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Farmer whose livelihood devasted is tapping natural resources

With perfect timing, as the car turns down the drive to West Marlish Farm, the first spots of rain start spattering on the windscreen

Marlish water bubbles close to the surface of the Wansbeck
Marlish water bubbles close to the surface of the Wansbeck

With perfect timing, as the car turns down the drive to West Marlish Farm, the first spots of rain start spattering on the windscreen.

It’s a dreary evening after another unseasonably grey and cool week that has again seen more than its fair share of the wet stuff falling to earth.

Rain – and, by association, water – is something the UK seems to have in abundance. As the saying goes, it never rains but it pours. But while the majority of the population curses Britain’s erratic climate on a daily basis – the weather, as we all know, is a national obsession – one family is hoping nature’s soggy largesse could turn out to be liquid gold. Farmer Elizabeth Walton and her cousin Joe Evans are the brains behind Marlish Water.

The new brand of bottled still drinking water that proudly declares itself to be “from the heart of Northumbria” has just been launched.

And former teacher Elizabeth, 59, and biomedicine graduate Joe, 23, hope their idea to splash out and bottle the water from the spring beneath West Marlish Farm will prove a winner with consumers.

If it does it will be a happy ending to a difficult and at times traumatic past decade for Elizabeth and the farm at Hartburn, near Morpeth, that her family has called home since the early 1930s.

Many may remember that West Marlish was once home to a thriving and popular farm visitor centre offering educational tours for schools and families.

It was here that Elizabeth – who inherited the farm when her father died – showed off her rare breed Dexter longhorn cattle, Soay and Shetland sheep, Gloucester old spot and Tamworth pigs, poultry and, perhaps the attraction’s most famous resident, Robbie the Donkey.

But the 250-acre farm in a beautiful valley on the banks of the River Wansbeck, where Elizabeth ran her cattle and sheep, was devastated when foot-and-mouth swept the nation in 2001.

In a bid to contain the infectious disease, more than 6.5m sheep, cattle and pigs were slaughtered. Elizabeth lost 805 of her “very special” animals, including all her rare breeds.

It saw the demise of the visitor attraction and, unable to bring herself to restock the farm, Elizabeth instead sold off many of the buildings for development as homes to prevent the business going under.

Since then she has also planted more than 5,000 trees as part of a carbon offset programme and created wildlife areas. She also rents out the grassland for summer grazing between April and November.

But while these measures have kept the farm afloat in the short term, Elizabeth knew she would have to find some other source of income.

Then Joe, who lives in nearby Ulgham and works in drug development, and Elizabeth hit on the brainwave of selling the farm’s own water, which the Walton family had themselves drunk until being connected to the mains in the early 1960s.

By sharing the ancient water, which has filtered down through the sandstone bedrock over thousands of years to form a huge underground aquifer, they hope to bring prosperity – and local jobs – back to the farm.

The liquid which bubbles to the surface at the bottom of the valley close to the Wansbeck (there is a fault line that the aquifer butts up against) comes with an impressive pedigree.

The source sits alongside The Devil’s Causeway, an ancient and once well-used route running 55 miles from Corbridge to Berwick.

The water is believed to have been drunk by both the Romans and the Knights Templar, who visited the 11th Century St Andrew’s Church in picturesque Hartburn village.

Joe says: “Historically, the Knights Templar are said to have stopped for refreshment at Hartburn, so it is likely that the water we’re drinking now is the same that they and the Romans drank.”

But while they were happy to imbibe it straight out of the ground, modern regulations are stringent. It has taken 18 months of work – including passing strict health and environmental tests – to bring Marlish Water to the masses.

First Joe and Elizabeth had to find out if it was feasible to bottle and sell the water. Then they had to sink an 85m (279ft) bore hole to reach the age-old aquifer, build their own filtration system (what little purification the water needs is done on the farm) and find someone to bottle it.

“We looked at the spring, took some samples, had it tested and they all came back very good,” Elizabeth says. “What we have here is very high-quality water. It was then a case of what do we want to do? Do we have a go and see if we can make a business out of it?

“We obviously decided to take the business route. The water’s there, why not use it?”

But Elizabeth adds: “There’s been a lot of time, energy, worry and money expended on this project. We have spent months having samples taken and waiting on results.

“We have had to put up with people telling us we couldn’t do it and not to bother because water is a very tough market to break into, and physically it’s been very difficult, too.

“I’ve personally dug the trenches and laid the pipes from the well to the filter, and we had to pay for the bore hole to be sunk. We have paid for everything ourselves. There have been no grants.”

Picking up the first bottle of water was a proud moment for the pair, though.

With a broad smile, Joe says: “All those industry people who said we couldn’t do it I have gone back to and said, ‘Well, here it is’. They have been amazed we’ve got this far.”

The pair are confident that Marlish Water will quench the public’s growing thirst for local produce and reducing our carbon footprint. And as natural water (they can’t call it “spring” until further tests are done) is a commodity we are unlikely to run out of here in the UK, while it’s not quite a case of there being gold in “them thar hills”, it will hopefully turn out to be a very useful liquid asset.

Early consumer reaction has been favourable. Water takes on the mineral composition and character of the area of origin and, while no health or other claims are being made about the Marlish brand, initial feedback suggests it tastes particularly clean and fresh, which comes as no surprise to Elizabeth.

“We always said it tasted good,” she states. “We’re glad that other people are enjoying drinking it too.”

Initially being sold at food festivals and other shows this summer, it is hoped it will soon be available in hotels, restaurants, cafes and delicatessens across the region.

They hope, ultimately, it will create jobs for young people and support those in the wider community.

And with the prediction that the UK’s weather is to become even damper, it’s a business that is unlikely to dry up.

In fact, Elizabeth and Joe like nothing better than a bad weather forecast these days, as every drop of rain that falls on West Marlish Farm eventually percolates down through the sandstone into their aquifer.

Then all they have to do is collect it and bottle it, adding to the 40,000 which have come off the production line so far.

For more information see www.marlish.co.uk

We always said it tasted good. We’re glad that other people are enjoying drinking it too

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