Woodhouse Farm and Garden is a little slice of heaven set in the Staffordshire countryside a few miles east of Lichfield. If you had visited it 240 years ago you’d have been in part of Fisherwick Park, a huge estate freshly landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown. Brown was responsible for landscaping many beautiful country estates around the UK. Sadly, he couldn’t transform the spending habits of the owner of Fisherwick, the Earl of Donegall, and within 50 years the estate was broken up to pay off debts. It was sold in 42 lots at an auction in Lichfield in May 1808.
Little remains from the days of Fisherwick Hall. The hall itself has gone along with the imposing avenues of trees and the ornamental lake. Some relics such as the Orangery and the boathouse remain if you know where to look. What was once a splendid 2400 acre estate has, over the intervening years, been turned into farms, quarried for gravel, and generally been lost.
One part of the Fisherwick estate that has features dating back to grander times is the old walled garden which is now at the heart of Woodhouse Farm and Garden (a Community Interest Company). The walled garden covers about 3.5 acres of the farms 22 acres and is run primarily by Andrew and Annamarie Stone and Allan Hayes. Allan has extensive knowledge of fruit growing as well as growing produce. Andrew grew up in the house in the corner of the walled garden when his parents farmed the land, so the farm is a special place for him. Annamarie didn’t have any agricultural background to start with but has developed many skills since taking on the farm with her husband Andrew. She now has skills in butchery, raising chickens, administration, and is the maker of the many chutneys, jams, pickles, and cordials that you can buy at the farm or at their stall at local farmers markets.
The farm operates as a Community Supported Agriculture project. Members sign up for the year to get boxes of vegetables and fruit in season, and also the chance to help as volunteers from time to time. Surplus produce is also available for purchase. The commitment of the members allows Andrew, Annamarie, and Allan to plan what they grow and be sure of a steady market for their produce.
There are distinct advantages of small scale farming by people who care about the land, livestock and community. Unlike other food supply services the distance food travels is measured in yards and is done on foot. As for the animals, they live outdoors and are well looked after. Having everything on a small scale has its pros and cons though. One of the downsides is that it all falls to a few people to get things done, and the animals need looking after and crops need tending whatever the weather. That said the walk to work and the environment when you get there is delightful on a bright clear morning.
It’s worth mentioning the skills needed to manage the walled garden and end up with enough food for all the members to have their regular box of produce. The land is on a slope so the higher ground is well suited to crops that like good drainage while the lower ground, is better suited to those that like more moisture. The higher ground is also a suntrap whereas the lower ground has more shade. Simply having the wall around the garden helps keep the temperature higher and benefits the crops. Some crops are brought on even earlier by starting them in poly-tunnels. All of this has to be taken into account when planning what to sow and when to sow it. It takes thought and skill to grow on such a scale and end up with the right crops to harvest at the right time.
Growing a mix of fruit, vegetables, and livestock also brings the benefit of a more natural way of farming. Waste organic matter is fed to the pigs for example – no need to compost or shred it, they eat it just as it comes. And the ground is kept fertile largely through manure from the animals.
Keeping livestock has other advantages. The pigs – Gloucester Old Spot – and a small herd of Irish Moiled beef cattle provide the meat. Apart from a trip to the abattoir all butchery is done on the premises since Annamarie has trained in butchery skills. This means the sausages you buy from Woodhouse Farm and Garden have no preservatives added to them when Annamarie makes them. It means that the bacon is also cured on the premises and doesn’t ooze that horrible white stuff that shop bought bacons often have. And it means the beef is from grass fed cattle. Recently sheep have been added to the list and the free range chickens really are free to rummage about outside and not in a barn.
As well as supplying the local community with good wholesome food the farm also caters for recreational needs. Their web site lists some of the events hosted by the farm such as Halloween stories round the campfire, apple pressing days – turning the many varieties of apple grown on the farm into juice (and some into cider). Events in support of World Fair Trade Day provide Fair Trade teas and coffee as well as home made cakes. Summer BBQs, camping visits for local youth groups, and even guided walks to see some of the remains of the original Fisherwick estate also take place at the farm.
Woodhouse Farm and Garden is a little piece of heaven that is well worth a visit, especially if you like good, honest food. Though not open every day (those crops and livestock do need tending to, remember?), you can sign up to their newsletter and find out when they are open through their web site: