‘From Seed to Fruition’ – Written By Catherine Middleditch

In 2009, myself and my partner (at the time) Douglas Lane began working on a 2 hectare (5 acre) smallholding called Wayfield Nurseries located on a coastal plateau in East Portlemouth, South Devon. Doug and I met through the UK Permaculture Network and were keen to put our skills and knowledge into practice.  At the time, the site was owned by forward thinkers Alan and Jonquil Stapleton, who supported both commercial and community initiatives on the land.

Initially we engaged the local community by offering the opportunity to grow food on the land. A group of us then set up a community egg initiative by introducing chickens and ducks. We also decided to hold a little festival with live music, local food, apple pressing, coastal walks and skill swapping. We grew lots of food and also opened workshop spaces for arts and crafts. Various locals got involved with doing felt making, greenwood working, restoring furniture, upholstery and pottery.

In 2011 I found myself in the position to be able to purchase the land.  The next step was going through the planning process to set up the Centre which was not easy! The concept of setting up The High Nature Centre came about by us wanting to set up a multi-functional diverse business, but with a central focus. We wanted to incorporate our shared interests in permaculture, food growing, arts and crafts, ecology and conservation, so we decided a nature centre would encompass all of this and much more.

We explored the different ways we could potentially generate an income from the land using permaculture design tools and techniques, and it was clear that our site and location provided us with the perfect platform to set up an educational eco-tourism business. Being in a tourist hot spot enabled us to tap into the popular glamping market, which provided an immediate return on our investment. The provision and promotion of rural arts and crafts activities such as green-wood working, willow weaving, felt making, scything and hedge laying were an integral part of our whole plan to kick start an alternative rural industry in an area dominated by the service industry and conventional farming. 

Another part of the business plan was to encourage people to reconnect with nature by exploring the surrounding landscape. We are located just above the National Trust Heritage Coast, with some jaw dropping beaches and walks, including a beautiful woodland walk containing some ancient small leaved lime trees. The idea was to offer guided nature, marine and foraging trails to visiting groups and tourists.

A year later, good design, local support, perseverance and a passionate three minute talk to the District Planning Committee gained us our 10 year temporary permission.  We were granted temporary permission to change the use of the land from agricultural to a mixed use of tourism, education and light industry including 5 yurts and an 18m diameter roundhouse to be used as a central operational building.  Obtaining this permission was an amazing achievement.

We hit the ground running in Spring 2013 having taken the risk to build 2 of the yurts ourselves, then employed a friend Matt Boysons from ‘Yurtopia’ to produce the other 3 yurts.  The next major job was to implement the landscape design for the yurt camp.  The overall aim is to preserve and enhance the biodiversity of the land. This has been achieved by planting over 2,000 native hedgerow trees, sowing over 30 different species of wild flowers, planting perennial crops and herbs both in and outside of the polytunnels, and allowing certain areas of the land to grow wild. There are plans to implement a wetland system to manage all the grey water and surface runoff water on the site. This will introduce an important freshwater ecosystem aimed at attracting amphibians, dragonflies and aquatic life.

The yurt camp launched on the 17th of June 2013 and it was a very successful and fruitful first season.  We continued diversifying and developing the smallholding offering additional low cost business start-up space, arts and crafts activities, community events and tourist information about the local area.  In winter 2014, after a challenging year, Doug and I went our separate ways.  A few months later I took on managing the business on my own with help from lots of wonderful family, friends, local employees and volunteers.

Tobdan (my husband) has been working alongside me helping to develop the Centre since Spring 2016 (with help from our daughter Tanzen).  The business has been growing steadily with exciting new developments including social outreach programmes for disadvantaged and vulnerable people, yoga and wild running retreats, and more recently we launched our field kitchen and offering alfresco dining events.  We have also started an agroforestry project in an attempt to implement a coastal food forest throughout the site.  The next major development will be constructing our main permanent building, the roundhouse which is very exciting!

Over the years lots of people have commented that I’m ‘living the dream’.  People often ask for advice on how they can set up something similar.  I usually re-direct them to an article I wrote in 2014 for Permaculture Magazine.  Hopefully those of you who are keen to set up something will find it useful and interesting ‘How To Set Up A Nature Centre’.

Written by Catherine Middleditch