If only they could talk - Some of the ancient oak trees at Sky Park Farm
which must have witnessed so much across the centuries (taken in May 2017)
Sky Park Farm was purchased by its owners, Pierce and Victoria Noonan in August 2016. Situated in the picturesque hamlet of West Harting in the fields below their family home at Sky House, it covers an area of approximately 75 acres of the South Downs National Park.
The land that forms Sky Park Farm stretches north/south along Durford Lane to the banks of the River Rother, just across from the site of the ruins of the ancient Roman Catholic monastery of Durford Abbey, which was built in 1161, where it enjoys 435 meters of its own fishing rights. The river flows in an easterly direction where it meets Durford Mill, which was once the principal mill for the area and in 1585 was the property of Queen Elizabeth I.
Sky Park Farm was once home to a thriving market garden business
(taken in March 1967)
Prior to its sale in 2016, the farm had not changed hands since 1958, when it was known as Rival Lodge Farm, being bought by two brothers, who were partners together in a successful market garden business (Bryant Brothers) growing vegetables, which they then sold on their regular pitch at Petersfield Market, as well as in their shops at Petersfield and Liss; one brother eventually buying the other brother’s share of the farm in 1967. At the time of the farm’s purchase in 1958, it was somewhat smaller, covering 48 acres, with subsequent acquisitions of adjoining fields bringing it up to the 75 acres that it is today.
The farm carried on successfully with its vegetable growing business up until the mid 1980’s, whilst at the same time running a herd of cattle, as well as up to 700 pigs. Sadly, however, in 1985 the farm entered a difficult period, brought about as a result of the owner of the farm suffering a protracted ten-year illness, which ultimately led to his demise, bringing with it a reverse of fortunes for the farm that would last for several decades.
The market garden business closed down in 1983
The unlicensed salvage yard that ran for more than thirty years at the farm.
It was eventually closed down by the council in 2007
Unfortunately the death of the owner had left the farm in a state of relative limbo, with no clear successor to take over its running and therefore no one person with a vested interest to provide the direction and financial input that was so desperately needed. As a result, the farm as a commercial agricultural enterprise was in a state of virtual paralysis, spelling the beginning of a difficult period in its history.
The vegetable growing side of the business had already closed down in 1983 and this was followed six years later in 1989 with the closure of the pig business, leaving only the legacy of its herd of cattle to provide any form of income.
The herd of ‘resident’ cattle
(taken in March 2016)
Old farm machinery and broken down vehicles litter the roadside opposite farm entrance
(taken in March 2016)
Without the financial investment that the farm craved, it was an impossible uphill struggle for its incumbents to manage and the forces of nature inevitably took their grip. As a consequence the farm buildings became derelict, the dilapidated perimeter fence was patched up time and again, ancient drainage ditches were not maintained with the result that fields became waterlogged.
Vast amounts of detritus littered the farm, old farm machinery and broken down vehicles sat abandoned along the roadside. The fields, overgrazed by the herd of now ‘resident’ cattle became infested with ragwort, an invasive and toxic plant that is dangerous to livestock.
Some of the detritus that had overrun parts of the farm
(taken in August 2016)
Whilst normal commercial agricultural activity at the farm was in a state of near paralysis, the resources available at the farm were put to other uses - not all strictly conventional and some of which were to prove to be controversial. In 2007 a long-running dispute with Chichester Council came to a head, the result being that an enforcement notice was served to shut down an extensive unlicensed salvage yard, which was said to have been trading for more than thirty years and also that two mobile homes that had been permanently sited and formalised into a bungalow be similarly removed. At the same time as this, temporary permission was granted by the council for the variation of use of one of the old pig barns as a commercial mechanic’s workshop, which remained in use as such until the farm’s sale in 2016.
However, in spite of the problems facing the farm there was a silver lining in relation to the farm’s future, which was hidden from obvious view by the sheer volume of rubbish that was everywhere to be seen; this being that underneath all these layers of detritus lay a farm that had been effectively mothballed for the best part of forty years. From a conservation point of view this period of relative inactivity, together with the previous owners restraint in not felling any of the trees was truly a blessing in disguise that has resulted in many significant features surviving a period in which they would otherwise, quite possibly have fallen victim to the farming practices of the time.
A steam train on the line between Petersfield and Midhurst
The wonderfully evocative piece of embankment that still survives at Sky Park farm today
Historic features at the farm include a large number of magnificent ancient oak trees spread across the length of its grounds, but of particular interest is what is possibly the finest piece of railway embankment in existence for the now defunct London and South Western Railway Line that ran between Petersfield and Midhurst from 1864 to 1955. One railway historian, who filmed and published a documentary of his attempt to walk the entire route of the old line in 2011, enthusiastically described this steep piece of embankment as ‘a fantastic stretch of embankment’ - ‘magical…wonderful… charming… a delight’
Sky Park Farm considers itself very fortunate to have 174 meters of this embankment cutting through it, providing as it does a wonderful platform from which to look down on the red deer that roam the fields below. The top of the embankment is lined either side by an avenue of mature trees, which when looking through the middle of them makes it easy to envisage the days when steam trains would have passed through on their way between Midhurst and Petersfield via Rogate and Elsted, all of which stations have now been consigned to history.
Of course in the context of the history of the land that makes up Sky Park Farm - Nearly one hundred years of trains running over this narrow strip of agriculturally redundant ground, is but the blink of an eye. However, this wonderfully preserved piece of embankment is more than just a pile of earth with a few trees on top, representing as it does the once ground-breaking age of steam and the aspirations of the people of its time - A monument, that reminds us of the fact that what we see today as history was yesterday seen as progress.
And it is with this in mind that the farm’s current custodians take the farm into the next chapter, our aim being to oversee the delicate balancing act of sympathetically merging what the land has to offer, both historically and ecologically with our own modern-day progressive thinking; in order to create a viable agricultural business, in keeping with the demands of the 21st Century.