The eleventh of May is a landmark for John Garner, but he won’t be celebrating in quite the way he was planning two years ago.
John was hoping to combine his 70th birthday with the opening party for an ambitious project that aimed to turn Godwick Hall’s Grade II* listed barn into a stunning venue for community meetings, weddings and corporate events.
Sadly, despite getting planning permission for the project and receiving positive support for his plans from English Heritage and the local district council, DEFRA’s cash ran out and the grant application, which cost thousands to put together, came to nothing.
“I am frustrated,” says John. “There are so few good places to meet in this part of Norfolk, we really wanted to make the barn available to the community.
“My view is that we’re lucky enough to have in our possession a part of England’s heritage that should be owned by the nation and run by the family that owns the farm for the nation,” he says.
But John refuses to give up on his dream completely and has decided to adopt a little-by-little approach.
In readiness for his party, he is putting new window and doorframes into the building and next year hopes to add toilet and kitchen facilities.
“I’m trying to get it in a position where it’s at least lettable, that way if somebody phones me up I can let them use the building. As it was, it was no use to anybody.”
What annoys John and wife Sara is that, despite the positive feedback from English Heritage and other organisations, none was prepared to help financially.
“And we have to keep it watertight and in good condition,” says Sara. “Otherwise they [English Heritage] can take possession of it.”
John reckons he will have spent about £15,000 of his own savings just putting in the doors and windows there are no surplus profits from the farm to invest.
“I want to make sure it’s still there for the community and future generations of the family,” he says. “That’s what drives me.”
That plan almost went up in smoke, quite literally, when a tele-handler John was using in a lean-to shed attached to the barn dramatically burst into flames.
“Thank God the wind that day was blowing from the south west, otherwise the flames would have moved into the barn,” he says.
Thankfully, three firefighters, fully kitted out with breathing equipment, swiftly had the blaze under control, but John says he still worries about the incident.
“In the 20 minutes it took the fire brigade to arrive I could see everything being destroyed. I was really quite shaken for a good few days afterwards.”
So far, the farm’s insurer has paid out £8000 for the loss of the telehandler. But a second-hand replacement cost £17,500 and the unexpected expenditure means a new shed to help with the planned expansion of son Robert’s turkey flock has had to be put on hold.
“We’ll have to use one of the sheep sheds now,” says John. “And that’s going to mean taking out the fittings before the birds arrive and then putting them all back in again in time for lambing.”
A prolonged spell of dry weather has left him “chasing blades of grass” to feed his 400 half-bred Suffolk/Blue Leicester spring lambs.
But they have still fattened well and 36 have already been sold ahead of schedule to local butchers.
Even though he doesn’t have to deal with retailers or processors, John is still worried about the recent crash in hogget values dragging down the price of spring lamb. “I’ve got £3.30/kg so far, but I don’t think that will last for long.”
However, the quality of his lambs has made him glad he perseveres with the Suffolk Sire Reference scheme.
“Retailers won’t buy anything over 22kg because of the fat. But because of our work with Suffolk terminal sires, our butcher customers are happier to take them heavier. I had one at 26kg the other day with no problems.
“Even so, I’m having to consider the future of the flock,” he admits.