9 August 2002

How driving ambition overcame all setbacks

Five years ago Michael

Read achieved a lifetime

ambition to buy a small

farm near where he was

born in north Devon. Ever

since then he and his wife

Patricia have faced one

challenge after another as

John Burns found out

WHILE recovering from a tractor accident which broke his back in three places Michael Read worried about how he was going to find the off-farm income necessary to hang on to Metticombe Farm.

Hed already done HGV driving, but it meant being away from home too much. Offering a digger for hire had met opposition from existing local operators, and though Mrs Read had started building up a B&B business at the farm near Barbrook, it had been hit by the foot-and-mouth movement controls.

A radio programme about bicycle-drawn rickshaws set off a chain of thought that ended with the idea of a horse-drawn vehicle providing transport between the top of the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway and Valley of the Rocks with its feral goat herd. Less than a year later they are in business, though still facing challenges.

&#42 Lost grant

On the way they applied for a grant to help establish the business but lost it because they seized a rare opportunity to buy a pair of British Percheron horses and with the tourist season approaching they had to press ahead without waiting for a grant.

Mr Read undertook training in driving horses, had a vehicle custom-built, and practised driving in town. "Then all hell broke loose," recalls Mr Read. "I was told by the town clerk I was not welcome in the town. We heard someone had put the RSPCA on to us, alleging we were not feeding the horses properly. And someone stirred a hornets nest by suggesting we needed a Hackney Carriage licence."

The Reads were shattered. "The Cliff Railway is by far the most popular tourist attraction in north Devon, and there is no public transport between it and the Valley of Rocks which many people want to visit," says Mr Read.

The horses have proved popular with the public and are already much-patted and photographed by visitors. "Clearly they add to the towns attractions, and weve created a new job – the grooms. So it seemed very odd to us that we had attracted so much hostility from certain people connected with the town council or employed by it."

&#42 Help at hand

But help was at hand. Roger and Diana Thompson who run an edge-of-town shop urged the Reads not to give in. Their "save the horses" petition soon had 500 signatures, and the Thompsons helped unravel the mystery of the local politics which had led to the official opposition. It was recently officially confirmed that the Reads do not need a licence. In fact no appropriate licence exists.

The new business has added to Mrs Reads workload. She is now relief groom – a job she hates. "I have to leap down off the wagon while its still moving to watch for traffic when he turns into the main street. Ive had my foot run over twice already but I couldnt scream because of the passengers. And I have to run behind with a bucket to pick up the horse droppings."

She also has to check the 23 suckler cows, associated followers, and 165 ewes, which they run on their 50ha (123 acres) of severely disadvantaged area land, and cope with a B&B business in a house without mains electricity.

Guests are told about the generators limitations. It is switched off at night, but light can be obtained by switching on and counting slowly to four to allow the generator time to receive the signal and start up automatically.

Many guests do not understand fully, or are so used to mains electricity that they forget. One lady left her bedside light on all night to avoid "upsetting" the generator. Recharging a mobile phone could destroy the generator. The demand for power would be too small to keep the generator going but it would continually attempt to respond to that demand.

With a limit to the generators output, making breakfast for her guests can be a real juggling act for Mrs Read. "I have to keep an eye on the fluorescent light in the kitchen. If it starts to flicker and dim, the generator is near maximum load and I rush to switch something off to keep the load down. It even dictates the menu."

Judging by comments in the visitors book, guests feel the absence of mains electricity is more than compensated for by Mrs Reads warm welcome and good breakfasts.

Western Power quoted the Reads £27,000 to put in 750m of underground cable and connect them to the mains. They cannot afford it. The Exmoor National Park insists on underground cable, and attempts to negotiate the price down failed. "With Western Power its take-it-or-leave-it," says Mr Read.