Farm of the Week: Crystal service at a farm with literary credentials

Caroline and John  Holtby outside Dowthorpe Hall near Skirlaugh (GL1007/89e)
Caroline and John Holtby outside Dowthorpe Hall near Skirlaugh (GL1007/89e)
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NAMES OFTEN conjure up images and Dowthorpe Hall just south of Skirlaugh in the East Riding sounds like something out of a Jane Austen or Brontë sisters novel, or if you’re from around these parts either Winifred Holtby or Val Wood.

Indeed Winifred used to stay here with her cousin and is believed to have set the house as her fictional Maythorpe Hall in the novel South Riding.

The Holtby family has lived here since 1890 when Thomas Holtby moved from Cowlam on the top of the Yorkshire Wolds to the arable land of Holderness. The present incumbents are John and Caroline whose farm acreage runs to nearly 1,000 acres growing winter wheat, winter barley, oil seed rape and spring beans.

Their enterprise also includes keeping 750 pigs on a bed and breakfast basis for local pig breeder Ashley Foster; 250 turkeys for the Christmas market and half a dozen Dexter cattle, and Caroline runs an up-market accommodation business at Dowthorpe where her culinary expertise sees her ‘crystal service’ as second to none for everyone from high court judges to famous names in the world of show business.

“I’m the fourth generation to farm here,” says John. “This is a Crown Estate farm and my great grandfather Thomas was succeeded by my grandfather Edmund and my father Robert. The farm became close to 1,000 acres when my father took on another farm of around 160 acres in Long Riston.

“I’d attended university and qualified as a chartered surveyor based in Nottinghamshire, which is where Caroline and I met. When my father wanted to move on to different things we came back to run the farm and live here. I’d always wanted to farm and when my elder brother who was in the armed forces wasn’t interested in coming back I jumped at the opportunity.”

While John was High Sheriff of the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2011-2012 and is now an elected ward councillor for Mid-Holderness he’s very much hands-on at Dowthorpe, employing just one full-time man.

“The arable side is all down to the two of us with a bit of harvest help. My nephew William worked with us this summer; we have a chap who has a smallholding on the other side of Skirlaugh who helps us out; and Lizi who helps Caroline with the garden also drives a tractor.

“We grow first wheats – mainly Revelation and Skyfall – across 400 acres. Harvest this year has been good even if the price isn’t. We’ll have averaged around five tonnes per acre.

“We’re fortunate that the Vivergo plant producing bioethanol is on our doorstep at Saltend and that’s given us more of a lift than some other farmers who are miles away. It has added another million tonnes of demand and Vivergo is pushing the Government to increase the amount of bioethanol use in fuel from five per cent at present to 10 per cent before the target date of 2020.

“Our winter barley varieties are Tower and Cassia. They came in at just short of four tonnes per acre this year and we have 180 acres in the ground for next year. Oil seed rape came in at just a smidgen away from two tonnes per acre and has fared better price-wise than wheat or barley. We came in at around £260 per tonne whereas wheat is around £110 and barley we’ve struggled to get £100.

“We came back to spring beans three years ago after having grown vining peas for Bird’s Eye. We just found that our land was perhaps getting a bit pea-sick and also we’ve been pretty successful at growing beans in the past. This year they made around 2.6 tonnes per acre. They’re largely going into the Egyptian market where they are used in soups.”

The turkey business started ten years ago and although Caroline says it was borne out of necessity, it’s developed into a useful niche market.

“School fees were the reason. We bring them in as day-olds and we’re a franchisee of Kelly Bronze turkeys, which assures everybody of both quality and succulence.

“Our birds are treated very differently to normal free range birds and are fed no growth hormones or medicated feed whatsoever.

“John, Lizi and I handle all preparation of the turkeys for customers. We make a 12ft straw bale turkey that is positioned at the end of our drive with our phone number. All orders are taken on the phone and customers either pick up from the farm or purchase from one of two other outlets we supply - Uncle Henry’s Farm Shop in Lincolnshire and Roberts & Speight in Beverley. Our turkeys aren’t cheap but they are the best.”

The couple are proud of their wildlife achievements too.

“We were in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and we’ve been in Higher Level Stewardship for the past couple of years. We had a poster that listed all the birds in danger when we started and now we have everything but two from that list. We’ve put up hundreds of bird boxes. We now have quite a few grey partridges and tawny owls.”

Dowthorpe Hall is a typical Georgian manor house surrounded by beautiful grounds. Caroline and Lizi Forbes tend the garden which is open to the public one day each year in June under the National Gardens Scheme, but Caroline’s speciality is accommodation including not just B&B but also spectacular dinners.

“I became a professional cook at 17,” says Caroline who studied at Queen Margaret’s School in York and has worked in Washington, New York, Palm Beach and London.

“We have beautiful rooms here and everything we offer is high quality. Someone once described what I do as Caroline’s full crystal service and I do still love cooking. We have so much repeat business and we’re popular for those attending major functions.”

The Winifred Holtby connection also helps, as John explains: “Not only was Dowthorpe the fictional Maythorpe. The character Robert Carne is said to have been based on my great grandfather. The Winifred Holtby Society visits here regularly.”