Philip Richardson, the then chairman of Morley, approached me to see if I would join the executive committee, later the board of management, in the early 1990’s. The committee were keen to have a rural chartered surveyor member to advise on property matters. I was happy to agree as I have always been proud of Norfolk’s own experimental farm, and my father always told me it was unique and should be encouraged to flourish.
On a personal note, I joined Irelands Auctioneers and land agents in September of 1965. That summer the firm had sold, by auction, Morley Manor Farm belonging to Robert Alston and it was purchased by The Norfolk Agricultural Station. One of the first dispersal sales I assisted with at that Michaelmas was at Morley Manor, so I had an association with the farm from the very beginning.
Steady expansion of the farm at Morley
Before my involvement, Wood Farm, Attleborough, had been purchased. Then followed a succession of land purchases over the years. Several neighbouring landowners saw Morley as a reliable purchaser and offered small parcels to them.
In addition, local farmers looking to retire as a first step either let or contract farmed their land to Morley. These initial approaches were normally made to the farm manager Andrew Thurston, later David Jones, and I would then be instructed to go and negotiate a purchase.
My first major deal was for Hall Farm, Deopham, in 2001 which was the year of the foot and mouth outbreak. This meant that inspection was difficult, but as I had lived in the parish for many years, I knew the farm fairly well.
The vendor was keen to sell the house, land, and buildings in one lot. Board members were worried about taking on the house and buildings for which they had no use. I managed to persuade them that we could get change of use permission to convert the buildings into residential units and then sell the house and the individual barns. We instructed a good architect, Martin Howe who I had used before, to draw up plans and get the necessary planning permissions.
In the spring of 2002, we advertised the site and were highly successful in selling the house and the individual barns for redevelopment. The monies raised paid for the first new grain store.
Next to be acquired was a field at Bawburgh, which the farm had rented for several years. As it was adjacent to Church Farm, which the farm rented from John Innes, it seemed sensible to acquire it.
Burfield Hall Farm was another farm which the farm had contract farmed for a number of years, and – when in 2013 the Phillips Brothers wanted to retire – again TMAF was offered the holding. As with Hall Farm, the vendors wanted to sell the land, house and buildings (which had been recently converted to warehousing and storage). It was decided to retain these and develop the storage offering thus providing another income stream. As the house was in the middle of the farm, it was decided to keep that as well and totally renovate it with a view to letting it and thus adding it to the residential portfolio.
The last major purchase was the land at Dyke Beck Hall Farm in 2015. The landowner wished to retain the large house and the buildings. TMAF was able to buy just the bare land, much of which is grade 2.
In addition to land purchases there have been some rental negotiations, namely Church Farm, Bawburgh and the field at Saxmundham.
Upgrading the office
In the early 2000’s the board began to feel that The Old Rectory, which they had used as their offices, was beginning to feel tired and not fit for use. Apart from the fact that it required quite a lot of maintenance each year it was expensive to heat. It was therefore decided to try and obtain planning permission for a purpose-built office block at Manor Farm.
Again, we instructed Martin Howe and after some negotiation with South Norfolk Council permission was granted in December 2002
I had the benefit of experience with cost plus fixed profit schemes which avoids a lengthy and costly tendering procedure. May and Gurney were prepared to take on the project on that basis and work commenced. The finished building was opened in 2006.
It had a suite of offices for The Arable Group (later NIAB), a meeting room, offices for the Farm Manager and the Foundation’s administrator, together with a kitchen and rest rooms. It certainly looked the part and projected TMAF as a progressive and modern organisation.
Choosing to sell to simplify the portfolio
With the new offices complete, the Old Rectory was vacant and was sold by auction in the summer of 2009. After spirited bidding, it was purchased to be turned back into a private dwelling.
The Old Black Barn building at Manor Farm was also sold by auction with the benefit of planning permission for conversion to residential use. It was bought by the great niece of Robert Alston (the original owner of Manor Farm) and her husband. The price paid was 23 times more than Mr Alston had paid for the whole of Morley Manor in the early 1920s! So much for inflation.
It has been an exciting 25 years in the role of acting for Morley and through which I hope I have kept my father’s wish to see it flourish.