Nicholas Owen meets Fanny Maiklem of the famous Fanny's Farm Shop
PUBLISHED: 13:42 14 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:44 13 July 2015
Surely one of the county’s quirkiest treasures, there are few people here in Surrey who haven’t heard of Fanny’s Farm in Merstham. NICHOLAS OWEN dons his wellies and goes to meet the charismatic owner, Fanny Maiklem, to find out more about this charming establishment
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2009
Photos by Andy Newbold
It was one of those miserable days on the M25. Traffic was stacked up for miles after an accident, and the huge motorway, which carves east to west across Surrey, was closed in both directions.
At least one driver caught up in the jam between Reigate and Merstham must have been a local. He got out of his car and clambered over an embankment. He knew where he was going. Soon, other motorists followed in their droves, walking the few hundred yards from the M25 to Fanny’s Farm to get some much-needed food and drink.
A menagerie of animals
This has been the 30th anniversary year for a business not quite like any other. The main reason is the larger-than-life character who runs it. And who does so without mains electricity.
Today, as I join her for a tour, Fanny Maiklem paces round her higgledy-piggledy ten-acre farm, smiling broadly as she points out its features.
They range from the shop stacked with all sorts of tempting produce, much of it grown round about and in her own kitchen garden, to a menagerie of animals, a tree house, and even a small vineyard. Neat and tidy it is not. Which hasn’t prevented Fanny’s Farm becoming a very popular spot.
After several large, lolloping deerhounds and a bouncy puppy called Mole are ushered out, we talk over cups of tea in an old storeroom beside the very small house where Fanny lives. She explains how Fanny’s Farm came about, and why they can manage without a conventional power supply.
Elizabeth Juliet Fanny Barter’s parents lived in Guildford, and she was born at Mount Alvernia Hospital. Her father had run a sawmill and worked at Polesden Lacey. Although he had to stop working outside to take a job with British Aerospace at Weybridge, his daughter always knew where she wanted to be.
“I can still remember how I always wanted to be outdoors,” she says. And I always wanted to grow things. My dad had an allotment, and from being about five years old I helped him on it. I remember the smell of the produce… the artichokes, the carrots... coming out of the ground.”
She spent two years at Merrist Wood college at Worplesdon, training to be a herdswoman, and getting a diploma in agriculture. Eventually, she moved to the other end of the county, married a farmer in Merstham, and they moved into their small cottage. The marriage did not last, but she stayed on and developed her distinctive business.
A huge range of fruit and vegetables is grown for sale on the farm. Eggs come from its own chickens. In the shop, a particular speciality is Fanny’s marmalade, on sale among the tempting jams, lemon curds, cakes, and all the rest.
What’s missing is meat, because of the lack of round-the-clock electric power. “I have to keep what we do simple,” Fanny says. “I didn’t think about it when we first came. It was the first home of our own… we were young. And anyway, when I was about 16, I used to go and visit farms on Dartmoor. They didn’t have electricity, so I was used to it.”
The problem has been the great expense of connecting the farm to the nearest supply. Thirty years ago, installing underground cables the couple of miles from Chipstead would have cost £5,000. “By 2005,” Fanny explains, “the price quoted by the power company was £55,000!”
There is a generator on site, which she turns on in the evening to cook a meal and do some reading. “I light a candle first thing in the morning, and take a candle out at night when I go to stop the generator. I always try to tread on a few slugs on the way…” Calor gas powers her refrigerators and scales are run on batteries.
It would be quite wrong, however, to imagine that Fanny, now 61, is old-fashioned when it comes to commercial ideas. Take that vineyard. British-grown wine is nowadays quite acceptable. Even so, the crop has to go elsewhere in Merstham to become wine. It can’t be sold on the premises, again because there is no mains electricity.
If our changing climate these days encourages wine production, it has also persuaded Fanny to grow chillies and peppers, unthinkable when she started out. As for the tree house, which has proved a great hit, especially for afternoon tea, it is generally booked up well in advance.
She is constantly on the lookout for new ways to attract customers. “I’ve got to be abreast of everything, working out how to be quirky and different.” To succeed, she remembers what her father always said: “There have to be no excuses, only results.”
Of her three children, 29-year-old daughter Nell lives with her and plays a major part in running the place. In particular, she is in charge of what Fanny calls her ‘Land Army’ – nearly 20 people who at various times work at the farm.
Nell Maiklem bustles in as her mother and I are chatting. She brims with the same enthusiasm as Fanny. “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life,” says Nell. “And it just seems to work so well here in Surrey.”
Another of Fanny’s children is trying something a bit similar in rural France. Her 30-year-old son Angus and his wife Lisa moved near Toulouse, where they are developing a market garden. Fanny’s two grandchildren are there, too.
Finally, there is elder daughter Tessa Schooling, who is 37, and does something completely different. She is a firefighter based at the Surrey Fire and Rescue headquarters in Reigate. “I’m her worst nightmare when I light my candles,” laughs Fanny.
Her work over 30 years has produced a business that can perhaps be measured by the size of the car park, which seems to grow every time I visit. Cyclists are another big market. It’s not unusual for 50 to descend, and usefully, the little lane past the farm is on the route of the annual London to Brighton cycle run.
On the day of the monster traffic hold-up on the M25, Fanny found herself run off her feet: “People were coming in for drinks and crisps, saying they had boys and girls sitting in their cars for hours.
“A couple even arrived dragging their suitcases and asking us to help get them a taxi. They needed to get to the airport. Nobody was upset, or cross. Knowing there’d been a big accident, they just said, ‘At least we are alive.’” One popular line that day was Traffic Jam, made of red, yellow and green fruit.
A royal visitor
In October, the farm’s 30th anniversary was celebrated in royal style. The Countess of Wessex spent 90 minutes looking round, enjoying a Surrey ploughman’s lunch, and taking a particular liking to Burt and Ernie, two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. Apparently, the special guest also appreciated the smell of the newly-picked apples. “It takes me back to my childhood,” she said at the time. “You don’t smell smells like that any more.”
As for this month, Christmas is a very hectic time. For a start, there are 12,000 mince pies to be made and sold. Decorations are draped everywhere. Everything smells seasonally gorgeous. “I just love it here then,” says Fanny.
Her relentless daily routine, after lighting her first candle, is to listen at quarter to six to Farming Today on BBC Radio 4, and after coffee, taking the dogs for a walk round, looking out for any overnight damage done by foxes. The farm is open from eight in the morning till six at night, and Fanny is there almost every day. She does have ‘the odd weekend’ away, sometimes with her son Angus and the grandchildren in France. She is also popular on the local speaking circuit: WIs and other groups love to hear some of the secrets of Fanny’s Farm.
As we finish our tour, I am allowed in on one of the secrets. People bring Fanny all sorts of knick-knacks, and she tries to make sure they all go on display. Amid the bits and pieces there is a signboard advising that at ‘3pm Fanny stirs the marmalade’. Actually, that is when she tries to get a quick afternoon nap. She certainly deserves it.
Fanny’s Farm, Markedge Lane, Merstham, Surrey RH1 3AW.
Tel: 01737 554444