When we began planning our trip we knew we would be driving around and would likely need to stay one or two days in a location before moving on. I started researching B&B's and then discovered a whole site devoted to staying on working farms in the U.K. that are also B&B's. This was how we came upon my favourite place we stayed on our trip, Beera Farm.
Robert is the farmer and his wife Hilary is not only a trained cook, but she manages to run the B&B, help out around the farm and raise three sweet boys.
We drove through Dartmoor Forest and the Moors and stopped to watch the wild horses.
And pondered driving back to here to eat dinner at the Dartmoor Inn (white building to the left on the upslope of the hill).
We arrived down a single track road into the Tamar valley and pulled up at a beautiful house. After the introductions were made and the luggage was hauled in I asked about the animals.
Hilary summoned her middle boy with the call of "another one to meet the puppy please."
I'd like you to meet Digger.
He's in training. Well, really pre-training He's 3 months old and full, FULL of spitfire.
He'll likely be learning some of his chops from Lassie. I have never before seen a dog adore and worship her master as much as Lassie adores Robert. She literally would wrap herself around his leg and lean into him as much as possible all while looking up at him adoringly.
I spent quite awhile talking with Robert about the farm, the animals he raises, what it's like to be a farmer in England, the changes wrought from the hoof and mouth incident 8 years ago, how being a tenant farmer works and a million other things. Robert is quiet and reserved, but very passionate about what he does.
Robert took over the farm from his father after sitting an advanced farm management course. I asked him whether he thought the boys would become farmers and he told me about tenant farming and how the rules have changed three times since his father's time. The original laws granted tenancy to 3 generations. During his father's tenure on the farm they changed the law to only allow his tenancy until he was aged 62. A few years later, the rules changed again, there was a tax benefit to the landlord if he changed the tenancy rules allowing Robert's father to remain until he was aged 62 and then Robert was allowed to take over the farm and remain until he is also 62, this means either he has to buy his own farm, or negotiate with the current landlord, to allow his boys to run the farm, if that is indeed what they wish to do. He said that though it was hard work, there were days when he realised how idyllic a life they have. The farm rolls over the hills and down to the river on one side and up the hill to the border of another estate on the other side, with acres on the other side of the road. They live off of a single track road so the boys can roam and run around and ride their bikes wherever they please without worry.
Robert outside the orphan room, the trough is one half of a grist mill wheel.
The landlord owns a large chunk of the valley and the farm is part of a 3000 acre holding originally held by the Duke of Bedford. Robert and his family are responsible for maintaining the interior of the house, all the stone walls and fencing and of course working the farm to the landlords satisfaction. But I realised in talking to him that the farming life is nary as simple as we sometimes think it to be.
Every year he heads up to Yorkshire to buy his ewes. This year, about 850. Each ewe has a yield of approx 1.8 lambs. Don't ask how we get 1.8. Some will perish from disease. Some ewe's milk will dry up and either Robert and his family hand rear them, at a cost higher than the worth of the lamb at market, or they let nature 'run its course' and due to new regulations after the Hoof and Mouth incident they must pay a man to come and remove deceased lambs rather than dispose of them in the 'traditional' methods (burning or a large cement lined pit) and the cost is based on 2 lambs so it pays to 'wait' until 2 don't make it before you call the man in. Facts of life and death maam.
When I was wandering around one morning taking photos I heard a bleating in the long barn and later Robert took me in to the 'Orphan Room'. Hilary had bought milk powder in town and they had a large bucket rigged up with nipples for the lambs to feed. As I stood there taking pictures the lambs eventually wandered up and first tried to suckle my lens cap that was hanging down and then later they had at my fingers. Those lambs have some mean teeth!! Robert laughed and told me those were the second set of nipples already on the bucket, they had already chewed off the first set. No wonder I saw some of the ewe's trying to escape from their lambs! This year the ewe's yielded 1650 lambs.
I asked Robert if they raised the lambs for wool at all, and he told me that they were exclusively raised for meat. It costs 1 pound to shear a sheep and on the open market the wool is only worth 40 pence. Hardly a money making effort. But don't think that raising them for meat is easy either, there are a slew of variables that determine how much you get paid. You need to take your sheep to market when it weighs 41 kilos. This weight will yield about 21 kilos of usable meat. If the animal weighs more or yields more than 21 kilos you will still only be paid for 21 kilos. It would seem that the containers that the buyers utilize will hold no more than 21 kilos, so everything on top of that is excess. There are also other factors that determine how much you are paid per sheep. There is the E.U.R.O.P method to determine whether the shape of the animal is 'ideal'. 'R' is the middle or basic and animals classed as 'E' or 'U' will yield you a few more pounds, animals classed as 'O' or 'P' less so. There is also another set of classifications for the fat in relation to the meat. As all cooks know, fat equals flavour and beef with a higher marbling or fat content is graded higher and therefore worth more, not so with lamb. They have a set amount of fat that they will allow in order to receive premium pricing, more fat yields a lower price so often that is the meat that the farmer will take home and use for his family, or lucky farmhouse diners.
We also talked about new Zealand lamb and how it has dominated the British lamb market as much as it has in the States. Robert told me that it made inroads initially as a payback for help during the war. An agreement was reached that the U.K. would import a certain amount of meat every year. In theory this would work out as a win/win situation since the lamb season in New Zealand runs at the opposite time of year from the lamb season in the U.K., however last year the market seemed to be flooded with New Zealand imports during the spring which is traditionally when the British lamb comes to market. Robert blames the large supermarket chains for bringing in the imports and keeping the price of British lamb artificially low. I had told him about Stillman farms and out meat CSA and how it works and we talked about the movement in both countries for eating things seasonally and locally. He said Waitrose had approached him about selling his lamb exclusively to them for a higher rice than he could get on the open market. This would allow them to label the meat as local. Robert sells his lambs using a co-op and the problem is Waitrose will not allow anyone to sell the lamb to them via a co-op, they want it sold directly to them. Robert said what needs to happen is farms in the Devon area need to band together and form a large group of farmers who raise and sell the product as Devon raised local lamb. He says a few farmers are interested, but not enough right now to make a statement. Perhaps when some of these farms move over to be run by a newer generation this might be possible.
On the other side of the farmyard are Robert's newest venture. He has purchased a few Charolais cows, yes, the same Charolais from Charolle, Burgundy, I wish we were going to be around to try these. When i mentioned that we never see these in the States he told me that we do raise them here. I'm going to hunt around to see if I can get my hands on some of the meat to see if it is as good as I have heard.
These ladies are in the upper pen and there are a few more out in one of the other fields. Raising cattle is a new venture for Robert and one that I hope will be successful.
I really loved staying here. Both Hilary and Robert are fabulous hosts, never once did I feel like we were invading someone's home. Our room was large and beautifully furnished, Hilary went out of her way to book me into the local pub for dinner and offered advice on things to see locally and places to eat, and poor Robert spent loads of time answering all of my questions all without stifling a yawn or laughing at the crazy New England Yankee who thinks sheep are cute. If you ever find yourself in this little corner of Devon be sure to book yourself a room here, I know I will if we ever get back and this time I'm going to have Hilary cook for me.
Robert and Hilary Tucker
Tavistock, Devon PL19 8PL
tel: 01822 870216