Why it’s Christmas all the year round for the Yorkshire estate owner who is keen to diversify

Seven years after planting the first seedlings, Newburgh Priory’s Christmas trees are ready to sell to the wholesale market, Lizzie Murphy meets owner Stephen Wombwell.

Stephen Wombwell

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Selling Christmas trees below the body of the man who banned the religious festival could be seen as the ultimate act of defiance.

But Stephen Wombell, owner of Newburgh Priory in Coxwold, North Yorkshire, thinks it’s fun to cock a snook at Britain’s foremost Scrooge.

He has been growing Christmas trees on his estate for the last eight years and now he’s almost ready to sell them in bulk for the first time.

The fact that he’s doing this below what is believed to be the tomb containing Oliver Cromwell’s headless body, which lies in his attic, adds to the fun for Wombwell.

Cromwell’s daughter, Mary, married Newburgh’s Lord Fauconberg and is said to have paid a bribe for her father’s headless corpse to be stolen from the walls of the Tower of London.

A vengeful Charles II had Cromwell’s body dug up, beheaded and displayed when he returned from France.

The head is now in Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge. The remains were hidden in the rafters at Newburgh and family tradition states the tomb must never be opened so no-one can verify whether Cromwell is in it or not.

“He came in a bit by accident into the family history,” says Wombwell, 42. “But it’s actually rather fun selling Christmas trees almost from under his nose...if he had a nose here.”

Wombwell and his childhood friend and business partner, Will Standeven, decided to start growing Christmas trees to diversify the estate’s income shortly after he took over the running of the priory from his father who retired in 2010.

Wombwell hopes that in a few years’ time, up to 25 per cent of his income will come from selling trees, but at the moment it’s a waiting game. “The bank balance is not good. We’ve had seven years of growing trees with roughly £100,000 worth of outgoings a year,” he says.

The first Christmas tree seedlings were planted in the ground in 2012 and Newburgh is fast becoming one of country’s biggest Christmas tree growers with 220,000 across 110 acres.

Popular non-drop Nordmann fir trees make up 80 per cent of its crop. They also grow Fraser firs and Norway spruce plus a variety of potted trees for supermarkets. They source seedlings from Denmark.

So far, the pair have only sold trees via their own pop-up Christmas shop in the house. However, this year is the year they start selling wholesale.

“We can do it on a slightly smaller scale this year and practice all the things that are going to get bigger in years to come,” says Wombwell.

All of the wholesale trees will get sold through Infinity Christmas Trees – a consortium it set up 18 months ago with a handful of other growers from across the UK.

The aim is to sell quality trees that are locally sourced into the local area to reduce the environmental impact of Christmas tree distribution.

“No tree should be really doing more than 50 or 60 miles,” he says.

The trees will be cut and netted in the field, then moved about a mile where they will be put into pallets and on to lorries, which will distribute them to retailers in Yorkshire. The aim is to have trees delivered within about three days of being cut.

The operation at Newburgh employs a couple of people but it can grow to up to 12 people when they plant up to 35,000 trees in the spring.

The number of jobs, particularly seasonal jobs, will increase further as the operation expands.

“We’re going to become a much more labour intensive business and it will end up being quite a good source of employment,” says Wombwell.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Newburgh employed 43 household and garden staff plus more staff on the wider estate.

Now it employs just a handful of staff including a handyman, a property manager and two gardeners but Wombwell is keen to contribute more to the local economy.

His family has owned the priory since 1538 when Henry VIII sold it to one of his chaplains, Anthony de Bellasis, as a “thank you” for helping with the dissolution.

His nephew, Sir William, converted it into a home and there followed a procession of illustrious incumbents with armies of servants and abundant riches.

Wombwell moved to Newburgh at the age of seven when his parents took over.

“We had some great adventures,” he says. “I’d be out of the door at 8am and my parents would ring a big bell at 6pm when I had to come back. These days we’re more cautious with our children.”

He studied classics at Newcastle University before going on to study land management at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. He became a chartered surveyor and a land agent in preparation for taking over Newburgh.

The vast wealth of the past has long gone and Wombwell is very hands on as he tries to meet the estate’s annual running costs, which can reach over £500,000.

They haven’t had any heating since the boiler blew up three months ago. He’s still figuring out how to replace it.

At the moment almost his entire income comes from a residential and farm rental portfolio. He makes a bit extra from weddings and hopes to build on this with £4m plans to convert a stable block into guest

accommodation and construct a new wedding venue in the walled garden.

I can almost hear him groan when I ask if living at the 6,000 acre estate ever feels like a burden. It’s a question he is asked a lot.

“My parents sensibly asked me if I wanted to take it over when I was 16 and didn’t know any better,” he says, tongue in cheek.

He adds: “It’s complicated and hard but it’s such an amazing place to live and bring up children that I never looked at it as a burden, although I probably could at times.”

Wombwell occupies an 8,000 sq ft section of the 35,000 sq ft house with his girlfriend, his two daughters and her three children. The children range in age from 11 to eight.

He admits he doesn’t often leave the estate, although he goes on a family holiday for a week once a year.

“I could probably leave more but I’m ridiculously bad at going away.”

He gestures outside. “But it’s not a hardship because you’re here and it’s beautiful.”