Hinton: Shooting star John Bidwell sets his sights high at High Lodge
Thirty years ago John Bidwell started with nothing. Today he and his daughters Jane Coppen and Helen Gooch have a business that turns over £1.2million a year with ambitions plans for growth in 2014.
But getting there hasn’t all been plain sailing. There have been successes and setbacks and difficulties and challenges still need to be overcome.
Working alongside his two daughters, John today looks back on a rollercoaster journey that took him from sheet metal worker to successful businessman.
He said: “We started the business in 1982. We set up a shooting school on some land we leased from the Henham estate.”
While John taught shooting – himself a championship shooter – his wife Sally ran the clubhouse – serving drinks and burgers from a portable building.
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He said: “We built it up from nothing. I saw an opportunity to start a shooting club in the area and I bought the equipment second hand. We were on the Henham estate for a few years until we had to vacate the site because the lease was running out.”
It was then that Haw Wood, just off the A12, came up for sale.
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John said: “We had to look for somewhere else and because of pure luck this site came up for sale.”
In 1989 John bought, for £100,000 around 100 acres of land at what admits was “just the right time.”
He said: “We had to finance it a bit but I had a vision. There was nothing here but land. I took a risk, we put all our money into it and apart from my wife and I, we only had one employee.”
Today High Lodge just north of Darsham includes a club house, function room, golf course, holiday lodges – all in landscaped grounds. But when John bought the land he soon realised he needed planning permission before he could get any of his vision even close to reality.
He said: “We established the shooting school and in 1997 we decided that after a few years we could build a golf course as well. I knew nothing about golf and I had no money to do it but I rang a friend about it and he said he had always wanted to design a golf course so he did. Within three months we had the right permissions but then I realised I had to build it somehow so I went to Yorkshire and bought a digger from an Irishman I didn’t know. The machines started first time so I brought them down here. We started in the April and we finished in the September. There were three of us digging ponds and creating mounds and greens. It was a long dry summer and it didn’t rain until I put down the grass seed, within a week it was growing so that was a stroke of good luck.”
The golf course was officially opened in March 1998.
John said: “It proved to be popular and so we built a club house ourselves to go with it. I remember I had a meeting with people who played golf at that time and they said I needed a professional and a committee but I didn’t want all that. I just wanted people to be able to turn up and play, I wanted it open to everybody.
“They said I would have all sorts of people here but that is exactly what I wanted. I wanted a relaxed approach but not all the dress codes and etiquette and it has worked out. People can come here and learn to shoot and play some golf.”
Once the golf course was up and running John’s mind turned to his next project.
He said: “I was on the plane to America and I started drawing on a napkin. My wife wondered what I was doing. I told her I was planning some holiday lodges. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea.”
High Lodge now has 15 holiday lodges but his idea developed over time.
He said: “I couldn’t get anyone to supply them so I built them myself. We dug a lake and built lodges around it. We started with just bed and breakfast which I thought people could stay in while they were learning to shoot but it didn’t really work.”
Now the holiday lodges are complete with kitchens and living areas.
Jane said: “We were doing corporate events and conferences and then someone asked if we could do their wedding for them so we said yes.”
John added: “I thought there could be a market for weddings so we got a marquee and put it up.”
Eventually the marquee was replaced by a 80ft by 45ft function room which can seat up to 300 people.
John said: “There is a lot more competition in the wedding venue market now and we do less of them and more corporate events instead now.”
Offering breakfasts and lunches as well as events, Helen is in charge of the catering side of the business – following in the footsteps of Sally who died two and a half years ago.
Today the company employs 18 people, with several more part time and weekend staff on the books.
In 2014 High Lodge plans to invest £2.8m in a further 32 holiday lodges.
John said: “We have had to spend £55,000 just to get the right planning permissions and do all the surveys that are needed nowadays.
“There is so much red tape today I am not sure I would be able to do what I have done nowadays. I don’t think people realise how much expense and work is involved in doing anything like building a few lodges.”
John, 66, said: “I look back over the last 30 or so years and I have enjoyed the challenge. It is not all about money, we draw moderate salaries and profits are reinvested in the business. I like the thrill of seeing my ideas come to fruition.”
And the future of Suffolk’s leisure industry?
John added: “I am very positive about the leisure sector here in Suffolk. That’s why we are investing in the future.”