Bringing ancient hill farm back to life is a labour of love for Emma
Who would spend almost £150,000 on a cluster of old farm buildings to bring them back to the way they were 300 years ago? Philip Bowern went to find out.
Hugging a slight dip in the ground, on the edge of Dartmoor, stands an inconspicuous huddle of farm buildings.
Many people wouldn't given them a second glance with their crumbling sponge-cake coloured walls and ferrous red corrugated iron roofs. But to Dr Emma Robinson, who grew up nearby, played in the fields that surround the buildings and knew the farmers and farm workers who worked these fields, they have always been special.
So when the owner, an eccentric named Ken Saunders who lived in a caravan on the site, passed away and Hill Farm, Christow, came up for sale, she knew she had to have it. £140,000 later – including a hefty £55,000 to break a tenancy agreement with a farmer who had the grazing rights – she is the new mistress of Hill Farm, its threshing barn, horse engine, linhay, granary and 22-and-a-half acres of pasture – and she is enjoying every minute of the back-breaking work to bring it back to life.
A Gift Voucher for a 2 hour SUP lesson on any of our programmed dates between April and September 2014. £19.50 for 1 person or £33 for 2 people with this voucher
Terms: Voucher must be present at point of sale. Standard MBC T's & C's apply please see our website for details
Contact: 01752 404567
Valid until: Tuesday, December 24 2013
"I love the countryside, love old buildings and this is where I grew up," she says. "I can't believe how lucky I am – I have my own little piece of Devon!" But Dr Robinson is no developer, intent on doubling her money with a £100,000-plus refurbishment and a half million pound sale of the barn, converted into a chi-chi country home. "It is not my intention to convert this lovely farmyard into second homes or holiday apartments," she insisted. "I want to repair it to what it was originally built for, a working farm, so that present and future generations will be able to experience part of our rich Devon rural and agricultural past, so much of which has disappeared."
It won't be a quick fix. Although Emma, her family, who still live just over the hill, and her friends have achieved a huge amount since she completed on the purchase in April, she cannot devote herself full time to the work.
She has a 'proper' job as a pharmacologist at Bristol University, teaching medical students and vets and leading a research team. She lives in a flat in Bristol, Monday to Friday to be close to her work and devotes her weekends to her new farm. "Academia can be quite high pressure and I love my work," she said. "But this is my escape; I can put aside all the stresses of the week and come out here and get stuck in to the hard physical work – it is so therapeutic."
She is very keen for the community to understand what she is doing. Whenever old buildings are sold in close-knit communities the jungle drums start beating and the speculation beings. "I think some people think I am creating a seven-bedroom mansion here," she said. "When I first told people I just wanted to keep it as a farm, they said 'oh yeah' but what are you really going to do with it?' Hopefully now they are starting to believe me."
There are good reasons for Emma's determination not to go down the route of a barn conversion. For one thing this would not have been an easy conversion project. Many of the walls are made from cob – a notoriously fickle material that has been eroded by Dartmoor rain, burrowing miner bees, and digging rats over three centuries. The farm also appears on the Buildings at Risk register, is grade II listed and stands in the curtilage of a grade 1 listed farmhouse, just across the lane, which is among the most important of its kind in Devon.
Then there is the state of the buildings themselves, with cob walls bowing alarmingly outwards, crumbling wooden floors and the tin roof that is going to need replacing very soon. Emma thinks she picked it up for a relatively modest amount because developers took one look, saw what was necessary and backed away.
She is delighted they did. Because what she has discovered, as she painstakingly pulls away the years of neglect is a fascinating, human-scale piece of history that reveals a great deal about Devon farm life through the centuries.
There is the graffiti, for instance, carved into the stone and the wood, from the interwar years including a description of one former farm owner as an "ugly, pie-face slobber chops." There is the carefully drawn-around hand and the scratched-in date of 1862 found on the old wooden door to the threshing barn, and there is the hand-painted sign commemorating D-Day, 6 June 1944 that some patriotic farmer or farm worker put up on the end wall of the barn.
It all helps to give Hill Farm a richness that goes beyond the value of its buildings, important as they are, and has further persuaded Dr Robinson that working to keep the farm largely intact is so important.
Not that she is blind to the improvements that will have to be made. One solution to hold the roof and walls of the threshing barn together is an internal steel frame which will mean the original building, with its stone 'foot', cob walls, elaborate internal wooden roof beams and tin roof, does not have to be completely demolished and re-built.
And she does want the buildings to at least pay for their own upkeep, once the repairs are complete. "I am thinking of perhaps creating a couple of camping barns, so people can come and stay in relative warmth and dry," she says. "This is a lovely place to explore, the village has a shop and a pub in walking distance of here and it would make a great base that could be created without spoiling the look and feel of the farm."
As a keen horsewoman – and the owner of a 40-year-old pony that is still going strong along with two lurchers – she is also considering turning the beautiful and largely uncultivated pasture into a kind of outdoor retirement home for horses, where owners could send their trusty steeds to live out their days. There are certainly worse places to end up.
Kevin McCloud, the TV presenter behind Grand Designs, the Channel 4 Show that charts the progress of major building or restoration projects could have a field day with Hill Farm – if the new owner was an ambitious developer planning a grand country home. Dr Robinson's ambitious are rather more modest – in fact Modest Designs pretty much sums up her hopes for the farm.
If she does no more than return this little piece of Devonshire agricultural history to the way it would once have looked – and manages to find a low-impact way of off-setting some of the costs, she will have achieved a great deal.
Keep up to date with progress on restoring Hill Farm, in Morning News Country and at westernmorningnews.co.uk