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Saturday, June 15, 2024
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PeopleAlice Kennard

Alice Kennard

‘Forde Abbey has been in my family indirectly since 1864. It came to us, the Ropers, through the Evans family; the last Evans left it to a cousin who was married to a Roper in 1905. When my grandparents first arrived here, they lived at one end of the house, and the older generation occupied the other end. My grandparents lived here until 1975; my grandfather Geoffrey Roper spent almost 80 years of his life at Forde Abbey, during which time he planted around 350,000 trees on the estate. My parents Mark and Lisa inherited it, developed the fruit farm, established a herd of pedigree Red Devon cattle, and eventually turned the Abbey into a glorious visitor attraction.
The Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century. During the next four centuries it flourished, becoming one of the wealthiest and most learned institutions in England. However, it suffered the same fate as most other similar monasteries under Henry VIII’s Dissolution in 1539, when it was handed over to the Crown. For about 100 years it remained empty, falling into disrepair and plundered for its stone. Salvation came in 1649 when it was bought by Edmund Prideaux, Member of Parliament for Lyme Regis. He converted it into his residence, while retaining and repurposing the structure of the medieval Abbey buildings. He was largely responsible for transforming Forde Abbey into a beautiful country house, much of which would still be recognisable to the monks who lived here over 500 years ago.
A monastic atmosphere still pervades this place, which is hard to describe, but there is a sense of serenity and peace as one wanders around the Abbey and its grounds. Some might describe the Abbey as a hidden gem; of course, we try quite hard to make it less hidden, our livelihood depending on more people knowing about it. However, we also know its appeal comes partly from a sense of wonder and discovery when approaching through the ancient sunken lanes of the Marshwood Vale.
We moved here when I was 7, along with my two younger sisters. We went to school in Uplyme, then to another in Oxfordshire. After school, I went to the Royal Agricultural University at Cirencester for three years to study Land Management, later working for the Duchy of Cornwall, during which time I passed my professional qualifications as a Chartered Surveyor. I returned home in 1992, which felt right. I found I was happier as my own boss, perhaps a preference you’re either born with or not.
That coincided with the need for new ideas on the estate. We had toyed with the idea of new dairies but didn’t go down that road. Dad had a partner running the fruit farm, who retired a couple of years after I came home. I spent a season understudying him, then took over his job, aged 25. We were supplying fruit to the supermarkets, seldom making a profit, despite working 16- or 17-hour days. As growers of outdoor main crops our harvest period was intense and short, often employing 100-odd seasonal workers on site picking and grading in June/July; one year, to make things even more interesting, in the middle of fruit picking our first child was born. To protect our crops from spoiling in bad weather we considered putting up polytunnels and glasshouses; the alternative was pulling out, so we stopped commercial fruit growing in 2002, and now concentrate on pick-your-own production, which my husband Julian runs. It’s still very labour intensive—we hardly ever see him from May onwards—but people seem to enjoy it, and these days there are very few pick-your-own fruit farms in the area. Recently it has become much harder to find people who are willing to do the physical work that is still a big part of farming. I have always made my children work and they help pick the fruit each summer for the local farm shops.
My job now covers so many areas of the estate that I am never completely sure what each day will bring. Julian manages the farm, and I am responsible for the gift shop, tenants, and employees. Since Covid I have taken the gardens under my wing. When travel was banned, I had to maintain the 30-acre gardens with no staff and minimum knowledge; I made a lot of mistakes but learnt a lot during the process. I am technically head gardener now and manage a team of 4 who are mostly part-time. Before then, I didn’t want to tread on Dad’s toes, so I only did a bit, mostly introducing new ideas, while he managed the day-to-day tasks.
Losing gardening staff because of the Covid lockdowns in 2020/21 in fact turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to change and refresh the garden, involving quite a lot of heavy duty clearing and introducing some new features, such as the Wildflower Swirl, the Winter Garden, and extending the Rock Garden. A visitor said to me the other day how much they love the way we keep changing the garden. I think I just get bored—it might be perfectly fine, but change is constant here to keep it exciting. We have wildflower meadows, areas we don’t mow, all the practices that are rightly emphasised for biodiversity today, but then we’ve always focussed on it. The Centenary Fountain, installed to celebrate 100 years of the Roper family at Forde is a major feature, reaching a height of 160ft twice a day.
We grow a lot of vegetables in the walled Kitchen Garden, as the Cistercian monks, who were a strictly vegetarian order, would have done. We put our produce out for the visitors, and they are welcome to purchase it for a donation, which avoids creating a weights and measures problem. I’m now spending a bit less time working in the garden than I was, probably three days a week, the other two sitting at my desk.
We also farm goats, milking a large herd of around 2500 animals. It is contracted to the Dorset based Frost Family, and the milk goes to a company called Delamere, supplying cheesemakers and liquid milk outlets. Julian manages all the enterprises on the farm including woodland and grassland management, maize, and wheat crops.
My dad sadly passed away in 2022, after a life doing an incredible job keeping the estate afloat. That does put a bit of pressure on us, and I always strive to live up to his expectations. His problems were the same as ours—lack of capital, and large repair bills. The estate which we farm, as did the monks, is around 1700 acres, and although sizable, it is not big enough to support the upkeep of the house. Whatever profit all the enterprises generate is spent on the upkeep of the Abbey. We could spend half a million on this house every year for the next 100 years, and it still wouldn’t be enough. However, it is such a unique place I feel it is important that as much work as possible is continually carried out to preserve this wonderful house for the future. We do our best to move with the times, and although we’re not great planners, we try to look at what goes on around us and jump when we need to—for example installing both solar panels and woodchip boilers on the estate, both helping the Abbey towards achieving net zero carbon emissions.
The oldest of my children Ben works in Honiton as a chemist for a company called Augean. Sam, the middle one, is at Cirencester University studying international business, and Marcia is still at school doing A levels. It’s hard to believe that as parents this is our last school year. So much of life has revolved around the school calendar, so many hours spent on sports field touchlines, so many friendships made through those shared experiences. Marcia wants to leave school but doesn’t want to leave her friends, whilst the two boys just wanted to leave school. I hope each of them will find rewarding careers gaining essential experience and knowledge before coming home and taking over in the years to come. I think it’s important to have a career before taking on a job like ours, to have that outside experience so that when given the huge responsibility of running this type of enterprise you have gained the diversity of skills required. I probably didn’t have enough, my dad had almost none, but he did a wonderful job none the less.’

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