The village that fought back
It’s the community that refused to follow the trend of rural decline. Ian Clarke discovers how the North Norfolk village of Burnham Deepdale has created a template of transformation for others to follow.
We all know about Old MacDonald and his farm with the “baa baa here” and the
“moo moo there”. He was a pretty traditional sort of agricultural chap, we're
led to believe. The well-loved tune has never been updated to take account of
any diversification which has taken place down on MacDonald's Farm as the “cluck
clucks” were presumably slaughtered due to a bird flu scare and “oink oinks”
were probably wiped out by swine fever.
But forget nursery rhymes and set aside rural downturns for a moment.
The feelgood factor that has been created in one small North Norfolk farming
outpost would have seemed more like an unlikely fairytale just five or so years
New ideas to create new income on farms have become commonplace. B&Bs,
produce shops, rare breeds centres. And so the list goes on.
But it's not often you hear about a diversification programme which
incorporates opening an accommodation complex offering 20,000 bed nights a year,
the chance to stay in an native American-style tipi, a base for a retail centre
that includes a trendy clothing store and an interior design showroom as well as
a café boasting “the best cooked breakfast in the country”, some flats and the
location for a Bond film.
Oh, and before I forget, it's all done with green energy at its heart, has
won awards for the design of its buildings in an area of outstanding natural
beauty and provides as many jobs as there are people in the village. More to the
point, it has ensured the survival of local services rather than being swallowed
up by second home development.
And, amid the climate of fear about the loss of local-ness in the face of a
growing invasion, that is vital.
Excuse the breathless description, but it is pretty remarkable. For this is
the story of what has happened at Burnham Deepdale, a tiny coastal community
which takes a few seconds to pass through on the main A149 road between Wells
Well, it used to take a few seconds to pass through. The transformation means
that now not many people pass through without stopping to sample its unique
feel. Where the sad inevitability of rural life has seen shops and services
close in many areas, Deepdale has seen new openings and a re-birth.
The transformation is the brainchild of the Borthwick family who have farmed
in the village for four generations since Bert Borthwick bought Deepdale Farm.
The new approach really started about four years ago with the opening of
Deepdale Backpackers, Deepdale Camping and Deepdale Information, which have
brought in many thousands of new visitors to the North Norfolk coast. These
facilities were added to Deepdale Farms' Granary Group Hostel, which has been
running for about 20 years.
The state of farming encouraged father and son Alister and Jason not to put
all the eggs in one basket and, by diversifying into tourism, especially into
virtually untapped markets, they have secured a future for Deepdale Farms.
All in all, their venture serves as the perfect model of farm
The backpackers' market now accounts for over 30 per cent of UK visitors and
UK tourism spend, yet it has been virtually ignored in the East of England. But
it has been the more recent new growth which has given the village even wider
Alongside the range of accommodation and tourism facilities, Burnham Deepdale
has also seen the revival of the petrol station and the development of a
supermarket on a site which had been threatened with the imposition of more
second homes. And in the last few months the complex has developed even further
with the arrival of Deepdale Café - which has seen business four times greater
than predicted in its business plan - Fat Face clothing, Bunty Richardson gift
shop, Tops/Fine and Country estate agents and a showroom for renowned interior
designer Miv Watts.
Dalegate Market now employs over 40 people - more than the actual population
of Burnham Deepdale.
According to Jason Borthwick, “it has become the hub of the local area for
both locals and visitors.”
He adds: “To the traditionalists, the sight of tents rather than crops is
unsettling, however the farm is still a working farm.”
The farm remains a key part of the overall enterprise and Alister will
continue tending the 1300 acres which produce a range of crops, including wheat,
sugar beet and potatoes.
But Jason, who has provided the inspiration for the developments, believes
the story of Burnham Deepdale would have been very different if a short-termist
“quick buck” approach had been taken. “The easy option would have been to
create second homes,” he says. “But we never wanted to go for the easy
option and we are always up for a challenge. It has taken a lot of blood,
heartache and tears but we are really pleased with the outcome.”
His view is echoed by King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council leader
John Dobson, who says: “It's excellent to see development like Dalegate
Market and the Deepdale tourism facilities, which make the local community more
sustainable and increase the local income throughout the year.”
So what about when it's cold, wet and windy in North Norfolk? While some
coastal areas are reliant on hot and sunny weather to draw in the visitors, the
Burnham and Brancaster section of the county attracts a more all-year round
market and many visitors enjoy a bracing walk on the beach or a sailing
expedition in the winter as much as the summer.
The hostel accommodation, which boasts a big log burner in the central lounge
and drying facilities, together with the shops and other services are clearly
tailored for the all-year market. “The hostel can be full in January,” says
Jason. “There is a real buzz here even now and it can still be really busy
out of season.”
Alister is concentrating on the farming aspect of the enterprise and Jason is
now moving on to a new project, having started his own consultancy business
based in Aylsham called Earthly Ideas. Through it, he hopes to pass on his
knowledge, experience and imagination to other businesses in Norfolk and East
Anglia. The main focus is diversification, eco-friendly technologies and
marketing, and one of the first projects will probably be a new backpackers'
hostel in Norwich.
But to ensure the Deepdale project continues to thrive, Mark White and
Lorraine Marshall have taken over as tourism managers. “We were looking for
someone who was in love with the area,” says Jason, “and we felt they fitted in
really well and had interest and energy and will move it forward.”
Lorraine worked at the harbour office in her home town of Wells for 15 years
and was commissioners' chief executive for five years.
“Returning from a backpacking tour of Greece earlier this year, we
received an offer to consider joining the team at Deepdale, and our enthusiasm
for a move into sustainable tourism was fired up,” she says. “We know we
will thoroughly enjoy this challenging new role and, following Jason and
Alister's excellent ground work, we look forward to taking this established and
unique business forward.”
Mark, who has a background in events management, adds: “Our focus is to
pick up on the previous development of Deepdale and carry that forward and to
bring a fresh focus to the business.”
He describes the hostel as being like “Swallows and Amazons for adults”.
“It is a real adventure,” he adds.
Most of us probably have a stereotypical view of a backpackers' hostel being
rather austere with a boarding school-style dormitory feel.
The Deepdale complex has changed the preconceptions of the majority who have
visited its four-star accommodation with its en-suite facilities, comfortable
beds and fully equipped kitchen areas.
One respected national travel writer described it as “the most stylish
hostel you'll ever see”.
Meanwhile, the tenants in the Deepdale units have also lined up to hail the
success of the project. Dean Heaviside, director of TOPS/Norfolk and Suffolk
Fine and Country estate agents, sees it as an ideal location to reach a new
market on the North Norfolk coast, a view clearly shared by Fat Face, a business
with nationwide outlets, who selected Burnham Deepdale as the base for its first
so-called 'at location of activity' stores to cater for the sailing, kiting,
walking and cycling fraternity on the East Coast.
It was the same positive story from other businesses. Elaine West, of Miv
Watts Design, called it an “innovative development”. While another to relocate
to Burnham Deepdale, Nicky Claydon, uprooted her gift store from Bury St
Edmunds, “because of our love of Norfolk”.
The final word, however, belongs to Lin Murray at Deepdale Café who enthuses:
“If you had told me a few months ago that I'd be employing over 20 people, I
would have told you you were mad, but the café has been a real success.”
Ian Clarke - Eastern Daily Press