Wickham Hall owner David Harvey on big plans to make it a top destination for work, rest and play with caring for the environment at its heart
Describing himself as a custodian of the countryside, David Harvey has a blueprint for making Wickham Hall the place where work and leisure come together in perfect harmony.
Or perhaps that should be a greenprint as his passion for the environment and transport is at the heart of his grand vision, which he hopes will not only provide for future generations of his family but also benefit the whole community for years to come.
Harvey, 57, is the third generation of his family to farm Wickham Hall – younger brothers Nick and Alex are a photographer and pilot respectively – and he is busy expanding the commercial zone of the site with the imminent completion of two new buildings as well as the repurposing of George's Barn and an old feed barn. It will provide in excess of 20,000 sq ft of new air-conditioned commercial space with super-fast wifi.
They are soon to be put on the lettings market offering companies the chance to join tea room Rosey Lea, technology firm Q Smartdesign, yoga and Pilates studio Akasha Wellness, pre-owned luxury brand Xupes and beauty salon The Beauty Barn at the complex along with furniture showroom Sofas & Stuff, gym MW Fitness and florist Elegant Stems.
Harvey began developing the commercial site, which is around two to three acres, back in the late 1990s with the repurposing of the old stable yard as he looked to diversify and create a lasting legacy for the next generation.
And growing the number of companies that call Wickham Hall home is just one element of Harvey's big plans – he currently has around 20 projects on the go – which also include wanting to develop a wedding and conference venue with a small hotel, a community sports facility, a big solar park and a park and ride site which would be linked to solar with an EV charging centre and potentially a hydrogen generation point.
"It's exciting and I'm completely energised by this," said Harvey, who is working with Sworders Agricultural and architect, building adviser and project manager Elliot Payne.
"If you've farmed for years and years and it comes to the middle of August and it's pouring with rain and the crops are all lying flat and going rotten and you're losing money on every ton you're cutting, it's a depressing thing.
"Now the aim of the site is to create the best quality space we can, so that when people come to work here or visit here for leisure they have the exact opposite of trying to get in Jackson Square, when you've been driving around looking for a car parking space for a while and you're tearing your hair out and stressed.
"We want people to come here and have that feeling of relaxation, to exhale and be in comfort.
"That's the whole ethos behind the site, but it's also about creating employment and creating an environment to provide a work-life balance for good mental health."
Harvey is keen to stress that he sees the development of Wickham Hall as a way of adding value to Bishop's Stortford, rather than taking away from and being a competitor to the town centre.
To that end, he has planning permission for a permissive footpath that will go under one of the bridges on the A120 bypass straight into the town centre for pedestrians, cyclists and mobility scooter users to ensure his site and the high street are connected.
"The big agricultural land-holding estates all over the country are doing similar things to what we are, to a greater or lesser extent and in different ways," said Harvey.
"Some people will have big steel sheds, like a grain barn, and they'll put a storage facility in there or they'll have lorries in there or they'll have a light industrial factory, something of that nature.
"The reason we do what we do here is because of our proximity to the town, and our location really is key – how many minutes to Stansted Airport, to Liverpool Street station, to the business parks in Cambridge?
"We also want to have more leisure on the site, which is why Rosey Lea's here, the gym's here and Akasha is here. They have a shared vision and shared place in the marketplace."
Wickham Hall was recorded as a manor in the Domesday Book of 1086 and the present hall dates to around the 17th century, although parts may be older and Roman archaeology has been unearthed on the site.
Harvey's grandfather Frank bought the farm in the 1930s and his father Ted joined the business in the late 1950s.
It was always the plan for Harvey to follow in their footsteps and he did so in 1990 when he left the Army having reached captain in the 16th/5th Lancers, largely serving in Germany for the now many-times amalgamated reconnaissance regiment in which his dad also served.
"When I came back in 1990, farming was having a tough spell. It's been tough more or less ever since and got tougher," said Harvey, who grew up at Wickham Hall before boarding at Heath Mount School, near Watton-at-Stone, and Uppingham School in Rutland and then studying agricultural economics at Newcastle University.
"Post Brexit I really worry for our industry because if you're a stock farmer you can't compete against the New Zealanders, the Brazilians, the Venezuelans and the Argentinians, all of whom can produce beef and lamb at half the price our people can, and grain farming is very difficult.
"So what we've done is become a very diversified business and we've changed the way we farm completely. We don't plough any ground now, using minimal tillage, and grow a number of different crops. We're trying to grow the crops we can grow well and efficiently with the minimum impact on the environment, but with profitability – the first rule of sustainability is making a profit.
"We're ambitious and want a strong business. It's a multi-generational thing and you don't farm for this generation and then sell it – that's not how we operate. We try to grow and grow, generation by generation. You like to leave more than you inherited and you've got to discharge your duty as a steward of the countryside."
Harvey is married to Suzy, a former High Sheriff of Hertfordshire and current Deputy Lieutenant who does lots of charity work. They have three children all in their 20s: the eldest, daughter Rose, works in sales and distribution in the film industry and the youngest, Henry, is about to start as a trainee accountant in the City.
Middle son Patrick runs the farming side of the business and has done for 18 months. They are involved in the farming of approximately 2,500 acres which also includes parts of Church End Farm in Little Hadham and the Albury estate. The latter is a separate business involving two other business partners.
"It's a question of balancing the different businesses," said Harvey. "I love creating new businesses and I have environmental interests.
"All of the existing businesses we've got and the new ones we're building are built with air source heat pumps and we link that to solar generation.
"All of the buildings on the business park are double insulated and the solar we've got generates, at this time of year, more power than we're using on site. At the moment we're exporting power as well as servicing all of our units with the air conditioning running.
"I think it's the right thing to do. Obviously it's cold and dark in the winter, but even then we've got heat exchangers and our solar still generates something."
A year before Harvey swapped the Army for farming, his father Ted, who was also a former amateur jockey and owner, was a Grand National-winning owner after Little Polveir raced to victory at Aintree.
The 1989 champion was bought by Ted shortly before the race in order for his son to ride him in the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown.
Now Harvey, who is optimistic about the business picture post-lockdown, is determined to make Wickham Hall a thoroughbred business park with green energy and environmentally-friendly connectivity at the centre of everything.
"It makes absolute sense for the environment and our locality, and it's also about legacy and future generations as far as we're concerned," said Harvey. "That's the whole thread running through everything we're trying to do."