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House in the country

PUBLISHED: 17:46 17 October 2016

Bayfield Hall

Bayfield Hall

Matthew Usher

Norfolk's great estates are a major part of its history - but how are they prepared for the future? Keiron Pim visits Bayfield to see how one estate is meeting this challenge.

Ruins in the grounds of Bayfield HallRuins in the grounds of Bayfield Hall

Great swathes of Norfolk have remained under the same stewardship for centuries making families, such as the Cokes at Holkham, part of the county’s history. But it is tough to maintain a large estate in the 21st century: some are broken up, with land and properties sold off, or even put to market in their entirety, as happened in 2008 when the Deterding family sold Kelling Hall and its surrounding village for around £25m. Others remain with the traditional owners but face a battle to keep going, making it necessary to investigate all possible income sources, especially on smaller estates without high quality agricultural land.

Up in the Glaven Valley, near Holt, Roger and Caroline Combe at Bayfield Hall have hit upon a blend of innovation and tradition that marks the way forward for their 1,900 acres of land and properties. Roger’s father Robin, of the Watney, Combe and Mann brewing business, inherited it in 1960 from his great uncle, Roger Coke, son of the fifth Earl of Leicester. Now under Roger’s management the estate seems in good shape for the day when it’s handed down to his and Caroline’s son, Freddy.

“When my father first inherited this place there were four tenanted farmers, getting on for 15 blokes directly employed by the estate, plus a keeper,” says Roger. “Now there’s one full-time guy, one chap in every morning and that’s it, and myself.

“Bayfield is a beautiful estate but you would not buy it for agricultural reasons: it is extremely poor quality land, very hilly, very stony, very drought-prone.” He still runs the estate’s farms but “it became obvious that to have a decent standard of living we were going to have to think laterally,” he says.

Roger Combe outside Bayfield HallRoger Combe outside Bayfield Hall

“One of the things this place is blessed with, and I have to say I’m very grateful to my father because he made sure they were well looked after, is a hell of a lot of well-built Victorian barns. That’s what we’ve used to start converting into workshops. We started 20-plus years ago.”

Now the barns house about 30 commercial tenants who use the idyllic setting for a diverse array of business purposes. “We’ve got Cley Spy, the biggest binocular optics shop in the country, we’ve got the Art Café down in Glandford, and 16 tenants up at the Brecks: seed potato businesses, a brewery, Bray’s Cottage pork pies, we’ve got all sorts of things.”

The Bayfield Brecks is a complex of barns nearby in Letheringsett, situated amid sweeping fields. Sarah Pettegree’s Bray’s Cottage pie-making business has been there since 2008.

“Particularly I love it because it’s just so beautiful, it’s where I want to be,” says Sarah. “What I love is that we’re here in an old flint barn and there are fields outside, a marsh harrier floats past quite often, and there are lots of swallows.”

Sarah’s business forms part of a cluster of food producers who share a synergy, she says – for instance she has shared deliveries with Candi’s Chutney and storage space with Grey Seal Coffee, whose premises are at the estate’s Manor Farm Barns. It also feels good to be part of an endeavour that helps the local economy as well as the Bayfield estate’s own accounts.

“It gives an income to the estate – the buildings weren’t really fit for modern farming anymore, so it means beautiful old buildings are given a new working life, which is good for the estate but also for the rural community. People’s perception of north Norfolk is that it’s very affluent, and there are pockets of affluence, but there’s actually a lot of need for year-round employment. So it is definitely a good diversification for the estate, and it’s not the ubiquitous ‘turning them into holiday homes’.”

Meanwhile Bayfield Hall itself – a Grade Two listed Georgian building – is a setting for fashion shoots, weddings, corporate events and television filming. While its beauty is a selling-point, maintaining this historic building is Roger and Caroline’s greatest challenge.

“This house is not like Houghton and Holkham,” says Roger of the home they share with their children Freddy, Kitty, Martha and Florrie. “But it’s still a very large house and as the old saying goes, it’s like the Forth Rail Bridge – you finish one thing and you start another. There are always issues with gutters and lead and all the boring bits and pieces, and it costs a lot of money. But I don’t want to give the impression that this is anything other than an absolute pleasure. We live in a very small island, there are very few places like this around, and it is an absolute privilege to be looking after it.”

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