Cranborne: an estate village
Joël Lacey looks at the symbiosis between the village of Cranborne and the estate with which it shares a name
Published in June ’15
It is normally thought that a vital village has to have five things: a pub, a post office, a shop, a church and a village hall. As out-of-town supermarkets, wine drinking, internet shopping, the digital-first provision of public services and indeed atheism have become widespread, more and more villages have lost some of or all of these.
Picture, then, a village of 308 households with a church, village hall, a large shop and post office, two pubs, a restaurant (with another on the way along with a guest lodge and private members’ club), a garden centre with gift shop and café, a bookshop, a veterinary surgery, GP surgery with dispensing pharmacy, a lower school with around 100 pupils and a middle school with around 400. Welcome to Utopia, except that this is not Thomas More’s ‘no place’ in the middle of the Atlantic, this is Cranborne, in East Dorset.
So how has an average-sized Dorset village managed to remain so vital, where others have, by comparison, atrophied? A look at the census data tells us that Cranborne has a greater percentage both of 0-15 year-olds (18.4%) and 16-64 year-olds (64.7%) than Dorset as a whole which has 16.3% and 58.5% respectively in those two categories; what Cranborne has much fewer of is retired people. In other words, there is clearly both work and accommodation for those of working age with children and somewhere for those children to go to school.
Once again, though, one has to ask how this has come to be? Part of the answer, and possibly a large part, has to do with the fact that Cranborne is an estate village, that is that the Cranborne Estate owns large tracts of the housing and the countryside around the village.
This is not an attempt to define the village as some kind of Downton Abbey nirvana, but to acknowledge that the estate, which has by definition, very long-term views of property and value, has exercised a deft hand in terms of what one might call enlightened self interest.
A generation or so ago, a previous Viscount Cranborne (the courtesy title bestowed on the presumptive heir to the Marquess of Salisbury who traditionally lives at Cranborne Manor) noticed that the rolls at the schools in Cranborne were falling and that unless pupil numbers could be boosted, the school would likely be closed. His solution was to offer a tract of land at an attractive price to self-builders with school-age children. The houses were built, the school got its boosted rolls and stayed open while other villages’ schools closed. There was no immediate, or indeed long-term, financial gain to be made, but ensuring the schools survived the rural population drop meant that Cranborne is now a highly desirable place to bring up children, which attracts working parents with school-age children to want to live in or near the village.
Having this critical mass of parents and children means that other businesses and organisations – which are either independent or which run in partnership with the estate – can survive and thrive. For example the restaurant, La Fosse, which features game from the estate on its menu, has a local population and the village’s position as a ‘destination’ to help its trade. The local shop, which is privately run, is supported by the estate because, quite simply, the village would be a poorer place without it.
Although high street businesses may be the second most obvious public face of the estate, they are a tiny part of it. By definition, a rural estate has its base in the land. In the case of the Cranborne Estate, this includes forestry, farming and the letting of commercial and residential properties. The long view approach of the estate is evidenced by its adoption of continuous cover forestry, whose appeal, according to the Forestry Commission: ‘lies in the belief that this approach is suited to an era of multi-purpose forestry where environmental, recreational, aesthetic and other objectives are as important as timber production’.
To give a flavour of the long term nature of this, the Forestry Commission states one must be prepared to wait 30-40 years to see if the desired diversity and self-seeding required by continuous cover forestry has worked. This realignment of the priorities of the agricultural side of the estate’s work is also pointed to by the employment of two full-time keepers to create the right habitat (conservation headlands, for example) for wild grey partridge to thrive. This is, as the estate’s land agent Gavin Fauvel describes it: ‘a conservation shoot without the commercial shooting’. The idea is that there will be nature strips running across much of the estate’s farmland, which along with establishing beetle banks and using feeding and brood habitat in arable field margins and strips to promote the population should not only improve the lot of the wild grey partridges, but of wildlife in general. The estate is also seeking to reintroduce hedgerows where, in post-war times when the nation’s farmers were strongly encouraged by the government to create wide-open ‘efficient’ field systems, they had previously been grubbed out. The estate has, since the war, been able to expand its agricultural holdings, owing largely to the force majeur misfortunes of neighbouring estates. It has not all been growth, though. The estate did have to divest some property in the 1980s, when rents were controlled and house prices were relatively low, in order to maintain its income in that decade’s recession.
Which brings us perhaps to the most obvious presence of the estate in the village, which lies in the dark teal colour with which the estate’s properties are painted. Around 125 properties make up the local property portfolio and each is bedecked in the colours of the estate. As Gavin Fauvel explains: ‘there is a quinquennial external redecoration programme; each house is redecorated every five years’, so the village looks well tended, which also encourages other property owners to keep their properties looking neat and tidy. The houses that the estate lets are for the long term; many tenants have been there for years and the estate doesn’t let to second-homers, but does prioritise those with an existing local connection. It’s fair to say that in any village people would like more cheaper property available, particularly to buy, but once bought that property would no longer be available to rent and the estate is not in the house-building business.
Gavin is also keen to point out that whilst the estate owns a portion of the property, it is not disproportionately large in terms of influence and that ‘they are nicely kept in check by the other owners’. What he means by this is that although the estate is in a great position to help with supporting community efforts, it is not so powerful that it can dictate the life of the village. So whilst the estate was very much involved in getting Vodafone to add 3G coverage to the village (previously there had been practically no mobile signal at all – let alone a signal that could deal with smartphone data – now there are five base stations in Cranborne) it was a community effort, not a top-down estate implementation.
The estate is subject to the same Parish and District Council planning scrutiny as any other property owner and this drifting away from the notion of the estate as judge and jury is also mirrored by a change in its commercial relationships, as Gavin explains: ‘We no longer should be the default employer, but we do want to be encouraging others to employ people.’
This is possibly best illustrated by the two latest partnerships in the village: the lodge/members’ club/restaurant, to be called No 10 Castle Street, which is due to open in September and the Cranborne Garden Centre, which was bought from the estate by Claire Whitehead in November 2014 and celebrated its relaunch last month.
Claire had been a regular visitor to the garden centre with her parents (who lived in the Tarrants) and after a career in London, she moved back to Cranborne as a base for her Chartered Building Surveying business just under 10 years ago. When she heard that the Cranborne Manor Garden Centre (as it then was) might be available she felt it was her destiny to run it: ‘The estate took a leap of faith in letting me take it over,’ she explains. Claire too took a leap of faith as, given the centre’s reputation for roses, she had to order in stocks of roses in abundance for the following year (ie this year) before the contracts had
It is not just her inherited love of the garden centre that made it such a good fit, though. ‘I can’t say I’d been waiting to buy a garden centre,’ she recalls, ‘but this is such a unique place, both in terms its location and because it’s so firmly rooted in the community. You really notice in Cranborne that you have a good mix of age-groups, and I’ve got 16-17 year-olds working, mums coming back to work; I’m able to give people a chance to do something they’re good at and that they love without them having to travel outside the village.’
Which is about as appropriate a metaphor for life in Cranborne as one could possibly wish to find. ◗
❱ For details of Cranborne and indeed Dorset farms taking part in Open Farm Sunday on 7 June, please visit www.farmsunday.org; the Manor gardens (www.cranborne.co.uk) are open on Wednesdays from March to September and accessed through Cranborne Garden Centre (www.cranbornegardencentre.co.uk)