From High Street retailer to grouse moor owner – Martin Vallance talks to Chris Berry.
My place in
Remember this? "I'm Martin Vallance ... if you're ever
less than satisfied, ask for Martin. I'll look after you." We're talking late Seventies, and an era of Yorkshire Television advertisements when retail outlet proprietors took centre stage in their commercials. Madeleys, Mike's Carpets and even Woolworths' chairman come to mind, for those whose histories go back that far, but it is Martin Vallance's words that have lingered longer in my memory, although I confess that I needed some prompting from the man himself over the exact wording.
When Martin sold Vallances in 1987 he disappeared from our screens and from public view pretty much altogether, although I had come across his name some years ago in connection with an organisa-tion called FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group).
In an early edition of Country Week Martin was one of many who responded to my article on the hunting ban. He is now very much the country man, running his own grouse moor in Coverdale with his wife Pip and living in Brompton-on-Swale in North Yorkshire, and the same earnest disposition continues regardless. "We had always personalised our press advertising and my father told me that TV was the way to go because it is such an intrusive medium."
The words he uttered on screen may not have been written by him but they were very much his thoughts and his feelings. "It was my own personal commitment to our service and what we were selling. My reputation was always on the line and I was happy to stand by what I was saying." The twinkle in his eye tells you just how much he was enjoying it, and how he was able to see the funny side of it too, particularly over his name being in that first commercial.
"After we had done a few takes, one of the camera crew said, in a cockney accent I remember to this day, 'If I were you I'd get a few people called Martin in your offices to handle all the complaints'."
Martin's father, Alec, opened the first Vallance shop in 1934 in Scunthorpe and from there the business grew to over 40 shops and out of town stores, turning over 50m per year. "We were always based predominantly in Yorkshire but we did have outlets in the Midlands and Lancashire. The boom time started for us around the time of the Queen's Coronation, that's when black and white television sets really started selling."
Martin started out in the Briggate shop in Leeds when he was 18, in the early 1950s and was running the whole business by the time he was 24. "I was far too young, but what I lacked in skill I tried to make up for with enthusiasm." Yet one of the best things Vallances ever did was not his decision. "Opening the Headrow store wasn't my idea, it was my father's, but it was a big success. It was our fifth store and, complete with the record browserie, it proved to be one of our best moves."
The TV ads continued flowing with the memorable "I'm not Martin Vallance" commercial featuring a very beautiful girl, but the company was sold to Thorn EMI who merged Vallances with the now
long-out-of-business Rumbelows and so over 50 years of retailing, including contracts to fit radios into tanks and ambulances, came to an end.
These days Martin's life is much more in the world of tweed suits and checked shirts than high street retailer. He and Pip have travelled all around the world. "We were in South Africa the day Nelson Mandela was freed, and we've been to India four times. China is certainly not our favourite, the smog is awful, but India is vibrant and alive with colour. The people stay cheerful despite many living in extreme poverty."
An enjoyment of colour and appreciation of the countryside have always been uppermost in Martin's mind. "I've planted trees wherever I've lived and when we moved to Beckwithshaw I had a shelter belt planted before we had even moved in." He wasn't planting trees because of any countryside scheme. "I just did it. It didn't even cross my mind to apply for aid towards planting." He went on to build two wildlife ponds also, and the association with FWAG started around this time. "I found myself being volunteered to raise funds for the organisation, cajoling 100 a year from businesses.'"
Martin and Pip had lived very happily in Beckwithshaw for a number of years and knew that any move they made would have to better their already very happy existence, and they found it with their home at Brompton-on-Swale and their acquisition of a grouse moor in 1996. "Having a grouse moor to look after really does change your life," says Martin.
"I've been shooting since my late twenties, starting with hedging and ditching, learning the field craft. Running a shoot introduces you to a whole raft of people and events. It certainly isn't all about 'toffs'. One of our regulars is a joiner from Hull. He's no toff, and those who might be regarded as such are really nice people anyway. We run six or seven shoots a year and they are great events."
The grouse moor, Arkleside, on the south side of Coverdale, is clearly Martin's passion, but he's certainly not getting carried away. "When we took it on it was seriously over-grazed but, with the farmers, we've taken 1,000 sheep off through countryside stewardship schemes. The key to a well-run grouse moor hinges on proper management of habitat and diligent vermin control, thus creating an environment where sheep and grouse can co-exist properly. Many farmers have told me that a moor well managed for sheep is also well managed for grouse. In fact, they taught me the old saying that 'a sheep's worst enemy is another sheep'."
Martin liked this phrase so much that he had it translated into Latin – Pessimus Inimicus Ovis, Alius Ovis Est – and now uses it as his estate logo, underneath a 12-bore shotgun and a shepherd's crook. Under Martin's management, ground nesting birds such as curlews, golden plover, lapwings have all multiplied as well as the grouse, and the numbers are looking good for the shoot itself.
"We now achieve 100 brace days here and the bag average has doubled," he says. His enthusiasm, evident in his youth when selling electrical appliances, has stood him in good stead and it also helped restore Blubberhouses' cricket team when he lived at Beckwithshaw. "When I sold the business I decided that I wanted to play cricket. I hadn't played since school so I needed to find a place to play. I found Blubberhouses, who were really struggling, and I remember going out to bat, prodding around for ages and coming back to the pavilion having scored nought. The captain patted me on the back and said, 'Well done lad! Consider yourself picked for the season'."
Martin made every effort to get the club back on its feet while he was there. "We all got on really well and the only way I was ever going to escape was to move!" He says it with huge affection, not just for his part in the renaissance of the club but also for giving him the opportunity to take part. If all of this gives you the impression that everything in the Vallance garden, and grouse moor, is rosy – then think again. Martin does get frustrated, usually with organisations.
"One thing that drives me mad now is the way that quangos interfere with our right to manage our own estates and try to interfere, for example, with heather burning. I'm leading an effort to end the aggressive war of words between grouse moor managers and the RSPB."
Martin and Pip recently took second place in the national Purdey Award for shooting and conservation, one of the shooting world's major accolades. "The presentation took place the day before the Rugby World Cup Final and in accepting second prize I acknowledged the honour but added that I didn't think England would be too pleased with second place in Sydney tomorrow!" he says, with all of the verve and vigour of someone still in front of the cameras.