Farm of the Week: Ramblers come to rescue of the last farm in village

Small mixed farms are becoming rare breeds. But Chris Benfield found one which makes a living for two families, by farming walkers and cyclists.

TOWN FARM and its 150 acres were good enough for Donald Nesom to bring up four children on. But by the time he died, it was looking small for the two who were still there, twins Martyn and Angela.

He would be pleased they are both now making a living from what he left them – and laying down a future for the next generation.

Martyn Nesom and Angela Sissons are 44. Martyn worked at his father's side from boyhood and moved straight into farming when he left school. He became a partner in Town Farm – a simple mix of beef and sheep rearing and arable growing, centred on the village of Millington, near Pocklington – and took it over when his father passed on, 10 years ago.

He took on another 150 acres as a contractor for a neighbour. And he and his friend and regular collaborator, Nick Potter of Barmby Moor, built a sheep-shearing business out of the chaos of 2001 – foot and mouth year – after investing in a mobile unit so they could deal with their own sheep in the field.

Another hangover from 2001 is that Mr Nesom nearly always sells his animals at auction, at York or Selby.

"In 2001, the deadweight buyers could have snapped us all up, while the markets were closed," he recalls. "But we learned what it would be like if there was no alternative."

While he was working the farm, Angela went to work in a chemist's shop in Pocklington, which she enjoyed. But at weekends, she saw an opportunity growing at home. She started to tidy up a semi-derelict cottage at the end of an old granary building on the farm and "sat by the fire looking out for ramblers, so I could make them tea".

That modest ambition was the beginning of The Ramblers' Rest – a cafe by day and a dining room by night, for parties who book and travel from as far away as Harrogate as well as from Hull, Howden, Beverley and York.

This summer saw the completion of a year of building work which extended the original dining room into some more of the old granary and made four bedrooms out of the rest. Angela is wife of Jeremy Sissons, a butcher in Pocklington, who supplies the restaurant with meat, including some of the farm's own beef and lamb.

He and Martyn and Martyn's wife, Zoe, all invested in the expansion – as did Yorkshire Forward, in what may have been one of its last rural job creation exercises. Zoe will run the bed and breakfast business. Angela has taken on a trainee chef, Jonathan Brigham, from York College, to help her deal with up to 40 daytime covers and private dining parties of up to 26 in the evenings. She also has four or five part-timers.

Clearly, her cooking has been a factor. But so was luck. She left the shop job and committed full-time to the catering business 16 years ago, at about the time the world was ready to discover the Wolds.

Millington lies between the A1079 York-Hull road and the A166 from York through Driffield to Bridlington. You could drive along either and never know what you were missing, because the hedges are high and the peaks of the local dales are not particularly. But as David Hockney has made us all aware, the countryside has been too much overshadowed by the dramatics of The Dales and The Moors.

Millington is on, or just off, three popular Wolds tours – the Wolds Way, published as an itinerary by Yorkshire Post contributor Roger Ratcliffe, in 1992; the Minster Way (York-Beverley), devised by Ray Wallis of the Derwent Ramblers in 1980; and the Chalkland Way, from the same author in 1994. The village and its refreshments are also now recommended in a leaflet called Big Skies Bike Rides, produced by the East Yorkshire Tourist Board.

The village has a splendid old pub, The Gait, just across the road from Town Farm, and Ramblers Rest is charming in the same nostalgic way. The original dining room has a raw brick floor, for example, and beams which were rescued from ships being broken at Hull, according to local legend. The renovation has incorporated similar mementoes of the building's past. Between them, tea-room and pub cater nicely for all tastes in the average touring party.

The business has given the two families a future they would have struggled to get from the farm.

"When I left school, we would go cricketing five nights a week in the summer," Martyn remembers. "And Sundays were always set aside for chapel. We did plenty of work but there was a time to stop. Nowadays, the shearing fills up a couple of months in middle summer; then there is making forage; then harvest ... you keep doing more hours to stand still. The farm doesn't seem to have changed much but of course things change all the time. I know in my dad's day we did well enough out of growing swedes (turnips) to employ a man just for the job. But we lost that business years ago, to more specialist growers.

"Another change is the amount of form-filling, especially for a mixed farm. I spent two hours this morning on soil reviews I have to do for Single Farm Payment and I must have seven or eight inspections a year. Of course I'm glad of the subsidies. But you do feel the pressure when you are an individual farmer without a secretary.

"There used to be four farmers worked out of Millington. Now I am the only one. When the development of these villages started, the oldest farmers got out of the oldest villages first. In some ways, it would have suited us to move out, in terms of transport access and so on. But I never really wanted to and neither did Angela. I am grateful for my grandfather's foresight in buying the land when it was possible, back in the 1950s, and for my father's efforts to keep it in the family. And I am grateful to be able to support my own wife and three daughters. But there is no doubt that nowadays a farm like this is on the edge of what is viable. It was that tea room, making something out of a derelict building, which made the difference."

The Ramblers Rest is open Thursday-Monday all year, 10.30-4pm, for breakfasts, lunch and tea and cakes, and evenings as booked, for full dinners with wine, for a minimum of 10 people. Go to YO42 1TX, call 01759 305220 or www.ramblersrestmillington.co.uk

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