A BAD BACK and a disused hen shed have proved a winning combination for Devon farmer Jonathan Robinson, whose latest farm diversification was inspired by a visit to the physiotherapist.

Mr Robinson and his wife Beni already ran some holiday cottages, a bed-and-breakfast and three coarse fishing lakes at Coombe Farm, Kingsbridge. But in 2002, after they discovered that Mr Robinson”s physiotherapist was looking for new premises, they decided to convert a former chicken shed into a small gym with treatment rooms.

Two years on they haven”t looked back, and are now planning to double the size of the building to include a spa, showers and three more treatment rooms.

GRAND PLAN

“We”re only one mile from Kingsbridge, which is brilliant for this sort of thing,” says Mr Robinson. Although the couple never had a grand plan for the 80ha (200-acre) farm and 16th century house, they wanted to make the best use of their assets. “These things just evolve. If I hadn”t have had a bad back then this latest enterprise would never have even started.”

Initially, the gym, which houses about 12,000 worth of equipment, was set up for the use of visitors to the holiday cottages. But since it opened last summer it has attracted a membership of over 30 people, and interest is growing rapidly.

One member, Judith Rowell, recently swapped from a Kingsbridge gym to the quieter and more accessible Hen House. “It was always so busy in Kingsbridge Here you can take your time.”

The treatment rooms are now let out to beauty technician Michelle Davis and a new physiotherapist, Paul Brandon, who also trains new members in the gym. Each member has their own key and pays a flat fee of 200 a year. “We”ve got nearly half our money back already,” he says.

 The Hen House ties in well with the three holiday cottages, which were converted from traditional barns between 1997 and 2000, with the aid of an Objective 5B grant. These range from one to four bedrooms and are aimed at the upper end of the market, with en-suite bathrooms all round.

“We tried to leave as many features as possible,” says Mrs Robinson. A qualified artist, she decorated the rooms, even down to hanging her own paintings on the walls.

The Robinsons also built a games room and a teaching room, which helps to boost bookings throughout the winter. They market the cottages through an agency, Helpful Holidays, and let each one for over 40 weeks a year, at 500-1400 a week.

The agency also advocated the addition of an indoor swimming pool, which was completed in 2000. “The swimming pool has been an absolute winner,” says Mr Robinson. It is reserved purely for those renting the cottages to maintain their exclusive feel, he adds.

On top of this venture, which keeps Mrs Robinson and two helpers busy on changeover days, the couple run a thriving bed-and-breakfast business. This sees about 600-700 people pass through each year, at a nightly charge of 25-30 per person.

COARSE FISHING

They have also created three coarse fishing lakes over the past 20 years, and sell up to 1000 day tickets each year, creating a turnover of about 7000 a year. This is probably the least demanding enterprise, as the tickets are sold on an honesty box basis – something which has worked extremely well, says Mr Robinson.

Surprisingly, Mr Robinson still has time to tend to his 28 suckler cows, 150 beef bulls and 150 acres of barley. The suckler cows graze stubble turnips in the winter and calve outside, and Mr Robsinson mills the barley on site to feed to the indoor beef bulls.

He has not had to alter the farming enterprise much, although the farm is now tidier than it ever used to be. “People like to come to a farm but they don”t like to be surrounded by muck.”

Each venture has been set up as a business in its own right to prevent unnecessary VAT charges. “The businesses must be set up properly with your accountant. You have to get proper financial advice or you could end up working for nothing.”