In 1972 Park Mead our local Primary School was fundraising for an outside swimming pool, which was the spur to the opening of Beatons Wood for a single weekend for parents and friends. The response from those first visitors who saw the profusion of bluebells, was so overwhelming, that we had to open the following year and so it continued year on year. We liaised with our neighbours at Park Wood and Primrose Farm, extended the walks over their land to incorporate the Farm Trail element. We were indebted to the East Sussex County Council, who under their innovative scheme of encouraging farmers to open their farms to the public, provided expertise and support during the first eight years in developing the walks, refreshments and countryside information.
We formed a committee representing local interests to manage the finances. The principle we defined was ‘to allow the public to view and learn about nature and farming methods, whilst raising money for local needs’. Within 10 years we had over 58,000 visitors and raised £17,000 of which £6,000 went towards the purchase of the Glebe Field, which was needed to enable the new Village Hall to be built. Other monies went towards the maintenance of the existing First World War Village Hut, Park Mead School, and our historic Village Church of St Pancras.
In 1981 Bates Green Farm was the national winner of the ‘Country Life’ Farming & Wildlife Silver Lapwing Award for Conservation, which was a major accolade, recognizing also that very few farmers then were encouraging the public to visit working farms.
In 1984 we focused on raising money towards the proposed new Arlington Village Hall. A model was made, put on display each year, until the building was erected in 1988. In recognition of the fact that the Bluebell Walk raised about a third of its cost, two bunches of bluebells are depicted on the main Village Hall sign.
Looking back over the old minutes one notes that entrance charges for adults was 20p, children 5p, with ice creams 9p; and tea and biscuits 10p! To raise funds we supplied ‘dig your own manure’ at 15p per bag from the large pile at the back of the farm. We used to hold an annual Barn Dance after closing of the Walk, and for cards to sell we had annual photographic competitions. The East Sussex County Council provided us for some years with a mobile classroom and we had a teacher’s pack on farm activities and what one should see on the Walks, but too many schools participated which caused concern to the general public who expected peace and tranquility, and the scheme was therefore dropped.
Ideas from the visitors book included a request for leaflets which we resisted until 1984, thinking it would increase litter! Visitor numbers fluctuated according to the weather at weekends, as happens now, but not to the same degree. In 1980 we had 13,300 visitors and 1981 4671! There has been a significant change in the weather pattern, as up to 1988 we never ever opened during the month of April as it was strictly a May event.
We generated much publicity as it was then an innovative idea, which has since been emulated at other sites in Sussex. Tony Penrose who lives locally produced a feature film of fourteen minutes that was released on the film circuit and even went abroad. I had many letters from Australia and New Zealand, mainly from ex-patriots who after seeing it felt homesick. We did have the occasional slot on TV, the first being in 1978 and even a mention in the Readers Digest!
In 1987 when the hurricane struck, the damage to Beatons Wood was immense, and thus we opened the ‘Bluebell Wood Hurricane Appeal’ to raise the £25,000 needed for the costs of clearance. This coincided with a downturn in farming income, mainly due to the surpluses from the EEC. We had to dramatically reduce our labour force, cut back on our farming activities including the well known Arlington Turkey Farm Shop, which is now closed.
On the 10th March 1988 it was formally agreed that the assets should be distributed, between the Church, Village Hall & Hurricane Appeal, the committee wound up, with the future management left in my hands.
Since then, the practice of helping local Charitable Organizations has continued and they are the major factor in it’s success. We endeavour with our farming neighbours to enhance and upgrade the facilities of the Walks, whilst encouraging the public to enjoy our lovely countryside, and ancient woodland of which we are the fortunate custodians.
John McCutchan MBE on behalf of the Bluebell Walk Partnership