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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Hadleigh Farm - A Vision Reborn

Hadleigh Farm c1900
In 1891 General William Booth of the Salvation Army bought 800 acres of farmland in and around Hadleigh in South-East Essex. In the previous year he had published the book In Darkest England and the Way Out in which he outlined his ideas for rescuing the poor and destitute from the squalor of London and other large cities. These people would be trained in agriculture and other skills so that they could be found employment either in Britain or in British Colonies overseas.

It was a formidable challenge as the Hadleigh land was not good farming land and was known locally as the 'badlands'. Perched above the Thames Estuary mid-way between what is now Basildon and Southend, the farm ranges from light gravel soils on the 70 metre plateau surface down an old and much slipped cliff line to heavy alluvial soils on grazing marshes, now drained for arable land, and fronted by a sea wall. The 13th-14th century Hadleigh Castle, long ruined by landslips, sits in the middle, commanding fine views over the estuary.

General Booth's scheme expanded quickly; more land was purchased and eventually over 1,000 acres came into the possession of the Salvation Army. The range of farming was wide and included livestock, arable, poultry, market gardening and orchards. There was also a pottery and brickworks. By the time of General Booth's death in 1912, almost 7,000 men had been trained at Hadleigh, and although the scheme had its critics, the Industrial and Land Colony (or Colony Farm) as it came to be known attracted many well-known visitors, including Cecil Rhodes and Rider Haggard who spoke highly of its achievements.

After the First World War, the nature of this social experiment began to change. A number of the operations were scaled down and much of the land was sold. However, new skills continued to be added, including carpentry, house painting and boot and shoe repairs. In the 1930s a more serious decline set in and during the Second World War, much of the land was requisitioned by the army. With the coming of the Welfare State to post-war Britain the original aims of the colony were no longer relevant or necessary, although the farm continued to train boys on probation and former offenders from borstal.

By the 1960s it was increasingly being run as a commercial undertaking. This remained so until in 1990, exactly a hundred years after the publication of In Darkest England, a new Training Centre was opened. Over the years the Colony's original aims had all but disappeared, but now a different form of training programme was introduced, one still aimed at those members of society who needed extra help. Under the direction of the local Social Services department, those with special educational needs are now offered training in IT skills, catering and carpentry, supported by a general educational programme in life skills.

On the farming side the decline continued. Much of the land was difficult, with landslips, scrub-filled slopes, and heavy clay. Economic conditions were such that the orchards were grubbed up and the rapidly expanding suburban population and the increasing numbers of visitors to Hadleigh Castle led to unwelcome pressures on the land. This negative view of the local community became an increasing concern to the Salvation Army. The farm survived and turned a profit but had no other function. So the owners have risen to the challenge to return to the original vision: farming at a profit while also providing a service to the community. Today we might add a third requirement: respect for the natural environment.

With Simon Gibson, their new farm manager, a foreman and two part-time farm workers now in place, the new five year management plan sees difficult land and urban neighbours as opportunities rather than problems. The 210 ha. of cropped land and 140 ha. of grass already has a rich flora and fauna with a high bird count and a rare wasp nesting in sandy landslips. Countryside Stewardship, Integrated Farm Management and LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) principles will increase biodiversity still further. A substantial proportion of the land is now in a ten year Countryside Stewardship Scheme, involving beetle banks and conservation strips, tree planting and hedge laying.

But it is not just wildlife that is welcome on the farm. The local population, at one time regarded with suspicion, is now seen as a community to serve and a market to supply. Although dog-walking precludes the keeping of sheep, the farm's cattle seem to cope with visitors and the public are now welcomed informally on all but the arable lands, and formally on one open-access field under Countryside Stewardship. A new permissive path on a track long Closed to the public allows visitors to walk through the farm between Hadleigh Castle and the Country Park to the west.

In December 2001 a new tea room was officially opened by the mayor of Castle Point, partly to provide practical catering opportunities for those on the training programme, but also to encourage members of the public to become more aware of what the Salvation Army is currently doing on its farm. It has been imaginatively designed by David Greenwood, a local resident and a member of the Salvation Army's architects' department. The cafe must have one of the most panoramic vistas in the whole of South-East Essex. From the wide balcony one gazes past the remains of Hadleigh Castle, out across the Thames Estuary to the hills of the North Downs visible in the far distance. As there are many footpaths in the area, it will provide welcome rest and refreshment for walkers.

The tea room, however, is only the first phase of a much bigger and more imaginative project. Under discussion are plans to provide residential accommodation for the trainees, a Farm Shop and a Visitors' Centre to provide not only information about the Salvation Army's past and present social service provisions in the area, but also to highlight the history of Hadleigh itself, including the castle. Farm interpretation and leisure facilities such as an equine centre may feature in future plans. The farm car park will also be available for those visiting the castle.

The retention of store and finishing cattle on the difficult land of the slopes, together with the suburban position of the farm generate another opportunity. Both the manure and the market lend themselves to organic farming. Although the clay will be farmed conventionally, at least in the foreseeable future, the light lands on the plateau, adjacent to the houses of Hadleigh and Leigh, will go organic over the next few years. An initial organic potato crop from 2003 will be joined by organic wheat, then possibly forage grass, lucerne, rye and beans. The rye should smother the weeds later in the cycle and the field beans will fix nitrogen. Higher value crops may join the rotation in the future but vegetables already feature in a horticultural operation at the training centre.

This "top" land is adjacent to housing and it is felt that the local population will appreciate the absence of spraying in future years. It is also the most suitable part of the farm for growing high value organic crops for direct marketing. The farm shop, an organic box scheme and farmers market are all possibilities under consideration.

There are also plans for the conversion of the beef to organic status under the Organic Farmers and Growers registration scheme. Last year there were 100 suckler cows, 74 calves and 2 bulls on land which, under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme is already chemical-free. With the eventual use of organic feeds, the next generation of calves could be sold as organic beef and if local abattoirs can process them under organic conditions, live animal transport should be kept to a minimum. Free Range Eggs are already sold through the adult training centre with a number of pullets using an old paddock near the farm buildings, another enterprise which taps into the local market and the welcome extended to visitors.

So Hadleigh Farm is on the road to becoming something of a community facility, serving the local population while at the same time turning a profit. The local community and visitors alike will be able to see where their food comes from. Children will be able to learn about and develop a respect for farming. English Heritage and Essex County Council will gain additional facilities for visitors to the castle and country park and everyone will be more able to enjoy their leisure in a beautiful setting overlooking the Thames Estuary. Hadleigh Farm could become a beacon for sympathetic farming, working with nature and with the community for the benefit of all.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century General William Booth believed Hadleigh was the place to make his dream a reality; in the early years of the twenty-first century that vision is being re-born.

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