Ice-Cream Heaven - Bluebells Dairy in Spondon

PUBLISHED: 09:12 30 July 2014 | UPDATED: 09:12 30 July 2014

Lydia, Henrietta, Geoff, Rosemary and Oliver Brown

Lydia, Henrietta, Geoff, Rosemary and Oliver Brown

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Derbyshire has much to be proud of and a recent entrant in the county’s ranks of makers of world-class produce is the Bluebell Dairy at Brunswood Farm near Derby

Bluebells ice creamBluebells ice cream

There have been many surreal moments for Spondon dairy farmers, Rosemary and Geoff Brown, their son, Oliver, and daughters, Henrietta and Lydia, in the last five years. Having to buy an extra seat on a Ryanair flight to bring home an outsize trophy from Italy; pouring tea in the kitchen for Prince Charles; watching Margaret Thatcher’s coffin arriving at the Houses of Parliament from the vantage-point of a Commons committee room... And all because of ice-cream.

Geoff’s parents came to farm here in 1953, when the small farmhouse had neither electricity nor water. He married Rosemary – a lace-maker’s daughter – and moved back to the farm in 1989, in a farm swap and partnership arrangement with his father. The couple brought up their family of three children on the farm, Geoff milking the cows and Rosemary happily working at a veterinary practice at Markeaton on the outskirts of Derby but wishing that she could be at home. ‘You just take to farming,’ she says. ‘I love it.’

When Oliver graduated in agricultural science from the University of Reading, it became clear that despite his spending a satisfying year in Australia and New Zealand, he wanted to come back, work on the family farm and look to diversifying. ‘That’s when we realised we would want to do something that would support him and give him a future,’ Rosemary remembers. It all sounds very like The Archers, I suggest, and she admits that she can’t bear listening to the programme because ‘it’s all so close to home.’

So they looked at what they might do. They are in an extraordinary location, so close to Derby that you can see the Cathedral tower in the distance but in a wholly rural setting with Friesian cows grazing in the pasture and acres of woodland and bluebells. ‘People can drive 10 minutes out of Derby and be in the country before they know it. They can sit and feel as though they are on holiday,’ Rosemary says with pleasure. And it’s true. Drive through Spondon, pass the Cricket Club and that’s it – no ribbon of development, just the end of the village and the start of the countryside.

Prince Charles chats to members of staff on his visit to the farmPrince Charles chats to members of staff on his visit to the farm

There were two options: diversify outside of milk or use the milk to diversify. They considered cheese-making, soft cheese production, free range hens. And then remembering how they had looked for good venues to take the children to when they were small, and deciding that they all liked ice-cream, they researched for a whole year the feasibility of ice-cream making and realised it was possible. Funding was an issue, though: they had not long been on their own in the business, milk prices were not good and they had very little money behind them.

They applied for funding from the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) – ‘a massive application process, but good in the long run because we knew our business plan and our product inside out by the end of it,’ Rosemary says. The 50 per cent matched funding they received from RDPE made all the difference between being able simply to make ice-cream and wholesale it from the farm and adding a small café and play area to create a venue for people to come and enjoy. The margins were better too if they could sell direct to the public.

The planners would only consider them if they converted what they had, and the funding enabled them to convert two sides of the farmyard and build an ice-cream lab, production area and small kitchen alongside the milking parlour. By 10th December 2008, with accreditation secured and the mass of paperwork completed as well as the building, they were ready to move in, and after a dummy run on 13th December, they opened Bluebells Dairy the following day.

And here was the first surreal moment. Ice-cream in December? But as they already sold Locko Park Christmas trees from the farm, they knew there would be plenty of people coming. It snowed on that first day, which inhibited traffic, but they opened the enterprise with a special Christmas Pudding ice-cream and marvelled at the sight of people walking across the snowy fields to the farm and back with cones of ice-cream.

Prime Minister, the Rt Hon David Cameron MP samples Bluebells Ice Cream at the House of Commons when Derbyshire food producers showcased their produce last year  Photo: Jen Miles Minister, the Rt Hon David Cameron MP samples Bluebells Ice Cream at the House of Commons when Derbyshire food producers showcased their produce last year Photo: Jen Miles

They were busy from day one. Within the first six months, they also acquired a small menagerie of animals for petting: an unintended move but one which has proved enormously popular with families. It wasn’t all plain sailing: they made mistakes along the way, the family says, describing the last five years as a big learning curve, but the business benefited enormously from an early break that happened within a year of opening. Bluebells was nominated for the very prestigious BBC Food and Farming Awards.

‘The first we knew of it was in September 2009 when Radio 4 rang up to say they’d like to come and make a programme here. They didn’t tell us why, but a week later they rang to confirm that we were one of three finalists for the awards,’ Rosemary says.

‘There were 400 entries! The whole thing was one of those “pinch me” moments – it just didn’t seem real. We ended up at the BBC in London for the ceremony, and Prince Charles was there with the Duchess of Cornwall. Our ice-cream was on the buffet... We met Raymond Blanc and we were chatting about ice-cream and he was giving Oliver advice...’ They didn’t win – the winner had been in business for 20 years – but the publicity was huge.

They had given Prince Charles a business card and Geoff remembers that the Prince did not give it to his equerry but put it into his pocket. Three months later came a phone call from the Lord Lieutenant’s office to say that the Prince wanted to come and see them. He was on a visit to Derbyshire that embraced Royal Crown Derby and JCB and the Browns thought he would just want to see behind the scenes.

But no. ‘He was interested in what we’d done and how we’d done it and wanted to come and chat about the food and farming industry. He sat in the kitchen and visibly relaxed,’ Rosemary says. ‘I was shaking so much. Linda, who works with me, was going to pour the tea on the other side of the kitchen but the press were all lined up and one of them just pushed the teapot over to me. I was so nervous, I missed the cup! The Prince just roared with laughter. It broke the ice. And he was so lovely. He made ice-cream in the parlour and then ended up eating it in the café. Then after that, he went round and saw every animal on the farm, shook everyone’s hands, wanted to know what everybody did and spent time with them all. It was such a fun afternoon: everybody enjoyed it.’

They can never thank him enough, the family says. The phone was ringing constantly after the visit and the wholesale business started to grow. She credits Oliver – who was having a very rare day off with his new baby when I visited – for his cleverness in having a pricing structure all ready for the wholesalers, ‘so that when the phones started ringing, we were ready.’ Morley Hayes was an early customer and still one of the best, Rosemary says, and they worked with the restaurant in those early days to get the very best quality.

Ask these artisan producers what the secret is of really lovely ice-cream and they say without hesitation that it’s the milk, straight from the cow. Geoff works hard on the quality of the milk and Oliver has a natural flair for flavours, ‘a scientist in his own right and he just gets it right, always willing to take a suggestion and trial it,’ Rosemary says. They were asked for a liquorice ice-cream and when they started supplying Calke Abbey recently – queues went twice round the courtyard on the first day of trading – smitten customers who had tasted it elsewhere told the Abbey staff, ‘You have to buy their liquorice!’

The wholesale side of the business saw them through the dismal summer of 2012 – ‘It rained and rained. The summer never got going, a nightmare for us’ – and what Rosemary describes as ‘a tidal wave coming at us – we realised we had been trying to do everything, so we rationalised and began to concentrate on what was really working.’ With costs higher in the winter, the volume of sales at Derby Theatre was a godsend. ‘They’ve been brilliant to us,’ the family say warmly, paying frequent tribute to the many other Derbyshire tourist attractions that sell the ice-cream.

Pauline Latham OBE, MP for Mid Derbyshire, invited Bluebells to be among 12 prestigious Derbyshire food businesses showcasing their products at the Houses of Parliament, where they found themselves in the company of big names like Chatsworth and Thornton’s. ‘Oliver had just got married,’ Rosemary remembers, ‘so we had gin-and-tonic and other alcoholic sorbets, perfect for this occasion. We were submerged! It was an incredible day.’ Neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor had been scheduled to be there but the arrival of Mrs Thatcher’s coffin to lie in the chapel had changed that, and the Browns were able to watch its arrival from the Jubilee committee room. The contact with David Cameron was also to bear fruit.

But the most surreal experience has undoubtedly been the ‘Italian job’: the invitation last year from a fellow artisan ice-cream maker, Giovanni Fittipaldi, to the Gelato Artigianale festival in Agugliano, near Ancona. It was June; orders were ‘coming out of our ears’, every aspect of the farm was busy and Rosemary and Oliver thought they just didn’t have time to go. ‘But we did. Well. Oh gosh,’ Rosemary says, describing their arrival to find a local cinema foyer converted to an ice-cream factory for 34 producers to share. 65,000 visitors were expected for the three-day festival, which ran from 5pm to one o’clock in the morning each day.

The whole town had been given over to it. Each producer had a wooden hut complete with scooping cabinets and decked with pictures – ‘Ours was plastered with pictures of us with Prince Charles and David Cameron...’ – and each had to come up with two new flavours. The Browns managed to persuade monks with a nearby lavender farm to give them some of the lavender and they came up with dark chocolate and lavender ice-cream as their first flavour and mascarpone with oranges and morello cherries as their second. Thinking the Italians would be streets ahead and might even despise a British product, they weren’t expecting anything much to happen.

But on the last night of the festival, they were called up on stage to learn that their chocolate and lavender ice-cream had been voted best flavour of the festival by the 65,000 visitors. That’s when they had to go out and buy a suitcase to bring home the trophy – which weighs six-and-a-half kilos – and book the extra seat. Later, back home, a letter of congratulation arrived from David Cameron, who had made the connection between the food fair in the Houses of Parliament and wrote, ‘No wonder you beat the Italians on their own turf!’

Now, in their sixth season, they reckon they finally have a business in which ‘we know where we are.’ They have 80 wholesale customers, taken on slowly, ‘so we know we can look after them’ – and Oliver plans to double wholesale production this year. Geoff has done a lot of conservation work on the farm with Natural England, and through that, and because of Bluebells’ closeness to Derby, they have ended up hosting very successful school visits after getting accreditation for covering the rural parts of the National Curriculum for all key stages but particularly for looking at where food comes from.

It’s all become so popular that they have outgrown the modest 24-seat café and small shop with which they started and have turned it into a classroom, an education centre where parties of visitors can also be accommodated. The enlarged café has moved into an adjacent barn conversion. Soon they’ll need to extend the ice-cream lab and future plans also include the conversion of another barn into a further all-weather facility.

But above all, it’s still a working farm, one which has made a future for Oliver and all the family. ‘It’s nice to know that it’s growing,’ Rosemary concludes. ‘It’s quite frightening in a way when I see the field full of cars. I think, gosh. Do they really want to come here?’ n

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