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Former Sudbury town clerk and Clare postman Jacqui and Peter Howells reveal how they gave up their jobs in their sixties to follow their hearts at Apple Tree Farm near Bury St Edmunds



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Helping a sheep to give birth has to be one of the most unlikely reasons for a town clerk to suddenly jump up from her desk and dash for home.

But it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow among Jacqui Howells’ town hall colleagues.

Running a farm had been a long-held ambition for Jacqui and her husband Peter. Slowly, they were beginning to make it a reality. And if there was a lambing crisis, she had to leave ... fast.

Peter and Jacqui Howells at Apple Tree Farm with some of their Falabella miniature horses. Picture: Mecha Morton
Peter and Jacqui Howells at Apple Tree Farm with some of their Falabella miniature horses. Picture: Mecha Morton

Now the couple, in their sixties, have both given up their jobs and are living that dream full time.

But life is far from easy. Faced with the choice of selling their house or the farm they chose to keep the land.

So banish thoughts of them on a freezing December day coming back from feeding the livestock to a warming mug of coffee in a cosy farmhouse kitchen.

Peter spent decades in banking but became disillusioned, eventually switching jobs to be a postman. Picture: Mecha Morton
Peter spent decades in banking but became disillusioned, eventually switching jobs to be a postman. Picture: Mecha Morton

Home for the past two years has been a caravan in the farmyard. Lovely in the summer, they say, but not exactly snug in the winter.

And they will have to live in it for another year while they prove their business is viable before planners will consider a house on the site.

But, as Jacqui points out: “We’re not in the caravan much, we’re mostly out on the farm.” And that is most definitely where they want to be.

Apple Tree Farm nestles in the Suffolk countryside at Nowton, just a couple of miles from the centre of Bury St Edmunds.

The farm has Falabella horses, pedigree Hampshire Down sheep and alpacas. Picture: Mecha Morton
The farm has Falabella horses, pedigree Hampshire Down sheep and alpacas. Picture: Mecha Morton

Tiny Falabella horses, pedigree Hampshire Down sheep, and alpacas are dotted over the gently-sloping fields.

Rearing turkeys for Christmas has been their major project. More than 100 five week-old top quality Kelly Bronze chicks arrived in August.

The birds were culled in mid-December – the cue for family and friends to descend on the farm for a mammoth day-long effort to get them plucked and ready for collection.

They started off with 16 sheep and have 10 alpacas. Picture: Mecha Morton
They started off with 16 sheep and have 10 alpacas. Picture: Mecha Morton

Bacon rolls, burgers, and noodles prepared by a neighbour kept the workforce going through a long hard day.

Peter and Jacqui have found a warm welcome in the farming world with help and advice freely given.

“Farmers will drop whatever they’re doing to give you a hand ... it’s a proper little community,” said Peter, who spent decades in banking but became disillusioned, eventually switching jobs to be a postman based in Sudbury and delivering mail in the Clare area.

Their dog Minty, who failed his gundog training but has proved the perfect companion. Picture: Mecha Morton
Their dog Minty, who failed his gundog training but has proved the perfect companion. Picture: Mecha Morton

He and Jacqui – the former town clerk of Sudbury – married in the 1980s after meeting at the University of Essex. She was managing the student travel office, and he was working at the Lloyds bank branch on campus.

Jacqui had moved from Oxford to Colchester in the 1970s when her dad’s employers, Tolly Cobbold brewery, offered him a job managing their local depot.

The idea of living in Essex didn’t go down well with the family at first. “We four children were horrified because we thought of Dagenham and didn’t realise Colchester was nothing like that,” she said.

“I was 18 and had just started college doing business studies and tourism ... my original aim was to be an air hostess.”

She married and had two daughters, Lisa an Charlotte. After she and her first husband split up, she went to work at the university.

She and Peter, who have a son, Stuart, bought a house in West Mersea, and she moved to a new job managing the Tourist Information Centre in Harwich.

“Peter was still in banking but that world was changing such a lot,” she said.

Everything was about selling. He used to manage the sub-branches but they were beginning to close them. He wasn’t really liking his job.

“I said there is no point carrying on in a job you don’t like. He had always wanted to do an outdoor job, but when he was leaving school his dad was very poorly. He’d needed a safe job, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“He said ‘what I would really like to do is buy some land and get some animals’.

“So in 2003 we started looking for land, but it was very difficult because we could only afford about 40 acres.”

That meant a dilemma over how to make it pay. “Someone suggested free range eggs. So we went to an open day at an egg farm, and got to know a lovely couple called Philip and Christine Greenacre, who ran a farm at Syleham near Eye.

“We were both working full time, but every Saturday and Sunday we went there. We got up at the crack of dawn and went to work with them as a way of learning the business.

“In the meantime, we were still trying to get land. But usually farmers will sell little plots to other farmers.

“We put in several bids and we must have been trying for at least a couple of years. We’d get our hopes up only for them to be dashed. We were getting quite despondent.

“Then were were told about this land at Nowton and came to see it. The owner met us and he was so supportive and said he really admired us trying to get a business together, and agreed to sell it to us.

“We had already sold our house in Mersea – we had to to buy the land –and were renting in Colchester.

“It was going to be a £250,000 investment to do everything and put the birds in place,”

Then came a dose of cold hard reality. “In 2005 we put in a planning application and it got refused.

“This was a time when there were the first cases of bird flu. Local people didn’t know us, and were worried about what we were going to do. There were protests.

“We hired a mini-bus and took a group of local people to another chicken unit to see what it was like. But our application still got refused.

“We were still both working full time and every weekend we came to the land to do bits and pieces,” said Jacqui.

“We planted the hedge along the road, planted trees, and did what we could to encourage wildlife.

“Then I noticed a cottage opposite was up for sale. We had to get a mortgage because all our money had gone on the land, and bought it in 2007.

“Peter was commuting to Colchester and I was still working in Harwich. Then I saw an advert for a deputy town clerk at Sudbury, applied, and got the job. Peter also changed his job and became a postman.

After a while Jacqui was promoted to town clerk. “We lived in the cottage for 12 years and had a few sheep on the land, but it got to the stage where something had to give,” she said.

“Peter said we have to make a decision. Do we sell the land or sell the house? I said I’d rather sell the house.

“What I didn’t want to do was sell the land and live opposite and see someone else doing what I’d wanted to do. By this time we had sold some of the land and were left with 15 acres.

“We had a very good agricultural consultant at Acorus in Sudbury. He suggested we do the turkeys at Christmas and breed and sell miniature horses, sheep and alpacas.

“We are two years into our business plan. Next year we will put in an application to the council to live here permanently.

We started off with 16 sheep, and have 10 alpacas. Our oldest one, Inca, is 21. We have had three cria (baby alpacas) born on the farm, and we sell the fleece.

Meanwhile, a neighbour was on hand with expert advice about sheep. “Our friend Pat who lives across the road is a retired farmer. He taught me everything I know about shepherding and lambing.

“Sometimes the lamb’s head gets stuck and I have to help. When I was at the town council occasionally Peter would ring and say there’s a sheep in trouble, and I would have to rush back, deliver the lamb, and go back to work.”

There have been plenty of tips from other farmers, too.

“At Greenacre’s farm we would come in for breakfast and I would stand my wellies up outside the back door, and Phil would kick them over,” Peter recalls.

“Turns out a real farmer will throw their wellies down so if it rains it won’t go into them.

“Another piece of advice was if you have livestock you will have deadstock, and you have to be able to deal with that.”

Four years ago they built a barn, and put in a road, which they were allowed to do.

“That was the first time we really committed to living here,” said Peter, adding: “We just want to live here and enjoy it.”

The barn, part of which is used as their office, was built by their friend Reg Hogg. They have named it Mo’s Barn in memory of Reg’s late wife.

In January 2020 they got planning consent to put a mobile home on the site, which lasts until January 2023.

They also received business support from MENTA, which opened the way for a West Suffolk Council grant.

Jacqui left her job in May 2020. Peter was still working. “I gave up because there is a lot of hard work with all the animals,” she said.

“But I also got a part time job as a registrar doing weddings. It means I can still dress up and put on smart clothes and not always be in wellies.”

She still stays in touch with Sudbury and helped at the Christmas lights switch on. “It’s always in my heart, and my dad lives there,” she said.

They had only just moved on to the land when Covid struck. But in many ways, with the farm taking up all their time, the dramas of the pandemic passed them by.

“Life just rolls on here,” said Peter. “We pop down to the garage or Sainsburys in Bury for supplies. We live in another world here, it’s a different way of life.”

Their day begins at first light. “When we get up depends on the seasons,” said Jacqui. “We can’t do much before daylight.

“Before Christmas, our whole morning would be taken up with the turkeys, feeding the animals, and poo-picking.”

You mean...? “Yes, by hand, going round the fields with a wheelbarrow. Otherwise, if it’s left, the horses can get worms.” They sometimes sell the manure, bagging it up to order.

“It’s not easy living in a caravan,” she added. “It’s hard work. But we’re doing what we wanted to do 20 years ago.”

Jacqui’s early ambition to be an air hostess might not have happened, but last year she took to the skies in a much more dramatic fashion – doing a wing walk to raise money for charity.

“It something I’ve always wanted to do since I saw the Utterly Butterly wing walking team as a teenager. It was absolutely fantastic,” she said.