It’s getting real!


We have windows and doors in!
We have windows and doors in!

Lots of bits and pieces have been happening recently.  Building work has slowed down a bit since the heady days when the walls went up.  The thing holding us up is that the concrete laid as foundations for our floor has cracks and although it’s quite likely that these are just cracks caused by the concrete drying, we need to be sure they aren’t a sign of something more serious like subsidence.  So we wait for someone with structural engineering knowledge to assess them and sign them off.

Once that is done we can put in the framework for the first floor and with that in place, we can start to put in the panelling that forms the interior walls.  In other words, we’ll have rooms.

Meanwhile I have been working on paperwork still – the end is in sight finally.  Actually, I hope it is, every time I say that to myself, I remember some other record sheet or schedule that I’ll need and it goes on the job list.  We’ve ordered and paid for our industrial dishwasher, the final payment on the equipment from Avedemil has been made and 4 pallets including vat, racks, wash tubs, multimoulds and stainless steel tables should soon be on their way to us.  The pipework to divert our milk out of the main milkline before it can be cooled or can get into the bulk tank is on order and we’re pushing for it to be in by 11th August.

Why 11th August did you ask?  Well because officially I have a date to move south.  7th August.  And come what may, I will be on the payroll as of the 11th as with Rose on holiday in Greece, I’ll be managing the build and using our warm milk, I’ll be making trial cheeses in the kitchen of my house and then maturing them in a wine fridge.  It will be good to get my hands on some curds again – just have to remember to order a few key bits of gear: starters, a tub to make cheese in, an electric blanket and indeed the wine fridge.

The trial cheesemaking came about on a visit from Jason Hinds, David Lockwood and Bronwen Percival from Neal’s Yard Dairy.  They came for an informal morning chat to look at progress, talk about the quality of cheese they are looking for and its implications for milk quality, sales and advice on our financials.  All three of them felt that as soon as the milk was in place, making some kitchen trials would be well worth the exercise in understanding where the milk quality is at this year (it’s bound to be rather different to February when we last did any testing and again to last summer when I was making trial cheeses at SAF) as well as hopefully having something to taste and start to comment on. We’re going to go down to London for a big cheese tasting with Bronwen at the end of August which will be a useful calibration exercise.  In theory I know what their cheeses are like but it’s a few years now since I’ve been tasting them regularly and I’ll need a refresher to check out our washed rind competition.  For Rose, seeing how Bronwen tastes, assesses flavour and quality and understanding what she is looking for will be invaluable.  It’s her job to look after sales when we’re up and running so a bit of calibration with one of our customers (we hope) can only be a good thing.

So it’s a mixed bag as I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in building work: some progress, some delays and on not too many occasions the odd step backwards.  Overall though we’re getting there and with a confirmed date in the diary for me to start work, it’s getting real.

Digging and Delays

Manor Farm old photo
Manor Farm as it used to be. This land is now the house and garden of our neighbours.

It takes the working world a while to get going again after its Christmas break.  Having felt like we were making progress on the build just before Christmas, January proved to be a very slow month of chasing up people who had said they would do something to see if they had done what they said they would.

Our first delay was waiting for straw to be moved from inside our barn which we thought needed to happen before any assessment of the existing structure could take place.  As it was slow going, Rose tried to organise a site meeting and a digger to look at the foundations of the steel framework holding up the roof around the straw and did manage to find out a few basics.  The aim, having agreed on an interior layout was to check how stable the existing barn structure was and what would need repairing.  A cherry picker ensured that she was able to assess the existing roof and that it would need repairing extensively – in other words a new roof.   The digger revealed that the concrete bases to our steel stanchions were a bit hit and miss.  Some of them were in place and working fine but others had eroded away and as a result water had accumulated at the base of the steel, weakening the structure.  More repairs would be necessary.

Rose also held talks with our neighbours with whom we share a party wall and who are also installing a wood chip boiler that we are going to be able to use for our hot water and heating requirements.  Negotiations over the wall and any ramifications from our building were carried out amicably and they were able to show Rose a picture of how Manor Farm had looked in the early 1900s when it had been a working dairy farm (above – the photo shows what is now their house and garden and our dairy will run to the south of that).  Building a cheesemaking dairy on the site of a dairy farm feels very appropriate somehow.

When the straw was finally removed and the site boundaries marked with metal gates, further information could be gleaned.  The concrete floor was revealed showing sections with a herringbone pattern which we believe is the floor of the milking parlour of the original dairy at Manor Farm.  Drains have been discovered.  Although the existing drain onion that they would have fed into isn’t usable any more, it is still handy to know there are channels there for us to start from.  A long deceased and dessicated stoat has also been discovered – not a feature we intend to preserve.

Our barn, ready for construction to begin.
Our concrete floor.  The herringbone bits are apparently from the original dairy at Manor Farm.
Our concrete floor. The herringbone bits are apparently from the original dairy at Manor Farm.

A local structural engineer undertook to take on our structural drawings so that the builder who will be carrying out our external cladding and roof repairs could get going.  He seemed to move rather slowly getting a quote out for the work.  Unfortunately after a further fortnight of chasing and reminding, he admitted to being swamped with other work and had to give up.  Alan Tucket to the rescue (the builder) as he has a structural team who have taken that over.  As a result, work should start very soon.

In short, a funny period of meetings and activity for Rose and not so much for me.  A lot of chasing, hassling, reminding and getting bits and pieces ready so that the build can start.  Progress is being made.  We are getting closer to the day that building begins but as yet the earth hasn’t moved (quite literally).  It’s a bit like that stage before you go on holiday where you’re doing the packing and trying to remember everything you might need; a little nerve wracking and tense as you hope you’ve planned everything as well as possible and still too early to have set off and be able to say to yourself

‘Sod it, if I haven’t thought of it by now, I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.’

Looking west from our barn - note the metal barriers that indicate the site boundaries.  This is our land!
Looking west from our barn – note the metal barriers that indicate the site boundaries. This is our land!

Musical Chairs or Where to Site a Dairy

When Rose and I first spoke about their cheesemaking plans, she explained that one of the big obstacles was that they had not yet found an appropriate place on the estate to build the dairy.  A couple of places had been proposed.  She had her favourite.  Neither one was without its problems.

Chair No 1, Manor Farm

Manor Farm, was close to Rose’s house and the main road through Nettlebed, with a lovely view over the hills looking to the south west, but, unfortunately, also with a tenant..

Chair No 2, The Grain Dryer

The other site, known to us as the Grain Dryer Site, was basically a field next to a sawmill and a barn with grain drying silos, hence the name.  There were no tenant issues here but equally the build would be much bigger and more expensive.  There was no structure we could use, so everything, including the foundations and hardcore needed to be put down.  It was also potentially more difficult to get our planning permission too, as it would need to be a completely new build.
The Grain Dryer site, looking back to our potential neighbours
Looking north to the copse, our potential view from the make room

Chair No 3, At the Dairy itself

Both sites offered a challenge but a third possibility presented itself.  There was a field adjacent to the milking parlour and the cows on the farm itself.  It wasn’t a popular option with the farm managers as they need to expand the milking parlour sometime in the next five years and need their space as much as possible, however in theory it was an option.
Around this time, we called in Ivan Larcher to advise us and help design the dairy.  He visited all 3 sites and pronounced in favour of the field by the milking parlour.  A dairy should be close to the milk ideally after all.  However shortly after Ivan’s visit, the farm managers decided that the field was too valuable to them to give up.  The other sites on the estate were on flinty soil, no use for grazing land and not particularly easy to farm for arable too.   This field was good grazing land for the cows and they needed it.  It was a very fair argument and one we accepted.  Back to our first two sites then.

Chair no 4, Off the Estate

With both of these sites problematic for the moment, we were considering going with the latter when Rose’s cousin made an offer of a barn on his farm, just off the estate.  It was a big, wooden clad barn, attractive to look at and with plenty of space.
The problem here was that Rose has a major business rule:
‘Don’t go into business with friends or family but become friends with people you go into business with.’
While an element of family involvement had to be on the cards if she wanted to build a creamery that would buy from the estate’s farm (itself a family business), using her cousin’s barn seemed unwise in case he had cause at any point to regret his offer and discovered, a couple of years in, that actually he didn’t like having cheesemaking on his doorstep.  Lest family relations become strained, his kind offer was declined.

Back to Chair no 2 then

So we returned to the Grain Dryer site.  We adapted Ivan’s drawings to the new site and its orientation and investigated what we would need to get together in order to present an application for planning permission: a business plan, architects drawings, an ecologist’s report stating that we would not be damaging the environment. We emailed the highways agency to check they would have no objection.  Along the way we made the unfortunate discovery that in Oxfordshire the council requires new builds to conform to BREEAM which sets out requirements for the new building to be as energy efficient as possible.  Unfortunate, that is, in that it would involve an audit to a standard that is as thick as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, only with A4 pages and that it would add at least £10k to our costs, the principles of being as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible and keeping our energy consumption as low as we can are actually pretty key to our whole ethos. While it largely applies to buildings larger than the one we planned to build, the council were still keen to enforce it.  Then the Highways Agency got in touch – the access road had insufficient visibility, in their view, given the speed limit of the main road at that point.
This bombshell dropped just before Christmas leading to a slightly dispiriting atmosphere over the Christmas break and many a curse was sent the way of the Highways Agency in my house.  Damn them , what were they trying to do, make sure people didn’t die on the roads or something?  They  needed us to cut down 250m of trees in both directions to improve the vision splay and unfortunately some of those trees were ancient woodland which would make the ecologist, who, until now, was very happy with our plans, because we are putting in a wetland system that will have a positive impact on wildlife, very unhappy indeed.
the yellow lines show the potential tree destruction – a very long way along the road in both directions
In the New Year we found a Highways Agency consultant (no I never knew they existed before now either) and they arranged to visit the site and look at the road.  Meeting them was very positive, they pointed out that because the road was curved (although it doesn’t look that way on the maps), the cars were slowing down and drove at considerably less than the sixty miles an hour that was the speed limit.  In their opinion this meant less trees needed taking back and the ancient woodland would be safe.  However we still had a case to fight and despite the report and speed survey they intended to carry out we had no guarantee that the Highways Agency would agree.  In addition, the architects and BREEAM consultant had indicated that we would need to raise around £600k to build the place and have it conform with the expected standards.

Chair no 5, The Temporary Home

With a long and potentially complicated planning application in the offing, ever more reports that needed to be generated and a lot of cash to be raised, Rose’s mother came up with the extremely sensible suggestion that we look for a temporary home, so that we could at least start making cheese even though our planning application and build wasn’t finished.  We looked at nearby light industrial units and found one that had potential.  Not as picturesque as the dairy we wanted to build but perfectly functional if the costs stacked up.
We wouldn’t be able to stay in it for all that long as it wasn’t big enough for us to make more than one type of cheese and we wouldn’t have much maturing space but it was worth doing the number crunching.  Rose’s mother was also able to let us know that the situation at site no 1, Manor Farm had changed and it was now potentially a possibililty..

Chair no 6 or is it no 1 again

A second and third visit to the industrial unit revealed some rather unpleasant and food tainting smells coming from a metalworks next door which ruled that site out of the running.  However, good news, the site at Manor Farm was indeed possible.
So the twisting turning route of our game of musical chairs has spun through the full 360 until we’re back at the place we first thought of.  It has a structure already and hard foundations so the building costs won’t be as much as at the Grain Dryer site.  It also only needs change of use planning permission rather than full planning permission for a new build.  The signs are good.  Ivan is designing us another dairy layout, ecologists are reporting, the highways shouldn’t have a problem with access as the road leads out into the village where the speed limit is a very sedate speed.  The aim is to apply for planning permission in the next month.
Keep your fingers crossed.

Nettlebed Creamery

Well, first off, apologies for a long absence.  It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing worth writing about, it’s pure disorganisation.  However to remedy this, it’s time to put pen to paper or rather fingers to keyboard and talk about something I’ve been superstitiously not blogging in case of jinxing the operation…. Nettlebed Creamery.

So, what has changed?  Well, it’s fast becoming the worst kept secret in my life anyway, as I talk about it to everyone I meet and progress is being made, so it’s time to set it out on the world wide web for all to see.
What is Nettlebed Creamery I hear you cry?  Well, are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin…
Back in the winter of 2012 as I sat surrounded by snow up a hill in Cumbria, I began looking for my next cheesemaking venture.  The time had come to move on from Holker, Martin and Nicola needed someone local who would be able to be a more permanent fixture and believed they had found someone, I wanted to try other types of cheesemaking.  A couple of possibilities presented themselves, Old Hall Farm in Cumbria which as we all know now didn’t work out, and the tantalising possibility of cheesemaking with Rose Grimond in Oxfordshire.
I had met Rose, on a number of occasions, through my sister Jane who, while working on the Mons Cheesemongers Borough Market stall way back in about 2007, had been introduced to the stallholder next door and got chatting.  Rose, at that time, was acting as a representative, promoter, wholesaler and retailer of produce from Orkney.  Part of that involved a stand at Borough Market which sold meat, cheese, oatcakes and smoked fish but probably most excitingly for Jane and me, the sweetest, juiciest scallops (‘as big as yer heeed’ as Jane remarked) and fresh sea urchins.  We had many a delicious weekend seafood treat courtesy of the Orkney Rose stand.  However, fast forwarding about 5 years, Rose had wound up her retail and wholesale business, moved to her family home of Nettlebed in south east Oxfordshire and had her first little boy.  Surfacing from new motherhood as her son grew a little older, Rose began to look for another business to get her teeth into.
Nettlebed Estate, the family estate run by her mother and her aunt, has an organic dairy herd of Friesian Holsteins crossed with Montbeliard and Swedish Red.  The milk of this carefully managed and farmed herd was and is being sold to Dairycrest for drinking milk.  Dairycrest delivered the bad news that the organic milk market was at capacity, so they would be cutting the organic premium they had been paying and would quite probably be looking at further cuts in future.  The farm and estate owners met to discuss how to proceed.
The wisdom in farming is that to succeed you have to get big, get different or get out.
Options A and C didn’t appeal but getting different did.
‘We should be making cheese!’ Rose opined with enthusiasm.
At first they pursued the idea with a local lady looking to change career and make cheese, but ultimately parted company due to different ideas of what to make.  Around this point, I entered the scene.
Initially, I contacted Rose because I was looking to arrange a month or so perhaps, working at Grimbister Cheese on Orkney making Seator’s Orkney cheese.  I still haven’t done this, but priorities have changed a bit since then.  I wondered if she had contact details and any recommendations of somewhere to rent for the duration.  During those enquiry emails we skated around the topic of cheesemaking:
‘Oh so you’re making cheese, how interesting….’
‘Oh so you want to make cheese on your estate and need a cheesemaker, how interesting….’
Finally, after meeting the family and farm managers, Rose and I began work in earnest to get the cheesemaking enterprise off the ground.  We looked at potential sites for a creamery and chose one, then changed our minds, then changed our minds again, then again.  Each had its advantages and disadvantages.  One of them seemed on balance to have more advantages than disadvantages until we got down the planning permission route and hit a dead end over an access road.  Finally we are back with the one we first thought of and that Rose had always had her eye on.  Planning permission applications are being drawn up again and the business plan that Rose created a year or so ago is being revised yet again to accompany our application.
This time, I am pretty confident that we won’t change our minds again.  Maybe that is what prevented me putting fingers to keyboard before.  This choice of site is for keeps… unless the council say otherwise.
The view from one of our former sites because I’ve not got a picture of the current one yet.