What is so important about Chester Farm’s 84 acres of Northamptonshire countryside? Read on for the developing story of the fascinating but extraordinarily complex site of Chester Farm.
The general rule on big heritage projects is that more time is spent on raising the funds and preparing the plans than actually delivering the works. Chester Farm is no exception to this rule! We put some questions to Project Director Sarah Bridges who has been involved in that tough fund raising and planning stage from the very beginning so we can discover the Chester Farm back story.
What is Chester Farm?
Chester Farm is simply unique, for Northamptonshire and beyond. It combines a nationally important archaeological and historic landscape with a complex of farm buildings, that together tell the story of Northamptonshire’s history over the past 10,000 years.
10,000 years! Tell us more?
We have found flint tools from the Palaeolithic period. There is evidence of human activity from Mesolithic times; Iron Age farms; a Roman walled town and the medieval village of Chester by the Water, all buried below ground. There is then a complex of farm buildings dating to the 16th century, together with formal walled gardens, orchard and an enclosed park. Ironstone quarrying including remains of a tramway bring Chester Farm up to the 20th century.
Why here? Bit middle of nowhere, I'd have thought?
The River Nene at Chester Farm was made navigable in the 1760s, but prior to that there would have been ten or more shallower tributaries making it an ideal and important crossing point. Certainly for the Romans, being able to cross the Nene at Chester Farm was vital in their route to Kettering, Leicester and the north. For the even earlier hunter gatherers the Nene valley would have been a great draw for its fishing and wild fowl.
So what's your plan for Chester Farm?
I want to make Chester Farm somewhere that people want to come to; a place that through the way we interpret the site will help people to enjoy and learn about Northamptonshire's outstanding heritage.
How will you do it?
In essence, the Chester Farm project has three simple aims:
- We want to look after the site and make sure it survives into the future
- We want you to be able to visit the site, learn about the county’s heritage and simply enjoy the fabulous green space
- We want to provide opportunities for you to get involved in the journey to make the site viable during the project and beyond
Maybe you will want to get involved in some way? Whether as a subscriber to our newsletter or as a volunteer. In May 2016, although the buildings will be out of bounds as the repairs begin, the green space will open for public access.
What was the site like when you began?
The whole area used to be run as a commercial farm but this ceased to be viable by the 1980's and Northamptonshire County Council bought the site in 2004 because of its archaeological importance. The site was in a very vulnerable state. The buildings were in a very poor condition and the green space completely overgrown. Through the Chester Farm project the site is now being cared for, managed and made safe.
We were successful in securing a grant of nearly £4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which was a huge boost to the project. The County Council has committed nearly £5m to the project and more fundraising remains to be done. Work is well underway and over the next two years Chester Farm will be transformed.
In March 2018 when the work completes what will it look like?
- The main house will become the cafe, as well as including some interpretation and staff office space
- The 17th century threshing barn will be converted into a community, conference and training venue
- Three 19th century barns will be used as classrooms
- A number of barns will be used for interpretation of the site, so the visitor can follow a route through the site learning about its various aspects
- One former worker’s cottages will be reinstated as it was
- One of the modern barns will become the countywide Archaeological Resource Centre enabling preservation of and access to the county’s archaeological archives
- Two large buildings will be converted to offices that will be let
- The wider landscape will be restored and enhanced and will be managed to encourage wildlife and species diversity
How long have you been working on Chester Farm?
I've been working on Chester Farm since 2008. The early years on a project are always very challenging as you try to work out the most sensitive way of protecting the site and then the even more difficult task of applying for all the funds to do it. But now as we plan to open the green space in May I can't wait to start sharing Chester Farm and help reveal all its secrets.