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Backbone of Britain: After 35 years, couple release their farmhouse bed and breakfast memoirs

Mary Watkin Jones has spent more than half her life running the farm’s bed and breakfast business and has now written her memoirs, telling tales from those 35 years.

 

Emily Ashworth meets her and her husband, John....

From their warm welcome alone, you can see how Mary and John Watkin Jones were able to sustain a 35-year stint as farmhouse bed and breakfast owners.

 

Moving to John’s parents’ farm in Holywell, Flintshire, Wales, in 1970, the couple ran the dairy farm for five years before realising they needed to somehow bring in an extra financial stream to survive. And so, Greenhill bed and breakfast opened in 1975, after the couple heard about a local farmer’s wife who had done it successfully. Running 200 cattle while raising two children under the age of five at the time, Mary felt her options were quite limited as to what they could do, especially as she was something of a helping hand around the farm, too.

 

But their idea also came after spending money on the farm itself and realising it was not going to be sustainable.

 

“I was a ‘third hand’ if you will. It was a case of open this gate, yank that, hold this”, says Mary.

 

“We took over from John’s father at a time when quotas had just come in and his father only had a small herd of about 30 cows, so we had to buy quota and expand the herd to more than 80.

“We also had to build many of the buildings ourselves.

 

“The milking parlour and the collecting yard were originally a shippon, built just before we got married in 1970. The cubicles, silage pits and slurry storage were built by us too.

 

An extension was put on the cubicles when we sold the milk round in the early 1990s.

 

“We didn’t push the cows and we crossed the Friesians with a Simmental bull and kept the young stock to sell as stores or fat. This made up for the lack of milk quota. We then went and stayed on a couple of farms which had bed and breakfast businesses to see what was what and we thought, you know what? Let’s give this a go.”

 

With so much to do and see in the surrounding area, she felt there was a great need for accommodation. Mary also sat on Flintshire Tourism Association for many years, even joining her fellow board members at Parliament to discuss how to elevate Wales’ tourism potential.

 

Overlooking the Wirral peninsular, their location offered perfect views but, like most farm diversifications today, the most they could do at the time was pop a sign at the end of the track to signal their availability to passing customers.

 

“Because we were completely off the road, we had to learn how to market ourselves,” she says.

 

“By the end we advertised on LateRooms and, of course, everything turned digital.” She recalls her first customers though, a young couple who simply turned up, enjoyed their stay and off they went. But it was a huge learning curve during those initial few visits, she says.

 

“The first visit was fine but on the next occasion, two couples turned up,” says Mary.

 

“We only had one bedroom, so we ended up sleeping on the floor in the children’s bedroom. We had to put bunk beds in our room so we could let another room out.”

 

The business developed quite quickly and Mary began cooking extra meals, luring in customers with a traditional farmhouse breakfast and evening meal. Eventually, they were able to let seven en suite bedrooms. Over time, the couple welcomed a host of international visitors too, accommodating customers from Sweden, France, America and Australia. They were taking in about 1,000 people a year, says Mary.

 

Plus, she reveals, the B&B ended up paying off the mortgage and, during the latter years, the couple turned over about £30,000 a year from the bed and breakfast business alone. They were also well placed during the foot and mouth crisis, attracting visiting businessmen thanks to the convenience of their location.

 

She says: “Even though our farm wasn’t directly affected, there were so many restrictions.

 

“But we could have businessmen in four days a week and that income saw us through.”

 

It has always been a dual effort though, with John and Mary working side-by-side to make sure that the business survived.

 

“I helped to bottle the milk and when he sold the cows he made beds with me,” says Mary. “We have always been a team.”

 

During their busy summer season, Mary was cooking for up to 14 people as well as themselves and they employed another member of staff to keep on top of the farm business. But the idea to write a book about their time was a natural progression after retiring in 2010, with Mary reeling off tale after tale about their experiences in welcoming thousands of visitors to their B&B.

 

“People came specifically for the farm, too,” she says. “Especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s when, interestingly enough, people thought the children ought to see a farm.”

 

All her fond memories are written in the back of the book which is entitled Full House Greenhill Capers and is available on Amazon.

 

It is full of comments praising the establishment, including a review from a top hotel manager. They have had some odd moments with their customers though, including the time a French couple asked to be moved because they could not possibly put up with the sound of a milking machine for an hour, or how one visitor was unhappy because it was warm and they did not want to open the window because of the smell.

 

“All the people who caused no trouble don’t get a mention, do they?” she says, flicking through her book. The business didn’t come without its frustrations though, such as the mounting paperwork that always goes hand-in-hand with farming.

 

“I would not let it beat me,” says Mary. “And I always did it myself.”

 

But, after 35 years, John and Mary had cared for about 20,000 visitors and, although they enjoyed making their mark on the local area, it was done in preparation for their children – and to ensure a happy childhood for their family, especially after their third daughter was born.

 

“Without that extra business we wouldn’t have been able to have a sustainable farm business,” says Mary.

 

“We started the B&B at a time when you could live off the farm but, as the years went by, we depended on the diversification income. You shouldn’t have to subsidise food production, food is far too cheap for the amount of work that goes into producing it.

 

“We wanted to set it up in case our daughters or our sons-in-law wanted to take it over.

 

“But we are very open with our children and the farm needed some investment, especially in the slurry pit.

 

“We asked if any of them really wanted it.

 

“But they had seen how hard we worked to make it a success and they decided not to take it on.

 

“And that’s fair enough. We had some lovely people though, we really did.”

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