The thing is – we never really ‘set out’ to plant a woodland or to develop a Devon wedding venue – as we got here almost as a result of serendipity. We are the kind of couple who looks for ways to make things happen. Where some folk see a barrier – we see an opportunity. So, if you’re keen – you can read a little of our story (so far)!
How It All Began
We are Joanna (from London) and Gary (Wolverhampton) who, five years after meeting in Nigeria, (both working under the auspices of Voluntary Service Overseas – VSO), were eventually married on a fruit farm that Gary was working on, in Kent. He was growing strawberries, apples and pears for the UK supermarkets and Joanna was teaching primary school children.
Ours was very much a home-made wedding. We designed a 5 course wedding menu choosing our favourite foods. Friends made salad dressings, decorated the farm packhouse (where we ate), plonked flowers in Marmite jars and cleared the tractor shed to make a dancing barn. Live music accompanied our evening barn dance party, and we snacked on cheese and snaffled apples from the orchards.
Yes! We didn’t have strawberries for dessert! And we lived on a strawberry farm!
The Middle Bit
The years (and 3 children) (and now twin grandchildren) have rolled on and we’ve also lived in Spain, Portugal and Kenya (where Joanna started a school). At the time, our children were little and we didn’t want to send them to a boarding school. On our return to England in 1999, we became early ecommerce entrepreneurs and started a natural flower petal confetti company selling bougainvillea and freeze-dried rose petals (so we know all about confetti) (!) Gary has also grown organic vegetables in France and most recently, we lived and worked in Tanzania. Joanna has been mainly teaching and Gary’s been mostly growing fruit, vegetables and flowers.
The Developing Chapters
We bought Higher Holcombe in 2002 and since moving into the farmhouse in 2005, we’ve been hosting all kinds of festivities and special occasions: carousing in the courtyard; rocking it up in the Old Dairy (even before it was revamped); or gently sipping wine in the meadows – it’s the perfect place for very special occasions!
Over the years we’ve transformed the pastureland into woodland glades; and, more recently, (and with your parties in mind), have renovated the Old Dairy for year-round comfort. We offer you a perfectly secluded countryside canvas with maturing woodland and glorious Devon countryside. Our eldest daughter was married here in 2022 and so will our son in 2023 and our youngest daughter, as well, in 2024. We know everything about how to make the most of a ‘blank canvas’ wedding venue – from inside and out!
You? It’s your job to provide the special occasion and to invite the people! We see it as our job to help you plan (and ENJOY) the very special occasions in your life!
So What Else are We Doing?
Well – it seems that we are changing the landscape! This is in a good way, we hope! When we bought the building plot in 2002 (with planning permission to build a house), it came with 30 acres of redundant pasture. Now – just over twenty years later, the Ordnance Survey has marked the maps that form our little corner of Devon as being deciduous woodland. It’s not exactly ‘re-wilding’ – but we have defo seen an increase in birds, insects, and wildlife. We can’t tell you how happy this makes us! Our most recent planting (January 2023) has included adding another 1200 trees to the 10,000 that we have planted since we began in 2008.
So while we both love the work of looking after the woodland and gardens, Gary (and our youngest daughter) have started a food biz, Hatari, based on chilli products and Joanna has joined the Ottery St Mary Writers Group (to get encouragement to write some kind of book). Gary has added saxophone and bass guitar to the list of instruments he plays and Joanna does voluntary maths teaching whilst trying to learn how to do posts on Insta!
We think we’ve earned both our ‘flexibility’ and ‘creative’ badges!
Our Sustainability Agenda
In our own small way, we are doing our utmost to develop Higher Holcombe as a wedding venue – we really want it to be as ‘green’ as possible. Planting the woodland is probably the biggest contribution to the planet that we, as a family have made – all dug and planted by hand. Yes, there is much argument about whose patch is growing best! It becomes quite addictive: watching a slip of a tree develop into a mighty oak. Joanna continues planting wildflowers and bulbs which we hope will thrive and boost the biodiversity of the woodlands.
We encourage couples to borrow our props, bunting and decorative (mainly quite rustic) items as well as to forage in our glades and hedgerows for foliage. We want to discourage the use of disposable plates and cutlery (which usually ends up in landfill), single use plastics and any throw-away items. There is table-ware that you can borrow (to cut down on road miles) and we are keeping our eyes peeled for robust reusable glassware as well. Having an eco-conscious wedding means making lots of little conscientious decisions – and we are on your side!
We are also continuing to work on practical ideas and policies to cut down packaging and waste and already provide recycling facilities for glass, cans and card. When we first opened, the was just one rule: no bottled water! The fresh water from our own borehole will taste better than anything you can buy! It is free, and not a scrap of plastic has been involved.
The Old Dairy was renovated and fitted with an air-source heat pump to fire up the hot water and the underfloor heating. We are doing the same for the farmhouse – so that we can move away from fossil fuels and move towards more renewable energy. It feels good!
We’ve hosted a networking meeting for The Sustainable Wedding Alliance and are busy beavering away to fine tune the details of our own sustainability agenda – considering everything from LED lightbulbs, cleaning materials and the car we drive. There’s no quick fix in this – but we, like you all (we hope) are taking all the little steps that we can!
We can’t envisage being anything more than a small and (hopefully), friendly and family-run wedding venue. We would like to grow our team, buy back some time to plant more seedlings for the cutting garden and develop different ways to future-proof our little corner of the world. With each season, we love to consider ways to improve what we offer to the gorgeous couples who trust us to look after them for their most special of occasions.
If you are one of those couples – we thank you! And if you’re still on the hunt for a flexible wedding venue – we look forward to meeting you both and hearing about your plans.
Until then, take care,
Joanna and Gary