Heading out from the A39 at Bush on an undulating country lane, I soon reach our latest sponsors, (to whom great thanks) Norton Barton Artisan Food Village, which is a growing hub for local food production and distribution near beautiful Bude.
The light rain does not detract from the beautifully autumnal drive to this amazing place tucked away in the picturesque North Cornwall countryside. Despite the low wintry afternoon light, this community of food producers is a hive of activity; things are happening, there’s real energy here. Creating a food village is a work in progress, with huge amounts of investment in ideas and renovation but when complete, Norton Barton is going to be a memorable go-to place, a key spot for locals and visitors alike to learn about the food they eat, and to enjoy the very best of local produce.
Owned by the Harding family, the drivers of all this enterprise are Richard and Fionagh, though their four children are also very much involved in aspects of the business.
Norton Barton is now home to the well-established Cornish Charcuterie, Popti Cornish Bakehouse, Cornish Distilling, which manufactures warming Morvenna Spiced Rum, and other producers such as Whalesborough Cheese, Sargie’s Cornish Kitchen, Bude Beekeepers and Bude Blooms. Eventually, the site will be a full artisan experience for food and drink producers, keeping things local and as environmentally-friendly as possible. Norton Barton is working hard to reduce the carbon footprint of production as 65-85% of power is generated by their wind turbine. With producers working together as a village, some skills and tasks can be shared, such as sales, marketing and distribution, while visitors get a real feel for the provenance of their food.
Richard and Fionagh came to food production via an unusual route. Both highly successful fund managers in the City, their previous careers provided the initial finance to invest in their new venture in Cornwall. Scottish-born Fionagh desperately wanted to return rural life, with a home in the countryside where she could work on the land, and Richard fully agreed. It has probably been the best choice they ever made and the family is well settled here in the local community.
The couple knew they wanted a large family but it was the birth of their first-born daughter, Kitty, which totally reshaped their thinking about how to live their best lives. A high-pressure life in London was not the way forward long-term. Their thinking intensified when Kitty was born. She was so unwell, she was not expected to survive. Survive – and thrive – she fortunately did. Fionagh later found she was pregnant with their second daughter, Lily. She left her work in the City, to study Garden Design at Greenwich, while Richard continued working in the City. Two more children followed, and the couple checked out various rural properties in Cornwall. Land was a must, for Fionagh, green by nature for many years, was and remains keen on biodiversity of wildlife, wanting to put her principles into practice. Richard fully shares her approach to food production and is also a dab hand at making wooden furniture as used in their bar area (see below).
Their careers had developed successfully but they had never been farmers; however, that is exactly what the couple decided to do, relishing a challenging major lifestyle change. Moving to Norton Barton in 2006, they tried farming cattle and turkeys before turning to pigs. They were grateful for the invaluable help received from local farmers, but a low point was when their Christmas turkeys were all stolen and with it any earnings.
They decided to try pigs to produce pâtés and rillettes, plus cured meats, for which the couple felt there was a gap in the market. With produce made from Cornish Lop pigs, the award-winning Cornish Charcuterie was born in 2010. One of the couple’s key achievements was achieving Food Enterprise Zone (FEZ) status in 2015, making it easier to grow and develop local produce through a simpler planning process which allows growth but also protects the countryside. Norton Barton is now the only artisan food village in the UK, a real first for Bude, too. Its development is ongoing. Not one to rest on his laurels, Chairman of Norton Barton, Richard, is currently a director on the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Agri-Food Council, a body working hard to promote Cornish food and farming, using his skills of business strategy and new business development to best effect for the region.
The Hardings never lost their entrepreneurial spirit, so were always keen to try new ideas, and worked hard to make them a success. Their skills still complement each other. Fionagh is Managing Director of the business, concerned with product development, marketing and sales, along with other ‘day to day’ operational issues. As in any business, not everything they try works, but they will always give it their combined best shot.
Originally, they wanted to keep free-range pigs for their Cornish Charcuterie business, but changes in trichinella testing were introduced in 2014. This meant that all pigs from ‘non-controlled housing’ (free-range) must be tested before going into the human food chain. These complications meant free-range was not viable or possible, but their animal welfare is still very important to them.
Fionagh explained that the pigs, while indoors, are not crated but live in big pens, so are kept as comfortable as possible. She also personally takes the pigs to slaughter at a local abattoir in Whitstone, so the animals do not have to travel far and are killed by pig specialists. Needless to say, it’s not her favourite part of the job but a necessary one and she feels the animals are treated as humanely as possible there.
Of course, food choices are changing all the time. Tapping into the growing vegetarian/vegan market, their newer Cornish Roots range offers three products containing locally-sourced ingredients: edamame bean pate, mushroom pate with chilli and coriander and vegan spicy bean crush, made to the same exacting standards as their other products and produced completely separately from any meat products. Now, they are also using recyclable packaging wherever possible and looking to alternatives to plastics.
To make Norton Barton a go-to visitor destination, Richard and Fionagh have worked hard to combine a family business with the help of long-serving loyal staff, all working together as a team. They also quietly assist others in the community. At their village, they have created a free woodland walk (for spring/summer seasons) with sign-guided information about nature, providing a great experience for children (wellies recommended) which anyone can use. But their involvement stretches further.
Jackie Diffey of Bude Refill Shop said: “Fionagh and Richard at Norton Barton have been incredibly supportive of our venture in getting a zero-waste shop set up in Bude. Their pledge via their wind turbine fund was the initial boost to get the project going, for which we are so grateful. They are the driving force behind many initiatives which help to boost our local economy.” Fionagh is also a member of the Barrel Morris Dancing group, so there is some play among the hard work. She says it is very energetic and great fun.
When I met Fionagh, she was wearing a fleece, taking time out from her duties. We sit at a table in an emptyish space; there is no expensive managing director’s chair! It is not an elegant life, but a satisfying one. She says:
“We do work hard, we work seven days a week, and never ask anyone to do what we wouldn’t do ourselves.” Fionagh and Richard are hands-on people, as Fionagh explains: “Although we employ people now, I still clean out the pigs if needed, organise deliveries, polish the sausages and take the pigs to slaughter. It really isn’t glamorous. Recently, I’ve been learning to plumb on YouTube, and have been very pleased to master a few tasks, like replacing a toilet cistern.
Environmentally, I’m really pleased that we have encouraged nine species of bats on the farm, and have really improved biodiversity since we arrived here back in 2006, despite developing the site. As buildings are being renovated, viewing galleries are being incorporated, which will make food production here a real immersive experience for visitors, but always with an eye to the wider environment.
Currently, we aim to open March – September 2020, but we hope to have a shop and tea room open all year round, with events for locals and visitors, and are checking out a restaurant idea. We’d love Norton Barton to be a destination in itself”.
One part of the village which is currently open all-year is the distillery, the brainchild of Richard, who felt the gin market was saturated and that rum would fit a gap in the market. The couple were approached by Dr Tom Read who approached them to see if they needed a distiller. Tom is now a business partner, who offers rum tours to the public; he is also training Kitty Harding in distilling. The tours run twice a day and cost £15, providing an opportunity to visit the factory floor and see the complex process of rum production in action, from fermenting the molasses to the finished product. Cornish rum is in the new wave of artisan products. As an extra incentive, check out the bar and buy yourself a rum cocktail to enjoy overlooking the beautiful North Cornwall countryside.
If I’m honest, I went along like so many, assuming they were people from the City living in a big house on a hill, but the reality is that Richard and Fionagh are hard-working, family-focused people who get things moving but who also love the Cornish countryside and Bude. They are very business-focused but they have to be with such a huge, ambitious venture. As Fiona says:
“We don’t have holidays, so any money we make is ploughed back into this place, creating quality local products; we think that’s good for our family but also good for Bude. We do have a large house, but that really requires a lot of work doing as you can see”.
Here to stay, they want to build a legacy for their children, but also a place Bude can be proud of.