We talk to Viscount Raynham about the diversification of his family’s estate into a multi-use venue and glamping enterprise.
Tom Raynham’s grandfather (7th Marquess Townshend) lived all his life in the beautiful Raynham Hall, considered the ‘gateway to North Norfolk’. Home to the Townshend family for nearly 500 years, the estate comprises 800 acres of pasture and parkland, 700 acres of woodland and 3,500 acres of land farmed in-hand with a variety of cereal, root and break crops as well as Aberdeen Angus beef cattle.
Tom, inline to inherit the estate, became officially involved with the business in 2011 following the death of his grandfather, and moved back to run the estate in 2016.
“Although I grew up on the farm, I have never actually lived in Raynham Hall but it is very much part of my history,” says Tom. “My father and stepmother live in the Hall and run a number of events and tours in and around renovation work they are carrying out. The stars seemed to align back in 2016 and I came back to take the helm, planning the future of the estate.”
Tom studied at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, qualified as a chartered surveyor with Bidwells then worked for Knight Frank in the Farms and Estates team. “Travelling the country buying and selling land provided a fabulous opportunity to see what other farms were doing and what I might be able to implement at home,” says Tom.
Suitably inspired, he turned his attention to some large scale technical innovation in the form of renewable energy. “We now have one of the country’s largest solar farms – in fact, I think it was the largest for about a week! – and an anaerobic digestor.
Built on the former Royal Air Force West Raynham Airbase, the solar farm was completed in 2015 and is currently leased to Bluefield Partners. It serves over 12,000 homes with electricity as well as providing the neighbouring communities with funds for local projects.
“There was still a lot of momentum in the renewables industry at that time and my contacts at Knight Frank helped us put together a tender that went out to the solar developers.
“On the biogas side, our anaerobic digester uses farm waste to produce biomethane which is injected into the mains gas supply. It is a very satisfying system as we produce sugar beet for British Sugar on the farm and then buy back sugar beet pulp that we feed into the digester along with maize, rye and poultry muck. The bugs break down the feedstock to produce biomethane which goes back to the grid. The by-product of the whole process is then put back onto the land as an organic fertiliser. This displaces a lot of artificial fertiliser, acts as a carbon capture and improves the soil structure.”
Weddings and events
Tom admits to a steep learning curve when he launched the hospitality side of the estate’s business. “It was about 24 months after getting involved that we started putting our event aspirations into place. It took around 18 months of learning, deciding on the type of events we wanted to hold or attract, and how best to do things”.
Weddings are held at Raynham but Tom isn’t pushing for them. “We are not majoring on weddings, and if we do five to 10 in a year I am very happy. I prefer to concentrate on a broad range of events as a venue and don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. We have a premises licence now so can offer the estate to promoters – I think the only things we aren’t allowed to do are indoor events, and wrestling…
“We tried our own music festival in 2017 and it was a great learning process. If you want to dedicate yourself to festivals I can see how they would build up over time.”
A big fan of food and drink, Tom has hosted a couple of pop-up restaurants. “I learned quickly how not to do it in financial terms! We hired in a lot of the infrastructure – marquees, generators, staff, chefs etc. The restaurant idea certainly has legs and food and drink is something we are really looking at as a future direction. We have created the perfect space and will be starting properly next year. Everyone’s a foodie now so the timing is right and we are going to be using the beef from our own herd. We will be looking to attract the right quality of chef to showcase what they can do from the estate. The plan is to get different businesses interacting with each other – a farm shop is also in the offing.”
Raynham proudly ventured into glamping last year, making use of the extended 56 day tented camping rights with yurts. “We had four yurts positioned in what is now a wildflower meadow which we had taken out of arable production on the farm. It is next to the walled garden and looks out over the Wensum Valley – a valley in Norfolk terms – which offers breathtaking big skies at night.
“We now have full planning for up to 10 yurts. We open on 30 May with the original four yurts and will end the season in mid-September, as soon as the schools are all back, so we can start proper works on the site. We are now very much on a formal footing so will be installing a sewerage treatment plant, showers, loos and a permanent covered seating area with an outdoor kitchen.
“We have enjoyed some wonderful coverage in the press and have been riding high on the interest in staycations.”
With confidence in the estate’s draw for domestic tourism, Tom is also entering a joint venture to develop luxury holiday lodges around the estate’s lake. “We have a 12 acre lake which was created in the 1700s and is the earliest manmade lake in Norfolk. Despite its size, it is only about one foot deep as it is really silted up. We are working with Natural England on a parkland restoration project and will be dredging it so it can be returned to its former glory.
“In the meantime we will be adding shepherd huts in the more peaceful areas of the estate where people can truly switch off. They will be completely off-grid, although for those that need to keep in touch via Wi-Fi, we have invested in a private fibre network via Air Broadband/Voneus, with boosters around the estate. Our connectivity had been shocking and we spent 15 months battling with BT Open Reach”.
Talking of ‘switching off’, Tom reports, unsurprisingly with so many diverse business interests, that he finds it hard to do so. “I keep my phone in my pocket – a bad habit I know. But my two children (seven and four) are a wonderful tonic from thinking about business. They are very energetic so there is always football, cricket, golf and bike rides going on.”
Keeping a broad view of the business is part of Tom’s success. “I like to look at other businesses and farm diversifications and try to take one positive or one ‘what not to do’ learning from each. I find the Farm Business Innovation Show a good one to go to too. Although it is often hard to get away, we have gone every other year and it is great for ideas when considering future plans”.
Because he is managing so many different things, Tom says it is important to have created the right team around him. “We have 26 employees at the moment covering the estate’s operations including the farm, renewables, woodland and events. We will be adding to that as the glamping and events expand. We have also just started working with UK Adventure Trails to create a themed trail in the woods; perfect for the summer holidays.”
Much of Tom’s success with the estate has been delegation. “It is important to give people autonomy to manage each enterprise themselves, although I’ll admit is hard for me to let go – hence the phone in my pocket!”
Norfolk NR21 7EE