Not-so secret garden
It’s not often that fairies crop up in conversation during an interview for a business magazine. Yet fairies are just one of the ways in which Archerfield Estate Limited (AEL) in East Lothian is diversifying and drawing in new customers.
The Douglas-Hamilton family bought the 1,000-acre estate in the 1960s and opened the Archerfield Walled Garden in 2013. As well as traditional features like a bar, café, restaurant, delicatessen, gift shop and gallery, the venue also has its own microbrewery, where Archerfield Fine Ales are created under the watchful eye of brewer Robert Knops, who also makes his eponymous range of tipples on-site.
Then there are the fairies. They arrived last summer, with visitors having the opportunity to follow a fairy trail around the grounds that surround the walled garden. “The fairy trail was Ross McGregor’s idea,” explains Elly Douglas-Hamilton, chair of AEL, saluting her operations director. “It’s free to go on the trail and so it adds value for families when they come to visit.”
The fairies who have taken up residence are also making good financial sense too. Around 10,000 families have followed the trail during its first year, with many of them buying fairy-related souvenirs in the gift shop afterwards or stopping for a snack or a drink in the café.
And the fairies aren’t alone either. Over the summer, the walled garden has hosted “Canteen”, East Lothian’s first street food festival, with local producers gathering on the last Saturday of each month, special guest DJs playing music and even a flypast from the nearby airfield.
“During the first event, we had 2,000 people passing through the walled garden in a single day,” says Elly. “That was a new record.” Canteen was organised by Rogue Village, a local events company. It’s just one of the partners in the surrounding area with which AEL has been teaming up.
Richard Dowsett, owner of Leith Cycle Company, opened a “bike hub” on the estate over the summer. Instead of having to drive out to East Lothian with their bikes in the back of the car, families can now hire them and go for a ride.
That’s in addition to theatre company Three-Inch Fools performing Romeo & Juliet by the estate’s pond over the summer, local artist Charlotte Cadzow taking guests on a sketching tour, and the Big Kid Circus rolling into town for three days.
It all feels a long way from a traditional farming estate. Wind the clock back to the 18th century and Home Farm and the walled garden were growing exotic fruit and vegetables for the estate’s Archerfield House, with 110 varieties of apples and 57 of pears, along with operating an ice house, a mushroom house and a gas works.
By the time the Douglas-Hamiltons arrived in the 1960s, Archerfield House was a run-down mansion, while the walled garden was in ruins. Elly’s parents set about doing up Home Farm – where they raised their children – while the family from whom they had bought the estate moved into Marine Villa.
At one stage, the estate even had its own horseracing track and the previous owners bred racehorses on the site. But the walled garden was beyond repair when the Douglas-Hamilton family bought the estate, with the remaining greenhouses knocked down in the 1980s and silage pits constructed.
Half of the estate was sold in the same decade to a property developer and was eventually bought by Kevin Doyle, the founder of Edinburgh-based pub operator Caledonian Heritable. Doyle went on to restore Archerfield House and build the 100-plus luxury homes on the site, along with two golf courses.
During the 1990s, as with many country estates, what was once the walled garden became a dumping ground, with members of the public abandoning everything from broken television sets to punctured tyres on the site. “My Dad always had an idea that we wanted to restore the walled garden and was looking at options during the late 1990s,” Elly remembers.
“One of the options was an equestrian centre but market research said it wasn’t the right time. Around the same time that Kevin Doyle was developing Archerfield House, the idea started to formulate for us to create the walled garden we see today, with a shop, café and brewery.”
Elly’s father, the 15th Duke of Hamilton, died in 2010 and so sadly didn’t see the walled garden reopened. Although Elly is the eldest child in the family, the dukedom passed to her brother, Alexander, as the male heir.
Is Elly disappointed that she didn’t inherit the title and with it the position as the “premier peer of Scotland”, a job that includes being the hereditary keeper of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and the hereditary bearer of the crown of Scotland?
“I was relieved when I didn’t inherit it,” she laughs. “It’s a lot of hard work, but Alexander does the job very well. I don’t envy him it.”
Alexander lives at the family’s home in nearby Lennoxlove House and owns the surrounding estate, which the family bought in 1947 after the hereditary seat at Hamilton Palace was demolished in 1922 due to subsidence caused by coal mining. Elly and her sister, Anne, meanwhile own AEL and manage it alongside a board of non-executive directors and trustees.
“There are really two halves to the estate now – the half that Kevin Doyle owns, with Archerfield House, the golf courses, the spa and the upmarket cottages, and the half that we own, with Home Farm, the walled garden and our 14 long-term let cottages and land for horse grazing,” explains Elly. “When people think of Archerfield now, they think it’s very exclusive and they can’t come here – but actually the exact opposite is true because we’re encouraging people to come and visit the estate and use the walled garden.”
For Elly, exploring the scenery and wildlife are at the centre of that invitation to the public. Both halves of the estate contribute to the cost of having a countryside ranger on the site, who is shared with the neighbouring Yellowcraigs beach.
Having studied wildlife biology, Elly became the red squirrel conservation officer for the Borders and later the events coordinator for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. That love of nature clearly still runs deep because the leaflets and other literature for the walled garden are peppered with information about the local flora and fauna, from roe deer, hares and bats through to the newts, dragonflies and damselflies at the restored pond.
While the estate has already clearly diversified to add tourism and leisure to its traditional mixed farming activities – and revenues from the walled garden are expected to hit £1m this year – there are even more plans on the horizon. The company is working with other neighbouring businesses to stock more produce in the café and the store, trying to develop its “Taste, shop, explore” tagline to include a local flavour.
A host of local brands have already become involved, including Salt Pigs in Dunbar and Laura Thomas Linens. Many have started making bespoke items using ingredients grown in the market garden, which continues to be developed by head gardener Erica Randall.
Involvement with the local community is also important to Elly. She’s the regional ambassador for Reverse Rett, a charity funding research into Rett syndrome, a neurological condition, and has held two five-kilometre runs, raising £30,000 – the fund raising filters down to the level that even buying a burger in the walled garden raises 50p.
Events are also high on the agenda. While the site is already used for music and theatre productions, Elly and Ross are keen to expand the number of functions that take place in the evening. They’ve developed a “Party your way” package, which highlights the flexibility of the space. They recognise that Archerfield does lie some distance from the population centres in Edinburgh and North Berwick, but they point to the regular bus services during the day and the availability of taxis at night.
One of the projects is particularly close to Elly’s heart though. She has created the “Ginger Squirrel Company” as a brand for the jams and jellies that she makes, which will soon be on sale in the shop. And the name for the new venture? “It’s named after my tattoo,” she laughs, with her curly strawberry-blonde hair bobbing about as she chuckles, emphasising the tongue-in-cheek brand.
“We were trying for ages to come up with a name and then Ross saw the tattoo and suggested it. We needed a name that would work for the jams and jellies but would also transfer to other products that we might make and sell in the future. You can’t take yourself too seriously,” she adds with a giggle.
Published: 11 September 2017