By Jeremy Miles
It’s a glorious summer’s day and we’re bouncing across the Purbeck Hills in farmer Ben Bowerman’s 4x4 buggy. The views sweeping down across the fields to Swanage and the shimmering blue sea beyond are breathtakingly beautiful.
He pulls up for a moment to survey the heart-stopping slice of rural Dorset that has been his home for every one of his 45 years. “You know what” he says, pointing to a swathe of rough pasture below us. “I’d really like to introduce a herd of bison down there. That would be amazing.”He chuckles, files the idea in the matters-pending part of his brain and guns the little jeep back into action. I make a mental note to check in five years time. I know there’s a distinct possibility that the bison idea might be fully operational.
For Ben Bowerman is a prime example of a new breed of farmer. Faced with impossibly tough trading conditions, he has headed full-tilt into diversification rather than risk losing his home and livelihood.
Ben has more to lose than most. Godlingston Manor Farm and its ancient stone farmhouse - parts of which date back to medieval times - is inextricably woven into Purbeck history. Extensively rebuilt following a fire in the 19th century, the magnificent old house was taken over in 1949 by Ben’s grandfather who signed a three generation agricultural tenancy with the old Bankes Estate.
In a shrewd move he put the farm in the name of his son, John, who ran Godlingston with his wife Jean until suffering a major stroke in the 1990s. At that point Ben took over the day to day management. He officially inherited the tenancy when his father died seven years ago.
With his family to provide for, Ben says he is acutely aware of his responsibilities. He also knows that, if he can keep the business financially buoyant, there’s a money-can’t-buy legacy waiting for his children George,12, and Isabel, 10.
But how? He admits that times have sometimes been hard. At one point in the early days he found himself effectively bankrupt with a £358,000 loan to pay off and little idea of how to achieve it. Even today his cattle don’t begin to pay the bills. Yet within moments of meeting Ben and his wife, Catherine, it is clear that they must be doing something very right indeed.
Not only is there the fabulous house but it has a Porsche in the drive, there’s a £5,000 Breitling watch on Ben’s wrist and he even has his own helicopter landing pad.
Ben and Catherine’s salvation came in the form of an ancient spring on their land - the source of Goldlingston Manor Water which these days you can find in office water-coolers all over the country. The spring had been at Godlingston forever. The remains of Bronze Age stone tools have been found on the site. The family largely took it for granted until one day a guest sampling the water with his dinner at the Bowerman’s table suggested they ought to sell it. Today with a major bottling plant on site and a lucrative deal with one of the biggest water cooler companies in the world, the old spring delivers the equivalent of liquid gold.
“The farm couldn’t possibly survive on its own. The water business runs everything.” says Ben. “ I’m very pleased to say that it also pays for the childrens education and my helicopter flying.”
Amazingly his original deal with water cooler giants Aquaid was based on a gentleman’s agreement. “For several years we had no paperwork between us at all,” admits Ben. “In 2006 they paid me over £1million and the whole thing was just based on a handshake. People can’t believe that we did it that way but at the end of the day it’s about trust. The way I see it, as soon as you have contracts people start looking for a way to get out of them. I like doing business the old fashioned way.”
Ben takes this philosophy into his farm work too and actively encourages what he calls “a fruitful and harmonious relationship” with the National Trust who now own the freehold of his 450 acre estate. “I needed their permission to build the bottling plant and in return I have gone out of my way to promote conservation on the farm. The result is that they get a handsome royalty from my water business and I get cooperation and a fair rent.”
At Godlingston there’s plenty to conserve. Not only more than 100 acres of land officially designated as being of special scientific interest but it is also home to a huge colony of Adonis Blue butterflies and there are even rare Bee Orchids growing on the front lawn. Ben says that he believes in taking care of the land that has given him so much.
Agriculture, he says , is a desperately tough business. “People think I’m living the dream but they don’t see me at 2.30 in the morning crawling around in a stable sticking a stomach-tube down a calf. It can be incredibly hard work, particularly in the winter. “It’s stressful too. There is so much paperwork these days.
He says that business at Godlingston has become easier since Catherine, a trained lawyer, started helping with the admin. “She’s got degrees in English, French and law. It’s like being at school. I hand the paper in and it comes back covered in red crosses and notes that say ‘You can’t say that. Write it like this’ It’s been brilliant for me though!”
Catherine was also been behind a number of on-line videos which last summer catapulted the Bowerman’s 21st century version of the good life into the sight-lines of tens of thousands of YouTube followers.
She shot a series of mini film-essays about the progress of a bull calf called Henry who, after nearly dying at birth, was nursed back to health and became a family pet.
When I first met the Bowerman’s a year ago, Henry - little more than three weeks old - was happily playing in the garden with George and Louise and wandering in and out of the kitchen as though he owned the place.
Things have changed a bit since then. Henry now lives in a field with the rest of the herd. Weighing nearly 300 kilos and growing fast, he is simply too big and powerful for domestic life.
He still loves to play though. “Henry’s very good natured. He still gives me gentle head butts and likes nothing better than having his head scratched,” says Ben. “But you have to be careful with an animal that size. When he steps on your foot it hurts like nobody’s business.”
A year on from his birth the Henry the Calf videos are still proving hugely popular and have now been viewed on YouTube more than 50,000 times. “Originally we did the videos for the local school,” explains Ben. “It was amazing how they took off. We got loads of messages from people saying how cute he was and one or two who were just a little concerned that eventually we we’re going eat him.”
They needn’t worry. Ben assures me that Henry is regarded as an integral part of the family these days.
“I must be mad to have decided to keep him ,” he tells me.“It makes no financial sense at all, but then I don’t do this for the money.”