It was sunny and still in Dunster, but 30 minutes into the hills a south-westerly gale screamed down the Exe valley north-west of Exford and threatened to blow your socks off.“I knew all this was coming,” Oliver Edwards said. “I heard it for Lundy on the shipping forecast. I listen to it every morning. It’s more reliable than the land forecast. Up here, our weather comes from the sea.”Oliver isn’t a sailor. He’s a farmer according to his passport, but you could also take your pick from successful businessman, rebel, idealist, moralist, non-conformist and conservationist.
If it sounds as though we’ve found some earnest guru in wire specs and a Fair Isle jumper who lives on tofu, we haven’t. Oliver is a comfy, friendly chap in his mid-fifties, with the calm assurance of someone who’s doing exactly what he wants and loves every minute of it.
He’s the third generation of his family to run Westermill, a hill farm of nearly 600 acres in a narrow valley north-west of Exford. It’s a serious, modern farm, although most of the high-tech and the stainless steel are discreetly hidden behind trees and lichened stone.
Oliver has one of Exmoor’s finest herds of pedigree Aberdeen Angus beef cattle and Cheviot sheep. His steers end up in Waitrose. His heifers are in great demand as breeding stock as far away as the south of France. It would be hard to find a more modern and efficiently-run hill farm and yet, like so many Exmoor holdings, Westermill only just covers its costs.
The family always knew it would be tough. When Oliver’s grandfather bought Westermill for £1,500 in 1938 the place was so overgrown you couldn’t drive a car into the yard. It was subsistence farming and it stayed that way for decades.
Meanwhile, the family grew – Oliver and his wife Jill have three grown-up children, Oliver’s mother-in-law moved into a granny flat and his parents lived nearby. As the bills mounted it was time for some serious diversification.
With secluded woodland, idyllic views and lush meadows bordering the Exe, camping and holiday cottages seemed an obvious way to go. Plenty of Exmoor farmers do it, but not like Oliver. Over the past 20 years he and Jill have created one of Exmoor’s most popular and successful holiday centres based on the unfashionable theory of letting people do pretty much what they like so long as they act responsibly.
It’s a heady mix of Arthur Ransome and Plato’s republic and it works. Over 4,000 people a year camp at Westermill and come back year after year to the valley where the nanny state ends at the farm gate and the quaint virtues of responsibility, consideration and respect rule the roost, so to speak. “People come here because it’s how camping used to be,” Oliver says. “All we ask is that they act responsibly. Children can paddle and swim in the river and build dams and climb trees and play at Swallows and Amazons. Most campsites don’t allow fires but people love sitting around campfires in the evening so why shouldn’t they?
“Families might come here for a couple of weeks and never go out of the valley. We’ve got a little shop and we sell our own meat. Kids can come here without being mollycoddled and wrapped in cotton wool. It takes them some time to get used to it. Then they go off, like we used to, and make their own entertainment. We’ve no mobile phone signal or broadband so they can’t text or use computers. Parents say they’re actually communicating with their kids, perhaps for the first time in years! We’ve even had families ask us to take the TV sets out of the cottages.
“There are no rules and regulations. All we ask is that visitors respect each other, respect the farm and respect the environment. If you cause a nuisance or make a noise late at night or drive too fast through the farm I’ll come out with my charity box for the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution and fine you. It’s got to be folding money, preferably a £20 note – I don’t want anything that clinks! Usually people are just embarrassed and there’s seldom any trouble. Only once in 25 years have I had to ask someone to leave.
“Everything’s on trust. We don’t take credit cards and sometimes people haven’t brought enough cash so we say send the money when you get home and they always do. If you show people you have trust and respect it always seems to bring out the best in them.”
Without the tourist business, could Oliver make a living as a hill farmer? “No. Theoretically I could give up serious farming and operate a highly-profitable rural tourism business but I wouldn’t want to do that. The majority of our income comes from the cottages and campsites but the farm is my life. I was born and bred a farmer. “I love my animals. Half of me says why don’t you just keep a few cows, pigs and sheep for the visitors but I couldn’t do that.We’ve always been real farmers. There are tremendous pressures and you’re working all hours but there’s also tremendous joy and satisfaction.
“If you can farm on Exmoor you can farm anywhere. You’re against the elements the whole time. In spring we’re probably a month and a half behind Porlock Vale and that’s only six miles away. Their rainfall is two feet a year while ours is over eight! Then you get those glorious days when you’re out on the farm and you stop and realise how lucky you are to be living here.”
A former NFU county chairman, Oliver is well aware of the dangers of turning Exmoor into a theme park. “Livestock farming is very important and has made Exmoor what it is. Our family will always do that. Farming is in our blood.” At 84, Oliver’s father still works on the farm every day and Oliver’s hoping that his youngest son David, 22, will eventually take over the business.
“I just love having people coming and enjoying the farm and respecting it as a working and living environment. I enjoy every moment of every day. How many people can say that?”
Westermill Farm has six Scandinavian-style cottages and can accommodate over 60 tents. www.westermill.co.uk
Tel. 01643 831238
Photographs except camping field by Andrew Hobbs, www.andrewhobbsphotography.co.uk