Inside Eaton Manor near Church Stretton
PUBLISHED: 00:38 31 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:59 20 February 2013
From raising chickens to managing family holidays and occasions, the Madeleys are an example of an enterprising Shropshire farming family who have diversified into new areas, whilst supporting the traditional spirit of their local rural community
Nichola Madeley can recall, quite clearly, the day more than ten years ago when she began to entertain the idea of starting a holiday let business on the family farm at Eaton-under-Heywood near Church Stretton. I was lying in a hammock in the garden and I just had this idea. I thought it was nice for people to come and appreciate where we live, and over the years we have learnt to see it through other peoples eyes, she explains.
Nichola and her business partner and brother, Julian, are the fourth generation to farm in this picturesque pocket of Shropshire, a mixture of pasture and woodland on the fringes of Wenlock Edge. Much of the 500 acres is now dedicated to their commercial wheat crops, but the farm has evolved over the years from when their great-grandparents took it on as tenants in 1934, to the thriving dairy business established by their grandparents, who bought the farm, and then their parents, who turned to arable and poultry after the introduction of milk quotas in 1983.
Like many farmers in recent years, Julian and Nichola were in turn faced with a need to diversify. We were all crammed into this draughty old farmhouse and, with farming not making much money, we had this concept; wouldnt it be great if we had a business where we were able to invest in the area and the farm buildings? adds Julian.
The draughty old farmhouse is, in fact, a beautiful higgledy-piggledy, part 17th-century Manor House sitting in an acre of land, with the Eaton Brook chattering along the bottom of the gently sloping garden. Lovingly restored, the house now oozes character and charm, but many of the period features had for years been hidden behind cladding and false walls. There was a seminal moment when we were sat around the kitchen table and plaster was coming off the walls, and in a rash moment I started to pull a bit more at it and this beautiful stone started to appear. By the end of the evening we discovered an inglenook fireplace, says Julian.
In the process of restoring the five-star property, which now sleeps up to 14, many more beautiful features were revealed, including thick beams, wattle and daub walls, an old bread oven and, in another inglenook, a cooking range made at Coalbrookdale and dating from around 1900. Adding further to its charms are the subtle indicators of the Madeley family history, such as old sepia photos of their great-grandparents with their nine children born between 1884 and 1914.
In the last ten years, the Madeleys have creatively adapted more properties on the farm for lets, each with its individual charm, although the spirit of the farming heritage remains. Working as a team, Julian has planned the layout and architecture of the accommodation, while Nichola and lately Julians fiance, Adrianna, have furnished and dressed the interiors delightfully. There are now six properties, the latest Eaton Cottage where the siblings father Tony was born, a cosy and homely traditional stone cottage in a quiet spot on the hillside, and the six-bedroom Toad Hall, a former tractor shed, with clues as to its origins in the bedroom names that hint to makes of tractors formerly stored within its walls. In this property, in particular, it is possible to see the expert skills of the local master craftsman, Stuart Manley of Manley Design and Construction, who has helped to carefully and painstakingly renovate the properties using traditional techniques. These include brick and timber walls with pegged mortise-and-tenon joinery, and beautiful oak woodwork.
Stuart is a neighbours son who, back when we started this, was looking to grow his own building business, explains Julian. Everything that looks traditional, is traditional. Weve been quite particular in doing it that way. Oak takes on colour and knocks and dents and actually becomes more characterful.
As well as Stuart, others have been able to grow their business on the back of developments at Eaton Manor; these include their gardener David and also Jane Wilde, a former school cook, who now caters for the family meals and events held there. It was always our aim to help other businesses in the community, adds Julian. Be that organising the services of a local photographer who can capture special occasions; deliveries for guests from the nearby Wood Brewery; magic shows by Sonny Pennington aka Magical Sunshine, the 16-year-old award-winning magician who honed his skills entertaining guests; or nearby pony trekking activities. We have gathered together a really good team, and that is what makes it work, Nichola adds.
What started as a holiday lets business, has become one providing for family celebrations and events. This idea germinated when Julian spent some time working in the US, training as a lobbyist for the Senate, and as the most junior person in the office was tasked with organising events. Although we had always organised dinners and things for the Young Farmers, we just grew up thinking this is what you did as part of the community and never realised it could be part of a business, he explains.
With three of the properties situated within close proximity to each other they are ideal for family or other reunions. Toad Hall can accommodate up to 36 diners, whereas for larger events of up to 150 diners they have converted the former egg-packing building, which also houses the games room for the holiday lets. Weve been bought up with Dad wanting this to be a happy place and that is one of the reasons why we concentrate on family celebrations and people coming here to relax and be happy and that fits with us being a family business, Julian adds.
They are also keen, however, for visitors to understand the rural surroundings and measures they are taking to preserve the environment and wildlife. We try and help people see the environment schemes that we are doing or understand the buffer zones around the streams to help bring the crayfish and otters back. We also have some quite rare trees, including black poplars and a 1,000 year old oak. We have opened up paths to guide people around the farm and help them understand what they see a little bit more, explains Julian.
One unexpected off-shoot of the business is the new use of the former chicken shed. With its feathered occupants long since departed, it now provides a vast, 70 metre indoor archery range, which was used for training by the English team in the last Commonwealth Games and has hosted the Olympic squad n the run up to the Games in July. This development was the idea of local Olympic archer Alison Williamson and her father Tom, who was president of Archery GB.
Over the years, the family have never been afraid to change and do different things and each generation has developed the farm to follow their own interest. But family and Eaton under Heywood have been the two constants, and working with the community, Julian explains.
Brother and sister agree that growing the Eaton Manor business has taken more time, more effort and more money than they ever imagined it would, but it is clear they have enjoyed and are passionate about what they do.
Going forward, they have planning permission to build a croquet lawn, tennis court and 15 metre indoor swimming pool to provide further diversions for guests.
It has grown quietly and suits our skills and what we like doing, Nichola concludes. There was a time when Mum and Dad werent sure if wed chosen the right path, although knew we shouldnt be spending all of our time farming, but now they are really proud of it and love to show people around.
We both enjoy the bigger picture: we are part of the area and want to be part of the area.