In 1998, having been the village GPs and living next to the surgery for 10 years, my wife and I decided that a move away from our workplace was sensible. It was difficult to relax at home on weekends off and holidays had to be spent away. The children, aged nine, 10 and 11 were keen for more space but were not quite prepared for what we ultimately bought.
In the summer of that year a small farm was put up for auction. I knew it, having visited the old lady who had lived there many times before she died. I never thought that we might own her tumble-down house.
It is a beautiful spot with uninterrupted views of the whole length of the Malvern Hills, but it was land-locked with no vehicle access. Home visits involved walking through three orchards, and I had to arrange to airlift her to hospital on one occasion when the four-wheel drive ambulance could not get to the farm.
The lot included 17 acres, a small farmhouse, two very dilapidated barns, no mains water and planning for a drive down a steep slope. It looked just like Cold Comfort Farm. Undaunted we bid and bought it relatively cheaply.
Six months later we moved into two old caravans with two dogs and a goldfish. The fish did not survive long in the cold, but fortunately there were no other casualties. The farmhouse was done up for my parents-in-law that summer and we applied for planning to turn the barns into our home. I naively thought this would be easy, but it took two years for the house to be habitable. There was a lot of pain, but that is soon forgotten with the lifestyle that the property offers.
Neither of us come from farming stock, but we were given plenty of advice from patients. Our first venture was to apply for a stewardship grant, which encourages preservation of unimproved grassland, restoration of old hedgerows and replanting of orchards — our land was mostly old orchards. One of the stewardship mottos is ‘don’t be too tidy’ because a bit of mess is good for wildlife — and we stick to that.
With help from local agencies we agreed a 10-year plan, which showed us what needed to be done and gave us a timetable to work to. We have almost completed the scheme and the land is transformed with laid hedges, stunning wild flower meadows and rare orchids now appearing in one of the fields.
We now have sheep — Ryelands, which are a pretty breed but impossible to shear and are prone to disgusting maggots. A local shepherd who keeps his sheep here looks after our sheep in exchange. We had four, but one inexplicably died last spring. They provide us with at least four lambs for the freezer each year and the meat is delicious.
We also have geese, chickens, a breeding pair of turkeys and three Kune-kune pigs. My wife is a keen gardener and has created a wonderfully productive vegetable plot to improve our self-sufficiency. Our delight is to have a complete meal from the farm.
Our hours in general practice (me full-time and Sarah part-) have not altered, but I have cut outside commitments. The work–life balance is good and the farm is a great de-stresser. If farm jobs become a problem we pay for help — often with me as the labourer.
Dr Herriot is a GP in Malvern