventures which are designed to make best use of a site which in farming terms is plagued with practical problems.

“Unfortunately I never have any money - it just goes straight back into the business,” she says.

“The beauty is I don’t have any needs because I live on the farm.”

In October, Sarah’s efforts were rewarded at the Suffolk Agricultural Association’s Best Alternative Land Use (BALE) awards, which which celebrates farmers’ diversification efforts. when she beat back a strong field to come runner-up for the coveted title.

Having not visited in a few years, the changes and improvements are quite remarkable. A well-equipped cafe now overlooks the indoor riding school where an adult lesson is full swing. The site is now a visitor centre and walks allow people to enjoy the farm on foot and take their dogs for a walk.

The 82-acre farm, which lies in the Deben Valley, was once owned by Sarah’s ex-father-in-law, but she has been in residence since 1976.

The land had been arable during the war, but was put back to pasture for haylage afterwards and was used for grazing cattle.

“That wasn’t terribly practical because of the flooding, so actually the equestrian enterprise fitted the bill very well, especially the Camargue horses who are used to marshland,” she explains.

Sarah started her riding school with just a single borrowed pony, but it grew in response to demand.

Now a grandmother, she takes great pleasure in introducing different generations to the joys of horse riding.

Her sizeable menagerie of about 40 animals, many of which are donated, also includes a sheep and guinea pigs, and means there are also attractions that non-riders can enjoy.

“I just love my animals,” she says.

In the summer, the school plays host to young international riding enthusiasts who join her yearly summer camp.

They stay in a series of brightly coloured huts by the school itself so that they are never far from the horses.

“It’s just a complete lifestyle really. We just love it,” says Sarah.

“We are so lucky and we live in it all the time which is amazing.”

Lying by the river, wildlife flourishes and the farm is home to owls, a heron and bats.

The site is well-ordered and manure is quickly cleaned up in spite of the constant animal traffic.

“I like to keep them pristine even with 40 odd animals on site,” explains Sarah.

David, Sarah’s husband, has been busy tending to damage caused by the recent storm - which caused about 20 to 25 big branches to come down around the three and a half kim of riding tracks.

“We have cut the most dangerous bits we have got a couple of bits still fenced off,” he explains.

Sarah doesn’t limit her training skills to the horses and their riders. She is hoping to do some agility training with the alpacas, which are taken out for a walk around the farm every day by staff.

Meanwhile, Smokey the donkey is being broken in for harness. There are very few places where you can drive a donkey, she says, but hopes that Valley Farm will become one of them.

A number of the horses in the yard are livery and some belong to the stables. Quite a few are donations. Information boards around the stables explain each breed type.

“The owners come in and see them but they are essentially ours,” she says.

“We opened as a visitor centre so people don’t have to ride a horse. They can go around the farm tracks and meet the animals. There’s a huge number of people out there who don’t actually ride.”

As part of the London 2012 Olympics legacy, the centre scooped a Support England grant which enabled it to upgrade its arenas. It also resurfaced the indoor schools.

“That means we have got five arenas we can operate in. In the summer pretty much all of them are operating all the time,” she says.

“In the summer we have got the pony camps we operate. We have 32 children on site from all over the world.

“They come for an equestrian holiday and to improve their English. It’s one of these things that evolved.”

CCTV cameras on site mean that during the busy periods Sarah is able to keep her eye on everything go on around the site from the office.

“It does protect the staff if there’s an accident we can have it covered on the camera to see what happened,” explains David.

Camelot is the centre’s third camel and arrived about 15 years. Many years ago, Sarah would ride one of his predecessors into the village to pick up her son, William, from the school bus. He would climb up and ride home in regal splendour.

Now William has a son and a daughter of his own, while his sister, Amanda, has two girls.

Both children have been involved in one way or another with the farm since they were children.

“David is brilliant because he just loves it as much as I do. He works like a trojan to keep it running as it should be. What I love is being able to share it with people, all the different seasons. I love walking the tracks,” says Sarah.

Sarah’s approach to making the site more environmentally sustainable was characteristically enthusiastic. She embraced the idea wholeheartedly and installed solar lights and solar panels as finances allowed.

“The problem is a ‘why not?’ attitude,” says Sarah.

“It was like the green thing. When we started to look into that and how could we make it better.

“How could we change things? We got together with the staff. They changed their hours voluntarily so they could do car shares and things like that which obviously makes a difference to them.

“We put the solar panels up and other bits around the yard so they use the water butts to wash the horses rather than fresh water.

One of her next projects, she hopes, will be a children’s playground.

“If you don’t have the resources, you don’t make it and you don’t do it. We are in the privileged position where we are able to do what we want to do,” she says.

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