Jamie Savile is on a mission to revive a deserted corner of Yorkshire as he modernises his family’s estate. But does it make financial sense? asks Lizzie Murphy.
It’s a picture postcard village that was once a thriving community in the North York Moors National Park.
But these days Hawnby is a much quieter place. The pub has been empty for two years since the last tenants moved out and a quarter of the 22 cottages that make up the village are unoccupied.
A shop and a tea room are the last surviving public amenities.
The population, which stood at 217, according to the 2011 census, is now estimated to be between 40 and 50. The roads are empty and during a walk around the village, I don’t see a single person.
But the man in charge, Jamie Savile, is spearheading plans to revive and bring new visitors to this forgotten corner of Yorkshire.
Hawnby sits within the Mexborough estate, six miles away from Helmsley.
Savile, 43, is the son of the Earl of Mexborough, John Mexborough, and the managing trustee of Mexborough Estates. The 15,000-acre North Yorkshire estate has been in his family since his great grandfather bought it in 1897.
The family also owns a further two, predominantly agricultural, estates in Methley and Thorner in West Yorkshire.
Most of the income from the three estates is let farmland. It also has a commercial forestry operation which sells timber into the building construction trade and, more recently, the biomass market. In addition, it owns cottages across the estates, which it lets out, and it operates shoots in North Yorkshire.
“The reality is that like all rural businesses we have to diversify. At the moment we’re looking at different ways we can do this,” Savile says.
Leisure is the key to bringing more visitors to the village, he adds. “We have a huge amount of walkers and visitors in the area because it’s such a beautiful estate, but we’re looking at how this little local community can benefit from that.”
Top of the agenda is reopening the village inn. Work is underway to bring the pub back to life with nine guest bedrooms. It is due to reopen next spring under a small pub operator.
“It’s been empty for two years and it’s really taken the heart out of the community,” says Savile. “It’s never going to make a huge amount of money for the estate but it’s so important for our community.”
Savile also plans to open up a couple of holiday cottages plus a pair of shepherd huts and a bunk barn for walkers and cyclists.
Meanwhile, he is improving a handful of empty residential cottages in Hawby to re-let them. “It’s a wonderful population but one that has tended to be on the older side. Now we’ve been left with a problem which is how do we do up the cottages to be habitable for a modern family,” he says.
The leisure developments are part of a three-to-four-year plan, which is estimated to cost up to £1m. How quickly it all happens is subject to cashflow, which Savile admits is already “absolutely creaking”.
“What we are doing doesn’t make a lot of business sense but in the long-term I think it will make a big difference,” he says.
Meanwhile, he believes Brexit is one of the biggest concerns to hit the estate’s hill farming community since Foot and Mouth in 2001. There are 35-40 farms across the three estates. “During Foot and Mouth, farmer tightened their belts and adapted. If Brexit happens, we’ll have to do the same. Us as an estate and everyone who lives here. We’re all looking together to diversify.”
The Savile family has lived in Yorkshire since the Middle Ages. A branch of the family came to live at Methley, near Wakefield, in the 15th century.
Methley Hall, which was constructed in 1588 by the family, was requisitioned by the army during both the first and second world wars, during which time it also became subject to significant mining subsidence and extensive dry rot.
The hall was demolished in the late 1950s and the family moved to Arden Hall in Hawnby, which had been purchased in 1897 by the 6th Earl of Mexborough.
The origins of the estate at Thorner are unknown.
Over the centuries, Methley has been dissected by all sorts of transport, from canals, to railways and motorways, all of which have brought new opportunities to the site. However, the disruption due to be caused by HS2, which is earmarked to run through the woodland, is a worry.
“HS2 is a big unknown,” says Savile. “A lot of that space used to be opencast coal mining between the wars and to have that restored has taken a lot of time. To have HS2 running through the middle of it is a bit upsetting.”
Another commercial element of Mexborough Estates is its Christmas tree business, which it started 12 years ago. It grows thousands of trees in Hawnby and Metheley, which it sells over the festive period at its pop-up retail site in Methley. It is expanding this year to sell Christmas decorations. “People like coming to it because it’s authentic,” he says.
Savile, who grew up in Hawnby, joined the family business in 2005 after qualifying as a chartered surveyor and working for a few years in London.
The handover from his father, now 88 who joins us for part of the interview, took place gradually. His father has retired to Helmsley with his wife but is still actively involved in the business and visits the Hawnby head office once a week.
“We have a really good partnership and dad’s been very supportive of me, particularly when I’ve had some slightly too innovative ideas,” Savile says.
One of the ideas which didn’t make it past the Earl was a rock festival. Savile was in a rock band from an early age and about 10 years ago he says he was keen to turn his passion into a business opportunity. He looks at his father and laughs. “That idea was quietly shelved,” he says.
Savile is married with three young boys age between seven and two. Even though he knows the Mexborough estates inside out, he is also mindful of the fact that he doesn’t know absolutely everything.
Whilst driving down the road with his farming-obsessed five-year-old a few weeks ago, he was reminded of this fact. He says: “I said to my five-year-old: ‘Look at the combine harvester over there’.
“He looked at me and said: ‘Daddy, that is a forage harvester and you should know that.’”
Title: Managing trustee of Mexborough Estates
Date of birth: August 21, 1976
Education: Ampleforth College, York; BSc Rural Estate Mangement at Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, Gloucestershire.
First job: Forester
Favourite holiday destination: Scotland
Favourite song: Start, by The Jam
Favourite film: American Beauty
Last book read: Between the Sunset and the Sea, by Simon Ingram
Car driven: A beaten up Land Rover Discovery, which has done 120,000 miles.
Most proud of: My family