Farming feature: Campsea Ashe auction centre is given new lease of life by owners Clarke & Simpson
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
Tucked away off the A12 at Wickham Market is a still-thriving piece of our social history.
Buoyed by the rise of retro and interest in all things vintage, the auction centre at Campsea Ashe is a remarkable survivor of a bygone era which has reinvented itself for the modern age.
Last year, the 93-year-old business was bought by Framlingham-based estate agents Clarke & Simpson, which has affectionately restored its former cattle and pig market pens, closed them off from the elements, and worked through the extensive five acre site, building by building, freshening them up with paint and some much-needed tender loving care.
It bought a healthy and vibrant business from previous owners Abbotts last year, and invested heavily in it to bring it into the 21st century.
Around 500 to 600 people continue to descend on the site on a Monday morning for Campsea Ashe’s weekly market and auction sales. It’s as much a meeting place as a place of commerce, with the café filled with a lively band of chattering buyers catching up on the week’s news. The site also hosts regular specialist auction sales throughout the year.
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The eclectic mixture of potential purchases at the weekly market brings in a colourful array of would-be bidders, from astute collectors and well-heeled weekenders to serious bargain-hunters and traditional country-dwellers who are simply more at home at a market than wheeling a trolley up a bland supermarket aisle.
On a Monday morning, they will bid for items as diverse as a box of fresh vegetables, a chicken, a lawn mower, a family heirloom or a shabby-chic 1950s pram.
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For one-time auction centre employee Christopher Clarke, founding partner at Clarke & Simpson, the work has been a labour of love as well as crucial to the centre’s continuing success.
“This is where I began my career in 1971. It’s a few years ago now. That’s a huge excitement for me,” he says.
“We now, having converted those buildings, are making very full use of the whole thing which is really exciting.”
Clarke & Simpson has spent nearly £100,000 smartening the centre up and adding innovations such as internet bidding, bringing in buyers from all over the world to its antiques sales.
Initially tutored by Michael Spear, the grandson of the founder, Alfred Spear, who set up A E Spear & Sons in 1922, Chris left the business in 1989 and went on to launch Clarke & Simpson.
Alfred chose the site because of its proximity to Wickham Market station at Campsea Ashe. In those days, livestock would be brought to and from market by rail, so it was an important practical consideration.
The founder had two sons, Donald and Claude, both of whom joined the business.
Michael’s father, Donald, died quite young and Michael joined the business as a young man just after the war. Claude didn’t have children, and Michael eventually took over the business.
In 1977, the business became part of Abbotts, which became part of the Countrywide Group.
“Abbotts Countrywide continued here with livestock until 1997 then carried on with what we bought until 2013,” says Chris.
“It was by then, I think it’s fair to say, quite run down and it’s remarkable that Geoff and his staff were still here, to be frank.”
However, it was always busy and always profitable, and Chris is delighted that Abbotts made an approach to his firm when it was looking at selling the business.
“I have huge respect for the fact they came to me and they said they are a nice team of people,” he says. “Not only is that extremely flattering, I do respect them hugely for that.”
When Clarke & Simpson took over, it kept on all the staff, and Chris believes their contribution to the continuing success of the business has been outstanding.
Geoff Barfoot, who has worked at the site on and off for 20 years, is auction centre manager and is part of a 15-strong team at the centre. He is assisted by auctioneers James Shand, Keith Gray and Basil Smith, who, at the grand old age of 89, is possibly the oldest auctioneer in the country. Office manager, Linda Coates, plays a crucial administrative role for a business with a high turnover of goods in the many hundreds, spread over seven potential selling rooms as well as additional storage areas.
On arriving, Chris believed he already had a well-oiled machine which didn’t need tinkering with. Instead, he asked Geoff and the team what they needed.
Geoff’s first plea was for live internet bidding. Clarke & Simpson had already introduced this at its own farm machinery sales and realised the potential.
“Everything goes through the auction but with our fine art and decorative art sale, there’s an opportunity,” explains Geoff.
The centre has held Victoriana sales for many years, with regular antique and fine art auctions as well. The different sales areas mean that Clarke & Simpson can hold rural bygones and collectables as well as agricultural machinery sales, and with the rise of retro and art deco, it has also launched decorative art sales.
The Monday sale includes auctions of poultry and produce and garden plants which sits alongside 25 traditional market stalls selling clothes, fruit and veg, pet food and garden supplies.
Chris is “absolutely delighted” with how the centre’s facelift has gone, and is particularly pleased at the positive comments of some of the market’s stalwarts.
Graham says the latest sales have been “hugely successful”, with online bidding.
“The fine art sales we had I think 12 different nationalities represented in the last auction including Israel, Russia, China, USA, Canada, Australia, Italy,” he says.
“The world had got a lot smaller place. For a little rural outlet in Suffolk, it’s fantastic that people who buy from all over the world.”
Chris knew the effect of introducing online bidding would be “very special indeed”, but says the results have been “quite extraordinary”.
“Taking over the site, which had such obvious potential to be improved, we have invested the best part of £100,000 in its future because we have every confidence we’ll move it to another dimension,” says Chris.
“When we bought it there was massive rumour it was closing down. We immediately started investing money because we had proved already the amount of interest in it and we’ll start to increase it.”
For Graham, the arrival of Clarke & Simpson has opened up a new client base for the business, while for the parent business, it means that it can offer an wider selection of services for clients moving or wanting to move.
“The interest in things compared to when I was last involved 25 years ago is just enormous. It’s just massive,” says Chris.
“We have only been going six months I think it’s picking up all the time. We are having sales in which there’s more interest and I think it’s fair to say the quality of things we are achieving is improving all the time.
“We have, through our contacts and our investment, give the business the business a much higher profile. That’s what it needed. We have done more advertising in six months that the last people have done in six years.”
As a result, says Graham, there are more lots, more quality and more interest in the sales.
On May 21 the centre will host a fine art sale, and on May 24 a machinery sale.