Normal for Norfolk: Desmond MacCarthy of Wiveton Hall
PUBLISHED: 12:16 11 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:16 11 July 2017
Archant Norfolk 2017
It is hard to ignore the entertaining eccentricities of Wiveton Hall owner Desmond MacCarthy, but his passionate understanding of the stunning landscape he calls home will truly charm and captivate you
Desmond MacCarthy’s spectacular eyebrows are so famous that they have spawned their own range of mugs, tea towels and even comedy glasses.
The eccentric and outspoken owner of Wiveton Hall has become a cult figure since he was thrust into the limelight last year by the BBC documentary Normal for Norfolk – not that he wasn’t already a bit of star among the locals and visitors to his farm and café.
The programme focussed on the realities – good and bad – of life on the family estate, and it was Desmond’s bumbling, entertaining performance which stole the show.
“I was in the Sue Ryder Shop in Dereham this morning and someone asked for my autograph, it was a bit embarrassing,” he says.
Was he nervous that the show – which is about to return to our screens for a second series – would simply be poking fun at Norfolk, reinforcing popular stereotypes?
“No. I thought the BBC would be responsible and I trusted them, I didn’t feel they were going to pull the wool over my eyes. Mind you, it might have been naïve. When I asked the director about what he had worked on, I was expecting him to say some sort of farming related show, in fact, it was My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” he laughs.
“The genuine reason for me wanting to do this programme though was that I wanted a more honest portrayal of country life than the current Blue Peter, slightly wet and dull way. I wanted us to try, without being too outrageous – there’s no point putting people’s backs up – to show just how fragile life in the country can be, the impact of the climate, the need to consider conservation and changes in agricultural practice. Although there are these wonderful wildlife programmes out there, they seem to skirt round the issues and the fact that we live in a man-managed landscape.
“I like Countryfile but it will tell you about the successful reintroduction of a bird to a particular area and will show you these little birds hatching in the nest. What you won’t hear about are the measures taken to enable those birds to successfully nest and to be reintroduced to a habitat, like the control of predatory species. Careful conservation and management is part of the story; it is not all pretty, but it is a very important part of country life.”
Desmond wasn’t the only star of Normal for Norfolk – Wiveton itself is a place of true beauty and natural wonder and it is hard not be mesmerised by its laid back vibe.
The fruit fields; the old barn, now, deservedly, one of Norfolk’s most talked-about eateries; the canopy of pines giving shade to the boldly coloured tables and chairs scattered beneath giving more than a hint of the Mediterranean, and of course the majestic views, stretching across the marshes to the first glimpse of sea on the horizon.
Desmond, now 60, took on the running of the hall and farm in his early 20s, rarely roaming far from his ancestral home, which he now shares with his children, Isabel and Edmund, and 101-year-old mother Chloe.
It is still very much a working farm, but like many Norfolk landowners, the family has diversified and now Wiveton has the café, a holiday cottage business, it welcomes visitors to the house and gardens and new for this year are bell tents for glamping and a maize maze.
“We don’t want it too complex though. I don’t want people lost in there, I want them coming out again and going to the café,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Spend just a few minutes in Desmond’s company and it is abundantly clear that this is a man whose eccentricities are far outweighed by his passion for the land. He is a man who has an extraordinary knowledge and love for the countless plants, trees, birds, animals and insects who share it with him.
His love for this magical place is contagious; you only have to read the almost poetic history of the gardens which he has penned to see just how deeply that connection goes.
“Did you read it? It is very normal now to move house half a dozen times in your lifetime, so it is a bit unusual, I guess, to still be living in the house you were born in, to be rooted to a spot. But the gardens are very much part of my memories of life here, what was growing, the people working here, and of course my family.”
The first thing you notice when wandering around Wiveton with Desmond is that he knows everyone – from staff in the gardens to visitors in the café – and has something to say to most. You can’t ignore him.
“I don’t like to interfere; they get a bit cross if I do too much,” he says. Moments later he is quizzing the new Spanish chef about his pizza dough recipe.
The family opened the café 10 years ago and it continues to win accolades.
“The location and the view are fantastic, but most importantly the food is fantastic – it has to be or there is no point doing it.”
Desmond farms fruit, vegetables and barley, and the café is surrounded by the fields of fresh, seasonal produce which it serves, adding to its charm.
How involved is he in the menu? “Well a lot to start with. Now I mustn’t micromanage too much, they don’t always need me in there, especially after hours when I run out of butter.”
Roam away from the café and you can wander through the gardens and by the hall – a magnificent flint 17th century manor house with commanding views across the marshes.
The walled garden, the lifetime passion of Chloe, who still potters around the grounds, is an idyllic spot brimming with wildlife and the glorious scents of countless plants and flowers, somewhere you can step away from the world.
“It is a microclimate, like an oasis. Listen to the birds singing; see the swifts darting about. Look at that beautiful goldfinch up there. You see just today we have seen three species of butterflies – holly blues, tortoiseshells and here, these delicate orange tips. Smell this rose, it is incredible, and that tree here, it was brought back from Washington as a seed by my mother many years ago,” says Desmond with boundless, infectious enthusiasm.
One of his hobby horse topics is changes in farming practice, the demise of wild hedgerows and loss of habitats.
“The whole notion of farmers thinking that their farms need to look tidy is ridiculous. Look,” he says, gesturing around at piles of off-cuts of wood, tumbledown outbuildings, long grass and nettles.
“As you can see here, nothing is tidy. There is too much concrete now on farms, hedgerows are cut too often and there is not enough livestock, which means less mud and fewer insects and fewer birds because there aren’t insects for them to feed on. The environment needs some disorder.”
Two stark, bare trees stand ghostly against the bright blue sky and wide open landscape as a reminder of the ongoing threat of the sea which faces Wiveton and other coastal areas.
“These trees were victim of the 2013 storm surge, but amazingly much of the plant life and trees, and even the stone of the walled gardens, have survived flooding over the years. In 2013 the water came incredibly close to the house so we renamed it Port Wiveton and for three days we could launch our boat from here to float across the marshes and out to the sea.
It was a surreal experience but it is these sorts of things which make this such a remarkable place to live.”