Sandy greets me as I pull into the yard at Lund Farm just out of Gateforth. He’s in good form and accompanies me to the farmhouse eager to ensure that my welcome is in keeping with the farm’s dual role as a sheep breeding concern and holiday accommodation.
“He’s my customer relations manager,” says Chris Middleton who farms and runs the self-catering holiday cottages with his father Walter. “Sandy does far more good work in encouraging holiday-making families to enjoy their time here than I could ever do.”
For the record Sandy is a labrador and these days he’s the nearest Chris and Walter have to an extra pair of hands on the farm. It’s all a world away from when Walter, 86, grew up and started farming here in the days when Shires were the very real horsepower.
“We had six Shire horses for the ploughing and cultivation work and employed local men plus a couple of Irish labourers at harvest. When I look back now I just don’t know how we ever managed to do it. We used to turn the corn over so many times, binding, stooking, loading on to trailers, thrashing. Now everything is done at once.”
Chris is full of praise for his father’s acceptance of change and working with new technology and bigger and better equipment during his 70-plus years in the field.
“Dad started working with horses when he was 14 back in 1942. By the time we finished with crop growing he was driving a self-propelled combine harvester. That’s some change.”
Walter’s father George came to Lund Farm in 1925 and for much of the Middletons’ nigh on 90-year tenure there had been little alteration to their farming mix of arable and sheep.
Three major moves; one forced, the second invited, and the third of their own volition have shaped the way they farm and how Chris carries out their diversified enterprise today.
“The farm ran to 215 acres until British Railways, as it was then called, decided to divert the East Coast main line around Selby instead of through it in 1972. Up until that point we had a lot of square fields, but now we have a lot of triangular ones. Our acreage was reduced to 190 but they kindly put a ramp footbridge over the line instead of a step footbridge and that means we can drive the sheep over to our main pasture on the other side of the line. The bottom of the railway bridge also doubles up as a very handy sheep handling pen.
“We now only farm one-third of the land, renting out the arable acreage to our good friend Jeremy Lamb from Biggin. He grows wheat, barley and potatoes. We were growing 120 acres of cereals and that wasn’t big enough as we used to live slightly in fear of what the annual combine harvester repair bill was going to be. Jeremy had rented some land for potatoes originally but then asked whether we would let him have the whole of the arable land. I thought long and hard about it because it felt like an admission of failure but it’s probably the best decision we ever made.”
The move of Chris’ own volition was in the late 1980s.
“I love people and like associating with guests and giving people the opportunity to really enjoy their holiday whether they get involved on the farm or just want to know the best places to go. We started by offering self-catering or B&B in what we named the Horseman’s Wing, and in 2000 renovated another farm building into what is now Shepherd’s Rest. Today the accommodation is all self-catering.
“We have eight hens and the children and adults love collecting the eggs. It’s such a tiny thing but it gives our visitors a taste of farming. Lambing time is also brilliant for the holiday cottage guests. We’re often full at the time that most holiday accommodation businesses regard as the graveyard months because we encourage our visitors to get hands-on. When we have to bring the sheep over the railway line I take them with me and they all get out their cameras to take a picture. In a way I’m trying to recreate some of the stuff children read about in their picture books.”
Lambing starts around New Year’s Day and currently they’ve sold around one-third of the 2014 crop of lambs. They have just short of 150 ewes, buying in Suffolk X Mule shearling replacements from Malton Mart’s early breeding sale at the end of July, which are put mainly to a Meatlinc tup.
“Pretty well all of our lambs go to Selby Mart. Theirs is the most amazing success story since their move out of town and we’re dead lucky at being only three-and-a-half miles away when you look at the number that have closed.”
One new development Chris is about to make will see him in the thick of the action throughout lambing time in 2015: “I’m going to buy a caravan and sleep in it in the middle of the lambing pen. That will mean that at 3am or whatever time all I will have to do is lift my head above the parapet instead of getting up, getting changed and striding across a freezing cold yard.”
Chris clearly enjoys his dovetailing of farming and holiday accommodation. The changes that have been made to the farm over the years have reduced some of the stress that he once felt, particularly in the need for large farm machinery, and he revels in his role in promoting Selby to his visitors.
“If you listen to the media Selby is known for a toll bridge, floods and a train crash but nobody mentions that we have a fabulous abbey that was opened in 1069. When my niece walked up the aisle there last year she had further to walk than Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey. I’m determined to make sure everyone who comes here has a good time and knows the good days out. I know where all the coffee shops are; there are 12 independent ones in town. I’m about to put together a little booklet called The Selby Coffee Shop Trail.
“Bookings for the holiday cottages are running at an all-time high this year so we must be doing something right – or at least Sandy is!”