In our beginning, word of Farlands Farm was published in the local newspaper. This is the story of our birth.
In late 2017, a challenge was set by The Comet newspaper to find a way to restore and revive Fairlands Farm; to save it from 'wrack and ruin.' It reported that the farmhouse had been registered as an Asset of Community Value.
With 369 acres of land in 1951, Fairlands Farm was compulsorily purchased by Stevenage Development Corporation from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University, using powers it had under the New Towns Act (1949), developed primarily by Sir Patrick Abercrombie.
As a dairy farm, milk that was produced was sold locally under the name of the Marriott family who held the tenancy throughout the early part of C20th. Hence to many of the residents of Stevenage and also New Town pioneers, the farm was known as Marriott's Farm.
Records of the Stevenage Development Corporation, created by the New Towns Commission to deliver Abercrombie's Plan, show the intention that farming should continue at the site.
When eventually Fairlands Valley was conveyanced to Stevenage Urban District Council, a covenant was placed on the property to prevent residential development. The farmhouse, dating back to the 16th century, was still occupied at the time and while the farming practices were being whittled away by urbanisation of the land, the farmhouse and its grounds became a separate entity. Following the fulfilment of the Corporation's objectives, around 1980, all the residual assets of the Development Corporation passed into the ownership of the local council Corporation tenants who had not purchased their homes from the corporation became council tenants. This included any properties which the corporation had not built, but had acquired with its compulsory purchase powers. Many residents thereby became tenants of Stevenage Urban District Council, including the last occupants to live at Fairlands Farm.
Although much of the farmland was built upon to provide housing for the new residents of Stevenage, fields centred in the valley would become Fairlands Valley Park with 3 main lakes created for recreation and wildlife habitation, ensuring Stevenage would retain a central lung of renowned beauty in which the residents and visitors could escape from the urban life and relax with friends and family members. Aside from the recreational value, the creation of the lakes helped in the abolishment of plans to drive a major thoroughfare through the valley.
Members of the Marriott family who had been the farmers of Fairlands remained at the farm in retirement for several years and into the 1980s continuing to maintain the farm's orchard and vegetable gardens.
When the site became vacant, it remained empty for some years before the council decided it needed to find a use for the house. Although a public consultation was conducted around 1990 and engaged a resident who was a keyholder for the property, was instrumental in finding new tenants and a new purpose for the farm to ensure its survival.
Instead of traditional farming, the remaining house and outbuildings of the farm itself were utilised by Digswell Arts Trust becoming a creative hotbed farming the talent of local artists establishing their careers. As years passed, the site became more secluded and increasingly susceptible to vandalism. As its condition deteriorated, Stevenage Borough Council decided to sell off its jewel, presumably to raise funds for the regeneration of Stevenage Town Centre.
The artists at the time were naturally concerned, however, there were two issues which combined in their favour to allow the trust to remain. The global financial crisis wrecked the council's ambitions as investors withdrew from the regeneration scheme, and the call by local historian Margeret Ashby for the farmhouse to be become listed acted as a further disincentive for potential buyers.
Listed in 2009, the historic environment record is based on an examination of the site, published in Ashby's 2004 book about the historic buildings in Stevenage. In that, she called for the listing to be made, but it is unknown whether the listing would have taken place but for the artists' reaction to the council's misguided plan.
It is clear though that the site gained the attention of heritage organisations and became a Grade II listed building, due to distinctive architectural features, so the Council failed to secure a deal to turn the property into a public house. In 2011 repeated effort to sell the property drew no interested party. In need of major repair, with continuing economic uncertainty, officers saw the listing as an albatross around the neck of the council.
The borough council would not be persuaded to invest in the building, and undertake the repairs that would have ensured the house was maintained in a good state. By allowing deterioration to accelerate Digswell Arts Trust was pressed into halving the number of studio spaces it could make available, contrary to its aims.
By 2016, inaction by the council had allowed the weather to cause significant damage to internal ceilings causing some to collapse. The Arts Trust, in due consideration for the health and safety of its fellows, was forced into a position where its lease would expire and could not be renewed. So, after nearly a quarter-century of growing local creative talent, the last fellows left.
Without the artists, the council was free of some encumbrance to once again revisit the widely unpopular concept to market the site as a potential pub/restaurant. Also approaching nine pub/restaurant chains, a condition survey was conducted to establish the extent and cost of repairs necessary. The dogmatic approach to pursue the sale was again enacted with little consideration of public opinion.
Fortunately, the dereliction of the site was noticed by an active member of a residents forum, who came across the site whilst jogging through the park. Making enquiries of the council he raised alarm within his group regarding councils intentions. The group was guided by the council towards a local charity that, due to the restriction of its charity objects, could only ensure the site was registered as an Asset of Community Value. It was that registration which prompted Louise McEvoy to write her article in The Comet.
Considering the article, our founder considered the improbability that any existing local community group would alone have the means and capacity by which to secure a sustainable future for the farm. By necessity Friends of Fairlands Farm CIC was established, so an expression of interest could be submitted.
Positively encouraged by descendants of former residents of the farm, and friends of the Marriott family, the founders of Friends of Fairlands Farm CIC began the creation of the organisation needed to ensure respect for past and future heritage of the farm and ensure longevity to benefit of the whole community and future regenerations of Stevenage.
So, following the procedure laid out by the Localism Act 2011 an Expression of Interest submitted to the local council, and on 28th November 2017, having declared its intention, Friends of Fairlands Farm was formally registered as a Community Interest Company through Companies House.
Our story continues, but as we reach out across time and space - we call for you to join us, as 'Friends of Fairlands Farm.'
Inspired to get involved?
We are always eager to hear from volunteers and welcome any donation you are able to contribute!