27 February 1998

Smashing but unsmashable …thats these kids crocks…

Foxbury Farm Friends

are becoming known

far and wide. Ann Rogers

went to Oxfordshire

to meet some of them

JESSICA the Jersey and Sammy the Swaledale are ready and willing to meet visitors to Foxbury Farm, Brize Norton, Oxon. Fenella the fox is a mystery character that the Dawes family cannot introduce but all three feature on the sets of Foxbury Farm Friends childrens tableware designed and marketed from the farm.

Fenella the friendly fox was included at the request of the Dawes children, Rebecca (9) and Stuart (7), explains their mother Di who heads the tableware operation which she describes as a "family team enterprise".

Almost all the childrens unbreakable tableware available in shops feature TV and film cartoon characters, says Di, who set out to provide an alternative in a traditional style. And what could be more traditional than farm animals, she says. The animals in the Foxbury designs are accurate too – her husband Colin saw to that.

"Colin and his father were my biggest critics," says Di, describing how they studied every detail. Even the tiny animals that decorate the borders of the dishes had to be correct in conformation and colour before they would allow work to go ahead.

The artwork was produced by Dis friend, Janet Westman, whose usual subject is decorated maps. The manufacturing is done in China.

"I went from one person to another trying to find a manufacturer. It seems that all the Melamine in the shops is made in China," says Di. Eventually she found a London-based company who gave her contacts there. As a result Foxbury designs and Chinese-made samples crossed the world several times over a period of months before Di and Colin agreed that the product was right and an order for 3000 was placed.

&#42 Not retailer

"Im not a retailer. I have never done marketing in my life before," says Di, but she has sold more than 1000 in the first three months by mail order. She charges £10 for a set comprising plate, dish and mug, inclusive of post and packing.

She placed advertisements and inserts in magazines and concentrated her sales push in the north of the country with a view to retailing through shops in the south in the near future.

The products durability – including machine-washability – has been tested by family use and that of young paying guests. Di takes b&b guests the year round, offering one family and one twin room in their edge-of-Cotswolds home. The Dawess moved there five years ago and extended the modest farmhouse by incorporating attached outbuildings to make a bright and spacious family house.

Their previous home was 50 miles away, across the county at Henley where Colins parents still live, on a farm run in conjunction with Foxbury.

"We have 1000 ewes that tour the countryside," says Colin.

"They go to Henley for their summer holidays and come up here with very posh accents," jokes Di.

The family also farm a total of 250 head of beef cattle and 304ha (750 acres) of corn on the two holdings.

Colin, Di and the children are happily settled at Foxbury Farm but in this part of Oxfordshire they found that farming was divorced from the local community, unlike in Henley where farming people have become used to getting on with the public, they say.

They have tried to bridge the gap. Di and Colin have held annual lambing days for the past three years which have been well supported by the community – and the local RAF station. Each one has been bigger than the one before incorporating more and more craft people, besides childrens workshops and competitions. The events have raised a total of £9000 for a number of charities, mostly local ones and including Burford Hospital which now has a family room named Foxbury since a lambing day paid for its refurbishment.

But the most important outcome of the operation is the opportunity it has given people to have access to a farm, to see the animals, meet the farm family and see what they do. For despite the extra entertainments laid on it was the animals and the lambing that people really wanted to see.

"People just want to know, they want it explained to them," says Di, who is concerned that town and country are still so far apart.

"Over 100 people arrived at 11am and were still here at 3.30pm," says Colin.

Drainage work prevents them from holding a lambing day this spring, so a neighbour is taking on their mantle and organising a similar event.

But Colin and Di are keeping up other farm links in the village. "We install an incubator at the school so the children can see chicks hatch," says Di. "Most have never seen chickens or touched little chicks." They also have school parties come to visit.

And the muck run will take place again this year. Colin has got it off to a fine art now by having tractors with trailer loads of muck start at each end of the village. This speeds up the operation in which householders come out with their wheelbarrows to buy farmyard manure at £1 a wheelbarrow load. The money goes to village school funds and the exercise causes much hilarity as well as goodwill.

While the tableware enterprise is a commercial one, it will also do its bit to encourage interest in farms, an interest that is there just waiting for encouragement. There are also many small producers making farm related goods and Dis ambitions include the setting up of a modest directory to help them publicise their wares.

Ñ Inquiries (01993-844141)

Above:Meet Jessica, says Stuart. Left: A Foxbury Farm Friends set comprises one plate, one dish and a mug which features a Massey Ferguson tractor.

Stuart and Rebecca Dawes help their mother Di pack the Foxbury Farm Friends unbreakable tableware. All the family had a hand in its design. Dad Colin ensured the accuracy of the animals conformation and colour.