Phil Kemp visits a family-owned and run traditional agricultural estate – and unravels one of Surrey’s best-kept secrets.
If you have ever taken the road between Puttenham and Seale you will have undoubtedly seen an impressive hop garden nestling on the southern slopes of The Hog’s Back, an imposing 500ft chalk ridge linking the towns of Guildford and Farnham. You may also have had glimpses of historic parklands and woodlands and perhaps, like me, wondered who they belong to.
My visit to the Hampton Estate was, certainly for me, the unravelling of one of Surrey’s ‘best-kept secrets’.
Bridget and Bill Biddell not only reside at the very handsome Hampton Lodge, they have also taken on the responsibility from Bridget’s family for managing 2,500 acres, providing a kaleidoscope of different uses that bring direct benefit, not just to the estate, but also to the local community.
My tour with Bill started in front of some wall-mounted maps in the estate office, which he used to provide a fascinating overview of the full range of activities the family manage on a day-to-day basis.
“This is Puttenham Common, owned by the estate but providing 500 acres of open access to the public. It is managed by Surrey County Council and attracts visitors who enjoy the walks and rides it has to offer.”
Bill taps a finger on a large dark green area of the map. “We have a lot of forestry activity on the estate, and are well known for the range of woodland we manage. We produce commercial softwoods, and amenity hardwoods with some of this also for commercial use. We are very sandy here, in common with much of Surrey, and being poor soil this is perfect for trees. My father-in-law was an absolutely excellent forester and put in lots of trees after the Second World War. So we grow a lot of pine – Corsican pine, Scots pine, and Douglas fir – which all thrive on this sandy soil.”
Having now got a visual impression of just how large and wide-ranging the land management is at Hampton, I was intrigued as to how this is managed and put to use.
Bill smiled proudly as he pointed at a framed certificate hanging on the wall. “In 2014, we won the Best of England multipurpose woodland from the Forestry Society. We have three foresters, two full-time and one part-time, and this ensures we have excellent specimens of trees. Not only do we sell logs locally, we also use a lot of the timber ourselves for the biomass boilers we have put in over the last ten years, both in our Shoelands offices development and in the estate houses. And of course, everyone enjoys walking through the woodland where we have installed a car park and opened up the rides.”
Walking across the courtyard from the estate office towards some outbuildings, Bill paused and pointed across to Hampton House. “This was recently transformed into a château for a scene from a new television series Deep State. It’s a spy thriller produced by Fox Productions. We were a ‘safe house’ for a mother and two children who were hostages here. She escaped, got out of the house and ran down towards the lake. We watched some scenes being filmed there at night with lots of lights and production people everywhere. It was very exciting!”
We entered a beamed room adorned with large photos providing a colourful panorama of different scenes of Hampton Estate. Bill understandably continued to brag about their home being used for filming, and not just because of the big screen names wandering through from time to time. Being chosen as a film location serves as a perfect illustration of just how special the whole estate is with its mix of historic parkland, grazing meadows and traditional farmyards – as well as, of course, the imposing Grade II Georgian house and gardens. Quintessentially very English.
“The estate was used for the filming of Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe about ten years ago. We had virtually the whole of Universal Studios here, and they were with us for a year and a half – this because having built the set of the village of Nottingham there was a Screen Actors Guild strike in the middle of filming!”
Other filming activity at Hampton has included The Hollow, an episode of the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and more recently A Field in England, a history drama following a group of deserters from the Civil War in 17th century England.
“Filming is certainly a fun side to what we do here. I gave Steven Spielberg a tour of the estate in my pickup once, oh, and we’ve had George Clooney pop in for tea!” Bill’s broad smile hinted at just how much they enjoy the hustle and bustle of a film production invasion. “We are quite well -known in the filming world for big scale sets on a private estate. All the location agents know who we are.”
Having seen the impressive hop gardens many a time from the road in Puttenham, and being a bit of an ale drinker myself, I simply had to find out more. In fact, I was quite surprised I had sat on my question for so long!
“The Hampton Estate has always grown hops – and we’ve always grown one variety which is Fuggle, a classic English aroma hop. We supply the Hog’s Back Brewery with the hops for their Tongham Tea and Harveys Brewery down in Sussex – as well as The Black Sheep Brewery, Adnams and Timothy Taylor who have all been using Fuggles in their recipes for years. Oh, and we’ve supplied the Silent Pool Distillery over in Albury with hops to mix into the aromatics for their brilliant gin!”
I pointed at the wall-mounted photo of a very friendly-looking cow, which had enthusiastically engaged with the photographer’s camera.
“We used to milk Guernsey cows, but it got to the point where we were being paid less than the production cost of the milk, so we sold the herd. We restocked with Pedigree Sussex because the Sussex are a lovely breed of cow – very hardy and very relaxed. These guys just potter around and eat everything and anything they can, which works well for us given our poor sandy soil. We have 40 cows and one bull – and 20 of their calves every year go into our beef output. On the last Friday of the month we have our Meat Days where we have prepared customer orders whether it is for steak, mince or sausages, and then they come along to collect. It becomes a big party really with coffee, tea and cake – and sausages to taste.”
There was also an interesting connection between forestry and the estate’s popular Meat Days.
“Young trees we are growing need protecting,” Bill explained. “You don’t want the wild deer we have on the estate eating them so we have to cull the deer for control. And our roe deer make excellent venison. We’ve got pheasants of course too.”
The Hampton Estate is undoubtedly an outstanding agricultural estate – which thrives on its diversity. Sadly, unless I fall off the bottom of the page, I’ve had to ignore the orienteering, the angling, horse riding, gundog trials, cycling, farm walks, wild herbs, oh – and biomass-heated office space, rented accommodation and venues for weddings and private functions…
Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer. www.weyriver.co.uk
Telephone: 01483 810465. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.