Follow the brown signs
Today I decided it was time to discover a vineyard via The Brown Sign Way. A lot of attraction types are being ticked off the list now so I think it’s time to be a little more focussed in my approach to my brown signing (I’ll still go to all the random places I happen upon too though, don’t worry). My sister and I got into my just MOTed and legal (if still smelly when braking and rattly when accelerating) car and headed for a vineyard brown sign near Dorking. Xfm were playing some belters so Jo and I Florence and The Machined our way to Surrey. Maybe it was the enthusiasm of our singing or perhaps the car was suddenly faster for finally having a mechanic under it’s bonnet, whatever the reason we arrived (very unlike us) an hour early for the winery tour. As with any time I ever have to kill I kept my eyes peeled for a brown sign, luckily I spotted one in the shape of Bocketts Farm, I followed it.
Bocketts Farm is just outside Leatherhead, its easy to find, just follow the stench. When we arrived we were greeted by this placard. The more beaten up and ragged the signs, the more I love them, so this one was just perfecto…
Old signs make me feel all cosy, no sparkling marketing and fake smiles here, just honest people wanting to share their passion with you, no frills, the kind of attractions I like best. This sign screams “we’ve been welcoming visitors here for ages we don’t need to attract you with anything fancy, just come right on in, you’ll love it!”, and I have a lot of respect for that.
The farm was full of school groups and family days out, which I was happy to see. My last visit to a farm park was just after the E-coli outbreak at a rare breeds farm last year, and staff at that little Kent farm said that visitor numbers had dramatically decreased since, leaving the future of many farms like theirs uncertain. Here the washing facilities, numerous signs about safety when touching animals and the abundance of alcohol gels made it clear they weren’t taking any risks.
Straight away Jo gravitated towards the goats, but to be honest I think that was an error. Having just taken up her photography full time I think she clearly hasn’t quite learnt that you don’t work with children or animals, unless you’re prepared to be massively frustrated and screaming after about 10 minutes. She shouted “goat”, “goaty”, “goaty goaty goaty”, “goatington”, “goatarama”, “goataroony” and variations on that theme for a while to get the poor thing’s attention. It was a while before she realised it really didn’t care about having it’s photo taken and was checking her out soley as food potential. When it discovered she had none it left her well alone. This is a picture of her getting frustrated…
However her efforts weren’t completely wasted, nice goaty goaty goaty. I think it quite liked her after all the attention she way paying him, look he’s winking.
We muscled in on a hands-on school group session about milking but as I was clearly not from the local primary I didn’t get a go on any udders, boo. We walked around the smelly sheds, listened to the animals and children making as much noise as was possible to make then headed outside for some respite. This board (and boards like them at any attraction) made me very excited.
Unfortunately we had to miss the pig racing at 12.30. How I would have loved to see that, I don’t know whether it’s even legal is it? There was a lot of farmyward activities on, those farm hands are a bunch of very dedicated people clearly.
The farm has recently planted up a big kitchen garden which aims to educate children about where our food comes from (something I am passionate about) so I was very impressed to see it completely full of kids, smelling the herbs, pulling up the potatoes, eating the rhubarb (someone’s going to have an upset stomach tonight) and generally enjoying the kitchen garden experience. This is the big lavender patch with a bee hive in the middle.
It was literally covered with bees, only a good thing really considering the current plight of the humble bee, not so good sadly for people like me who make loud involuntary noises when flying insects come near them. I moved away from the lavender to take some pictures of a donkey, only to find myself standing on a red ants nest, ad getting bitten at least 8 times too. I started to go off the farm.
Not being 7 years old I wasn’t allowed a go on the jumping pillow, or the helter skelter – I started to become restless. We’d visited most of the animals, Jo shouting incessently at all of them of course, so we thought we might take a tractor ride to the “Celebrity Scarecrow Wood”. What the hell was that? Sounded weird and crazy so I wanted in. On enquiry however I was a bit shocked to discover that tickets for the tractor were an extra £5. “All the prices are up there” said the girl on the desk pointing above her head. Because we’d been let in by the manager after I’d explained about my brown sign project I hadn’t actually noticed the prices, so when I looked up to see it was a whopping £8.25 per adult, I stood gaping, that was until I saw the price for a child, an unbelievable £7.75!!!! I think I passed out. Then I saw it was an extra £1.20 per child for a tractor ride too? More fainting and gaping at the girl behind the desk. It was frankly shocking.
I have to say seeing the entrance price to this little farm tainted my experience somewhat. I know times are hard and overheads are overheads, but really? £33 for a family of 4 for a few hours in the farm (not even including a ride on up to Celebrity Scarecrow Wood on a tractor)? Don’t get me wrong, there were loads of activities and brilliant staff galore, but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel it justified the big entrance fee. This little farm felt like it used to be a working farm which has slowly morphed into a tourist attraction, and somehow I left wishing I’d visited years ago when it wasn’t so much about the visitors but more about the farm and farming. I guess that’s just me though, these attractions are brilliant educational tools and the sessions and activities were varied and fun, so the bottom line is that the all important link between land and people is being strengthened, and that can only a good thing. People have to be paid to do these things and keep up the farm buts still, jeeze…
Anyway, big sigh, next stop Denbies Wine Estate just outside Dorking. This vineyard is the biggest estate owned vineyard in the UK and has all the luxury and class to prove it, no battered signs here. Soon after we arrived it became clear that Denbies is a lot about wine, but it’s also a lot about tourism and visitor trade. Not necessarily in a bad way, just in a very upselly and smiley staffy way. We were booked onto a tour where we were first ushered though to the 360 degree cinema for a history of the vineyard. Our guide, Mona, told us that the film was narrated by Jenny Murray of Radio 4 fame. She left a theatrical pause and looked around at all the ladies in the room (me, Jo and a 2 birds from the local college on a day out). Jo and I stifled guffaws. When the film started with the hymn “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” one lady, whose extroversion was clearly off the scale, stared singing right along, and when I say singing I mean really singing. I had to put my face unsubtly into my notebook and absolutely wet myself with laughter, too funny.
Apart from the obvious distraction of the random middle aged woman singing the film was very informative, telling us all about the geology of the land and explaining that the Surrey Hills are very similar to the land in the Champagne region of France, and hence why their wines are of such excellent quality. After the film came the “people mover” so we all piled into a long buggy and got moved around the very shiny bottling and processing plant. Next was my favourite bit, the tasting, and this is where Mona really came into her own.
Mona loves wine. She was so knowledgeable about the types of grape, blends, how long bottles should wait to be opened, what foods go perfectly with which what wines and the descriptions of tastes on our pallets; she was brilliant.
Mona talked about the new taste that the Chinese and Japanese are starting to get for wine and that this is where the new ballooning market is. It reminded me of a time when I was travelling in Northern China, where it is so cold they have a yearly snow and ice sculpture festival, which is why I was there. It was Christmas Day and we got befriended in the hotel bar (don’t all the best stories start like this?) by a very lonely German, his name was Hans. Hans’ calling in life, it seemed, was to bring wine to China. Not just to export and market wine there though, no, Hans wanted to do everything in China; to grow grapes, pick them, process it, bottle it and sell it there there too. If he didn’t he said it would lose so much of the taste from all the travelling it wouldn’t be worth it. He really cared about his project, he had put all his life savings into making it happen, living in a completely alien country, away from his wife and children for 6-9 months of the year, paying a translator and guide to accompany him wherever he went and to top things off, having to spark up conversation with random backpackers like us on Christmas Day because you’re so lonely. I still think about that man sometimes and wonder how he did. So when Mona talked about the new wine market in China I was heartened. I really hoped Hans had made it, that his vines were surviving the ridiculously cold winters and he was making his millions. It was only when Mona said that the Chinese are yet to appreciate good wine that I started to get worried. Hans was doing what he was doing because he did care about taste and quality, and here was Mona telling us that the Chinese glug lemonade into every glass they drink and neck it as quick as they can, like a Chinese Jaegerbomb I’m guessing. Oh dear, I fear poor Hans’ pursuits may have been in vain.
A toast to Hans anyway…
After the brilliant tasting with the very-generous-on-the-helpings Mona. We were off for the land train trip through the vineyards up to the top of the hill of the estate. The views were amazing.
Despite it being mid July it was freezing though. As a seasoned brown signer however I came prepared. The picture you see above is the only one I pulled my arm out of the snuggled up state you see us in below, we stayed like this for 2 hours.
The vines were beautiful and the scenery was gorgeous, but to be honest I felt a little bit as though the deep rooted passion for wine had been somewhat overtaken by the need for visitors and the money brought in by sitting them on carriages and pulling them along in a Land Rover. I really do love all things touristy, but when Mona told us that this place was only built with visitors in mind (with conference suites, marriage licences, tours, fully loaded gift shops and the like) it made me feel that we were in more of a theme park about wine than a working vineyard one can also visit. For the second time that day I was left feeling that the attraction had be carved up into 2 distinct realms, and it was visitors and tourism that took priority. 80% of the wine Denbies produce is sold in the restaurant and gift shop, indicating it’s even more about getting people through the door. I felt that Denbies produced its wine to sell to its visitors, that the Land train rides were just another element to a visitors’ experience, but there seemed to be no passion or meaning behind these things. Mona had passion, thank God, and that came shining through, as did her disdain for the visitors who didn’t come for the wine experience, just the restaurant deals.
That said the visit was good and informative, the facilities were excellent and the staff (Mona – ace) were brilliant. Also, just as a quick aside (something I didn’t learn here FYI), if you want to support our vineyards then buying a “British” wine won’t do it. “British” wines are made from imported foreign grapes which are only processed and bottled here. If you want to buy truly British wine choose a bottle that has an English or Welsh label (there will be Scottish wine too in the coming years too I am told, excellent).
More brown sign adventures to come, I need to go fishing badly, I’ll let you know how I get on, for now though chin chin, up your kilt and cheers.