When Farmhouse Breakfast Week starts tomorrow it’s a fair bet there won’t be many farm-based bed and breakfasts that can match Chris and Fiona Clark’s offerings.
Fresh homemade bread, laid-that-day eggs, poached, from their own rare breed hens, dry cured bacon and sausages from the local butcher, along with homemade marmalade and lemon curd - these are enough to whet most appetites.
Nethergill Farm is deep in the heart of Langstrothdale. You might think that you’ve pretty much made it by the time you’ve got to Buckden having travelled through Kettlewell, but then you have six miles of country lane before reaching the tiny hamlet of Oughtershaw. After that; this week at least, you have a half-mile of ice-packed snow track to negotiate, before reaching Chris and Fiona’s home of the last ten years.
Nethergill Farm is the realisation of Chris and Fiona’s ambitions. Having met at Seale Hayne Agricultural College in Newton Abbott as teenagers their journey towards Oughtershaw, that saw them purchase the 380-acre farm and Victorian farmhouse with barn and outbuildings in 2005, has always been an adventure.
Chris was born in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), the son of a water engineer, and went to boarding school in Sussex. Fiona was born in Shadwell, near Leeds, the daughter of a doctor and a teacher. Neither had a farming background but both were determined to work outside.
Fiona’s father was particularly supportive.
“My dad knew I wanted to work on a farm but nobody really wanted girls on farms. He came out with me and we knocked on doors until eventually I found a job with the Goodall family in Scarcroft. I worked there for a year before college and then at times during breaks.
“Chris and I were told at agricultural college that unless we came from an farming background we wouldn’t ever get our own farm. That was like a red rag to a bull so far as Chris was concerned, and me too. From then on our intention was always to get to the stage where we had our own farm and we set a target of achieving it by the time we were 50.”
After leaving college Chris milked a dairy herd of 175 cows in Pembrokeshire while Fiona took on a milk round back in Leeds for the Goodalls. They then ran a game farm in Buckinghamshire, got married, managed an arable farm in Amersham and set up an outdoor pig herd.
Their next step was to run a pig business of their own. Chris explains: “A friend from college was managing a farm on the Loseley Park Estate in Guildford, Surrey. It was going organic and they wanted a supply of manure and muck. He asked us to set up our own outdoor pig herd so that he had a ready supply of manure so in 1984 that’s what we did.”
After a jittery start due to tumbling pig prices they reorganised their business and struck on the kind of publicity that set the tone for their farming future.
“We’ve never believed in feeding the pigs with meat and bone meal. It just doesn’t seem right. The estate was producing organic yogurt, ice cream and sorbets. We started feeding strawberry yogurt, chocolate mousse and lemon sorbet to our slaughter pigs – and we still have the letter that one customer wrote saying they could taste the strawberries in our pork.
“It was our first real understanding of creating a perception that was actually backed up by reality. Our pigs were then sold into Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and Q Guild butchers. Fi had started up our relationship with local butchers when she’d gone in to one of them carrying a pig over her shoulder.”
They sold the pork business in 1993 and came out of farming for several years to turn their hands to marketing and graphic design for companies that were in the sector they had served. Skills they had acquired along the way became a new business, but all still with their goal in mind.
Chris recalls one element of living at the time that assured him of getting back to the countryside.
“We lived in a tiny village on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border which was lovely but the sound of lawn mowers and hedge trimmers on a weekend was too much. We longed for the space of the countryside and wanted to be farming and, as we put it, balancing the needs of food, farming and nature. So in 2001 we started looking for a farm that would suit us.
“Over four years we visited 43 farms. We knew Nethergill was for us though as we were coming to what was effectively a blank canvas.”
Their earliest memory of living at Nethergill wasn’t so idyllic.
“We were both wondering what we’d done when on our first night it rained so hard and we sat on Fleet Moss above the farm and thought about what we had come to, but we love it.”
The couple have 70 Dalesbred ewes and six White Shorthorn cows. With calves, yearlings and slaughter animals they have 24 cattle.
“What always comes first is that we’re in business and with that in mind what we do is add value to our beef and sheep. Our guests are in the two B&B rooms, that we started eight years ago; or in the self-catering accommodation and they eat our beef and lamb in ready-meals that we put together. We also sell pedigree cattle to other breeders and some stock to a neighbouring farmer.
“We’ve been ‘green’ ever since it seems the term was invented and we have a strong relationship with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. We opened a Field Centre that’s now in its second season and last year we had educational visits from schools and colleges.
“Our eggs are fantastic by the way,” says Chris as he cracks one ready for another farm breakfast. “We have 32 hens and they’re as happy here as we are!”
Farmhouse Breakfast Week runs from January 25-31.