Farming dream becomes reality

FOR some the allotment beckons in retirement, but Nick Thomson has decided to devote his future hours of leisure centring his attention on a slightly larger type of plot.

FOR some the allotment beckons in retirement, but Nick Thomson has decided to devote his future hours of leisure centring his attention on a slightly larger type of plot.

The keen conservationist has bought 80 acres of river valley land in a bid to achieve his dreams of nurturing rare cattle, creating an orchard of old English apples and planting a vineyard.

The soon-to-be retired City insurance executive, who has lived in Suffolk for more than 30 years, is also creating two wildlife ponds on his recently acquired land, designated as part of the River Brett valley special landscape area.

"I love hedging, clearing ditches and mowing grass," said the man who was a Lloyds underwriter for more than 30 years. He has subsequently been a senior executive managing the underwriting group he served, and more lately responsible for training his successors in the industry.

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He officially retires in the summer, when he can start becoming a hobby farmer.

However, since September he has been attending Writtle agricultural college near Chelmsford on a part time basis polishing up his farming skills.

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"By attending college I hope to have gained enough knowledge at least to be able to ask why some of my crops have turned brown, but I don't anticipate I will be challenging anyone to a ploughing match," he said.

A long-term resident of Lavenham, he bought a collection of nearby, mainly low-grade agricultural fields straddling the A1141 between Brent and Monks Eleigh two years ago.

About half the land will continue to be farmed by contractors, but the rest is being restored to create grazing for a small herd of Suffolk's famous Red Poll cattle.

Mr Thomson is running the venture in co-operation with Defra's Countryside Stewardship Scheme, and under guidelines of the Suffolk River Valleys Environmentally Sensitive Area initiative. Both give financial support, but the wannabe smallholder's attitude to profitability is that it will be a pleasant surprise if it happens.

He has also yet to decide whether to go down the strict organic route, commenting: "It can be a bit of a nightmare. I am sympathetic to the concept, but have yet to decide."

A long time admirer of the Red Poll breed, he has already bought in breeding stock, which are being over-wintered at a neighbouring farm. His grazing land, which will accommodate 14 adult stock, plus followers, will shortly be seeded and hopefully ready to be grazed from mid summer.

They will be known as the Lavenham Herd and, within three years, he hopes his village butcher Peter Hobbs will be offering cuts to local customers.

By then, the first grapes should also be appearing on the three-acre vineyard that will be planted next month.

"I will be hedging my options by planting two types of vine," he explained.

"Half will be the Baccus grape, which is the premier variety grown among the 400 producers in England and Wales. The rest will be Pinot Noir, which I hope will enable a sparkling, champagne style drink to be produced, although I do not wish to get involved directly in wine production."

In the autumn, Mr Thomson will plant his three-acre apple orchard, which will feature eight traditional, old English varieties ranging from Worcester Piermain to D'Arcy Spice.

"I am hoping the apples will potentially be the best source of seeing a return on my efforts. The first grade fruit could sell well through local farm shop outlets, and I will be looking to use the other half of the crop for the production of single variety, bottled juices.

"There could be a ready outlet for such products through local specialist shops, particularly in Lavenham, with its strong tourist trade," he added.

Mr Thomson's retirement project is not his first venture into countryside matters. Seventeen years ago he bought a 125-acre wood at Assington from the Forestry Commission. At the time a substantial area of the site, known as Assington Thicks, was planted with pines, many of which blew down within a few months in the Great Storm.

However, the disaster had a silver lining, allowing Mr Thomson to bring forward his plans to replant with indigenous species, a task now almost complete. The wood features rides, restored ponds and spectacular displays of bluebells.

More recently, he purchased Lavenham's village police station next to his home. He gained permission to knock down the property and build a four-bedroom home on the site but, instead, decided to develop the area as a wild, natural water garden haven. His expanded garden is now one that is regularly open to the view in the village's annual open gardens day.

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