29 August 1997

No quota on

mazes in this Wonderland…

A fun outing and fresh produce to take home. Thats the offer at Merritown Farm where Russell Lucas-Rowe runs complementary enterprises.

Ann Rogers reports

ALICE was fastening children into giant teacups when Farmlife arrived in Wonderland. She was making sure that they were safe during their spin on the teacup and saucer ride.

Small children were sliding down the yellow plastic rabbit hole in the Cheshire Cats adventure playground and several games were in progress on the Queen of Hearts crazy croquet lawn. Though players used mallets and balls rather than flamingoes and hedgehogs, as in the Wonderland described by Lewis Carroll, the hoops reflected the well-loved childrens classic as players aimed balls at reproductions of its characters and scenes.

"We have three Mad Hatters, three Alices, two White Rabbits…" began Russell Lucas-Rowe listing the staff employed to help run the mini-theme park he has developed on his Dorset farm. As many as 30 are employed at the height of the season at the Alice in Wonderland Family Park which he set up to boost trade on his pick-your-own enterprise.

This is its sixth summer and acting students play the character parts, but in the first year Russell was the Mad Hatter and his wife Lucy was Alice. Besides helping the play activity the characters put on twice-daily shows to audiences of hundreds of children and accompanying adults, either out on the storytelling lawn or in the small, tented Alice theatre.

The fun and games began with a maze and Russells concern that farmers were losing control of their own market. "Theres no quotas on mazes," quips Russell who sold his dairy herd and half his 162ha (400 acres), so that now his main farming activity is PYO fruit and vegetables. His was one of the first such enterprises to be established in the country, and now extends to 12ha (30 acres). Strawberries are the principal crop and picking began early this year from fruit grown under plastic.

Horse grazing

Grazing is let for horses "And in-calf heifers on their summer holidays," says Russell who makes 10,000 small bales of hay each year, also for the horse market. "I like to get on the tractor and I would be very sorry if I wasnt involved in conventional farming," says Russell. "Thats how I was brought up – and my father and my grandfather."

While he didnt need planning permission to plant a maze he did need help and advice and was delighted to discover that internationally renowned maze designer Adrian Fisher lived nearby.

Basing it on Alice in Wonderland would make it distinctive, they decided, and outlines of characters from the book were traced in beech hedging. At 6ft 6in the maze hedging now only needs an annual trim but in the early days it had to be cut back several times a year to make it bush out.

Covering 0.5ha (1.25 acres) within a octagon outline and planted with more than 5000 saplings, it is the third largest maze in Britain. It is set opposite the Lucas-Rowes home, Merritown House, and complements it admirably. The house dates from the early 1700s but only the central part remains since the wings were removed after a fire in 1812.

From the bridge over the maze entrance it seems a short walk to the mound at its centre but in truth the journey is an entertaining and frustrating challenge despite the handful of clues dotted along the way. So much so that fellow travellers met for the umpteenth time begin to feel like old friends, but directions at the centre take a bit of the sting out of the return journey.

"The first year we opened we thought the maze would be the most important thing but in no time we realised it was the Alice in Wonderland theme," says Russell who is constantly developing this.

A redundant farm building which began life as an up-to-the-minute dairy in the 1930s and has since housed battery hens and calves has become the Mad Hatters restaurant, self-service style, with an area for private birthday parties. The ticket office is also in this building, as is the shop which stocks themed goodies, ranging from cards and pencils to handmade Alice in Wonderland outfits.

Adult interest too

While the parks appeal is principally to the three to eight-year-olds, adult interest is stimulated by fact boards dotted around the grounds which give glimpses into the lives of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and the original Alice (Alice Liddell). "The real Alice lived most of her life in Lyndhurst, just up the road," explains Russell.

"The airport puts us on the map," he says, referring to Hurn airport which is immediately opposite the farm. "And the fathers like it. You can see them lifting up their children to see the planes."

As Alice in Wonderland has a place in the school curriculum, school parties visit and boost trade early in the season.

"The sea is our biggest catchment area," says Russell. Being on the edge of Bournemouth, means that holidaymakers form the bulk of the parks customers. "60% of the turnover is in the seven weeks of the summer holiday period," he adds. "And its much more weather related than farming. The biggest competition is the beaches. Overcast days are best."

Overcast weather sends people along to Merritown Farm where Russell does his best to ensure that a little fruit picking is part of their activity. The animal trail, which is a row of small paddocks containing animals with child appeal such as ponies, donkeys, goats and sheep, links the park to the picking fields while those who come primarily to pick are encouraged with vouchers for the park.

Captain Kids indoor pirate play centre was a 1995 addition. It lies beyond the car park entrance and is also close to the picking fields. Captain Kid welcomes youngsters all year round and keeps them amused on the dullest of days.

Russell says he would not have begun the venture had it not been for a farm diversification grant. "We started the whole enterprise in the middle of a recession and because we keep the prices low we seem to have succeeded," he says.

The park, which is open from March to the end of October, averages 1500 visitors a day. But he is trying to widen interest to increase the age range of the children who come along and to appeal more to boys. To this end he opened a small go-karting unit at the entrance to the park this summer.

"People are always asking What have you got new for next year?" says Russell. "You have to grow. It has taken over our life in the summer and is getting larger."

Inquiries: (01202-483444).

Left: Russell Lucas-Rowe relaxes on the

Looking Glass Lawn.

Viewed from above the

maze reveals its Alice in Wonderland characteristics. Finding your way round is a challenge but knowledge of

the book can help. The Duchesss herb garden (below) is a very soothing place on a summer afternoon.

Left:Young visitors enjoy

the teacup and saucer ride.

Above: Off with her head! A feature in the Cheshire Cats adventure playground.

Actors appear as Alice, the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter to entertain children on the story-telling lawn. Theirs is a lively production in which the audience is involved as much as possible.

Left: "Its travelled further then Concorde," claims the driver:When the caterpillar railway train is not pulling carriages round the park it reverts to a lawn mower.

Below left: The White Rabbits jumping maze. Below right: Inside Captain Kids play centre.

Bottom: The yellow plastic rabbit hole.