Aldwick Estate (nee Aldwick Court Farm) has been home to five generations of the Watts family and over that time has continuously reinvented itself to adapt to new opportunities, carefully balancing respect for tradition with the drive for innovation. Managing director Sandy Luck took over the business in 2011.
What made you decide to diversify?
The farm was inherited by my brother, Chris Watts, in 1991 after my father passed away. Chris had already started to diversify with an events business introducing activities like quad biking and clay pigeon shooting for corporate clients. The old milking parlour had been converted into a small function room for meetings and presentations.
In 2009 Defra supported us with a 50% grant to develop an old grain store and create a new function room and visitor centre adjacent to the existing conversion.
Two thousand vines were planted in 2008 and an additional 9,000 vines in 2010 creating our two vineyards. Tragically in 2011 Chris died in an accident and overnight I found myself faced with an unfinished function room, large vineyard and 300 acres of working farm. Thankfully I had a great team of loyal staff, dedicated to helping me continue with the business and all the changes that lay ahead.
A great friend, Elizabeth, came in 2011 to help look after the vineyard. Now as Vineyard Manager, she has been instrumental in the growth and development of this part of the business. We are now winning not only regional, national but international awards for our wine.
In October 2012 we stopped farming pigs and a few years later I converted the redundant buildings into stables, these are now privately rented. The venue was finally completed in 2013 to host weddings, conferences and vineyard tours. It is now very much the bread and butter of the business and allows me to continually develop the rest of the farm.
We added a tasting room onto the venue in 2016 which gives people the option to drop in and buy wine direct from us at the Cellar Door. I recently tempted my sister and her husband, to come back to the UK after 25 years working and living in Spain. Carole ran her own successful business as a chef for most of that time and I saw her as a great asset.
This year we have now been able to offer lunches with vineyard tours meaning that visitors stay longer and enjoy the surrounding area. They often will book local accommodation, so the whole community benefits.
In the last six months, I secured LEADER grant funding to help refurbish our old kitchen and develop a redundant building into accommodation. We now have five rooms to offer guests.
How does the business sit alongside your own farm?
We still have the 300 acres of farmland which is leased to a local sheep farmer who maintains the land. Visitors love to see the animals in the fields and the land really benefits from the good husbandry. The farming enhances what we do here, it works really well together.
Did you get professional advice – finance, planning, business management, insurance for instance when you set it up?
I have had a lot of good advice from experienced business heads from the farming community and a business advisor who helped secure funding from the Leader grants, he was great at understanding the business. The NFU have always been supportive as well, it’s great to have a local branch so close and to be able to talk to people face to face.
How does running a diversification enterprise alongside the farm affect family relationships?
Being a single mum and running a busy business has made my kids massively independent. Yes, we don’t do as much together as maybe I’d like but the benefits of living here on the farm really outweigh all of this, they have so many more opportunities and freedom. They are 18, 15 and 14, and often help out in the venue and they enjoy being part of the team.
My mum will often pop in, she lived at Aldwick for 50 years, and has seen massive changes over that time. At 81 she’s not hands on anymore but still is massively supportive. Our very popular rosé wine, Mary’s Rose, was named in her honour. Now that I have my sister and brother-in-law back and involved, it is even more of a family business. The extra support I get from them is invaluable. It’s a way of life, not a nine-to-five job.
What’s the best thing about running your business?
There is nothing more rewarding than people telling you what an amazing place you’ve got, great staff and great wine.
My priority is to ensure the future of Aldwick for the next generation. It’s been tough but has really brought the family closer together. I am very excited about what lies ahead.