‘A lovely little bit of Suffolk with this huge heritage’: historic farm up for sale
PUBLISHED: 06:00 24 June 2018
An agricultural pioneer is set to offer up a slice of Suffolk history as he scales back his extensive operations.
Oliver Cooper grew up at Bricett Hall Farm, Elmsett, near Hadleigh, which is now being offered up for sale with a price tag in the region of £4.65m.
It comes with 415 acres of land, including grade 2 arable land, a number of farm buildings - and an historic Grade 1 listed hall with some remarkable architectural features, dating back to when the site was part of an Augustinian priory, St Leonard’s, set up by French monks from Noblat, Limoges, in 1110.
The commercial scale farm includes “substantial” modern and traditional farm buildings with potential for alternative uses, say agents Savills.
Oliver, of Manor Farm, Elmsett, who set up Agroco Farms as a young man, says he will remain an active farmer. By coincidence, this year is the 40th anniversary of an award he received aged 33, when he was singled out as one of the best cereal growers in Europe.
When he received the Nickerson Cereal Husbandry award in 1978, he was farming in partnership with father, Rupert, and brother, John. He achieved an average of 8.7tonnes a hectare and was praised for his pioneering work on precision spraying. Judges called him “a true innovator”.
As a schoolboy, his friends suggested he would never have to work, because he was a farmer. It was a jibe he rejected. “It could not be further from the truth,” he said.
Oliver’s great grandfather, who was from Cheshire, came to Suffolk in 1906 and expanded the farm over the years, through a combination of “hard work, some luck and some foresight”, he said. The family was forward-thinking and brought what’s thought to be the first combine harvester in East Anglia from Canada in 1936.
“I have farmed from when I left school at 17, so I have been at it over 54 years,” he said. The decision to sell one of the farms was part of a plan for his later years, he explained.
“It’s all part for me of a slow withdrawal from all the commitments I have - I have two sons, neither of them wish to farm,” he said. “I have a strategy and this is the beginning of that strategy.”
Among Oliver’s many business interests over the years has been a liquid fertiliser consultancy and Agroco Trailers, which was sold on.
The rich history of the hall dates back to Norman times and William the Conqueror. The Fitzbrians, subtenants to powerful Norman knights the Peverells, were awarded Great Bricett. Later, the Augustinian monks, who were invited to set up home there, were given the lordship of the manor by King Stephen and with it, a charter to hold markets and fairs from which they derived a revenue. Henry V confiscated all alien monasteries and it eventually came into the hands of King’s College, Cambridge, which sold it in 1921. It was purchased by Oliver’s grandfather, Percy, in 1947. In 1996, his son, Rupert, bought the lordship of the manor of Great Bricett from the college, and it now belongs to Oliver. One of the most important aspects of the lordships has been to give the family access to the King’s College archive, through which it has been able to uncover some of the hall’s rich history, which Oliver commissioned local historian Edward Martin to research.
It was “a wonderful place to grow up”, but it’s only in more recent years that he has understood its “big local historical significance,” he said.
Among the hall’s owners was John De Bohan, a Norman knight whose brother rashly charged at Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, and died from an axe blow to the head delivered by the Scottish king. The timber-framed hall, which would have once housed the prior, has survived through the centuries. It includes original oak arches which include what is thought may be the only English example of timber dog-toothed carving.
When Oliver’s father moved into the house as a young man, it was in a “terrible state”, Oliver recalls, as it had been used to house Italian prisoners of war from World War 2. As his father was carrying out renovations, he discovered the carved arches. An expert from Cambridge happened to be looking at the adjoining church and was brought in. He understood their significance and the house was promptly listed.
“It’s a lovely little bit of Suffolk with this huge heritage of history attached to it,” he said. “It’s amazing how you do become attached to the story.”