Sustainability at Deans Court

Why our places matter
Deans Court

Deans Court is a former Saxon monastery in Dorset, now a fine Georgian country house offering tours, holiday accommodation, weddings, a popular café and a homestore. It has only had two owners in 1,300 years, and the Hanham family has lived here for the past 500. This ancient setting, including a walled garden, chalk stream, herb garden and orchard, now provides sustainably farmed organic food for their courtyard café. William Hanham, the current owner, shares Deans Court’s sustainability journey…

My parents Sir Michael and Jane Hanham in the kitchen garden in 1985 Deans Court

Our path to a more sustainable life started 50 years ago, when my mother took over the old walled kitchen garden here and introduced organic production. Chemicals were in use everywhere from home potagers to vast agricultural monocultures, but the moment was perfect, as a counter-culture was building in Europe and America along with a swathe of publications on the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.

The Deans Court kitchen garden attracted the attention of key figures in the organic movement, and was the first to receive the Soil Association symbol of organic status. My mother also installed a ‘Vegetable Sanctuary’ under the HDRA seed exchange scheme and during the 1980s Deans Court became an alternative horticultural hub.

A kitchen garden veg box, ready to go Deans

When Ali and I took over in 2009 we kept the kitchen garden going. Ali opened a home store where locally sourced hand-made products and weekly veg boxes are offered, followed by a health food café, supplied with produce from the garden and orchard. Salads are freshly picked every morning and recipes incorporate seasonal veg, such as quiches and cakes made with beetroot, spinach and parsnips.

The café’s food scraps and shredded paper from the estate office go into a ‘hot-bin’ which makes compost for the café’s flowerbeds, while clients bring their own cups for take-away drinks (pandemic allowing) and food is taken away in recyclable wrapping. We also grow flowers in the kitchen garden to sell in the shop, which keep the bees happy and they reward us with honey.

A selection of organic produce at the courtyard café Deans Court

Three years ago we introduced the ‘no-dig’ permaculture system in the kitchen garden. Understanding how soil works underpins much of what we do now, as it supports every living thing on the planet. Digging and ploughing may give crops an extra shot of nutrients for a season, but then fertility declines rapidly, so more feed has to be dug in, creating a vicious cycle that blocks carbon sequestration and kills the soil’s ecosystem.

However, one problem with ‘no-dig’ is that it requires large amounts of rich compost for surface feeding and woodchip for weed control. No efficient vegetable garden can produce enough compost to feed itself, so without importing it you have a nutrient deficit. However, we are currently regenerating 140 acres of adjoining riparian land into wetland and wildflower meadows. With winter flooding the soil is over-fertile and to kick-start the wildflower meadows we need to reduce the nutrients by taking large quantities of rye grass and other vegetation off the fields.

This presents an ideal solution whereby we can balance the nutrient deficit in the production of vegetables with the nutrient excess on the land. We are now designing a large composting system which will mix grass with leaves, reeds, wood chip, etc from the land, to make compost for the kitchen garden. If done correctly, making your own compost also means you are not importing a seed bank of non-local weeds into your garden. We have also stopped blowing leaves off the lawns, and now chop them back into the grass with a couple of autumn and winter mows.

The permaculture system at work Deans Court

The need for sustainability touches every corner of life now, and packaging is one of the hardest problems to crack. There are heroic people out there who live ‘plastic-free’ lives but it requires sacrifice and discipline. We are a long way from that, but we are trying to cut our consumption of plastic and have found a few easy ways to do this. There are plenty of non-liquid alternative washing products that aren’t bottled in plastic, such as natural shampoos and dish-washing agents in dry bar form.

As we live with sceptic tanks we are trying to cut down on products that contain harmful chemicals, so we use dishwasher powder made from bicarbonate of soda, we replace ‘rinse aid’ with vinegar, and we make our own clothes wash from ivy picked in the garden which is 100% natural and biodegradable – and it really does work. We also make our own apple cider vinegar which is great for the gut and as we have very hard chalky water, it works wonders in dissolving lime scale and cleaning kitchen surfaces.

The Courtyard Café (pre-pandemic) Deans Court

Cardboard packaging goes to the kitchen garden to be used as degradable anti-weed membrane, and in line with our remit to encourage wildlife we create piles of wood from felled trees to encourage invertebrates. The local blacksmith uses our red diesel barrels to make firepits and BBQs for our events, and a cabinet-maker produces furniture from our oak and ash trees for our holiday accommodation. Plastic bottles are turned into traps to protect our sheep from fly strike in the summer, the fleeces are composted and while we live very much on veg in the growing seasons, we eat our own pasture-fed lamb in the winter months.

Recycling can be applied everywhere. In the grounds here we have found many large, worn dressed stones that we believe formed the walls of the Saxon monastery here that was destroyed by Vikings in 1015 AD, and we have duly recycled these to line grass verges to keep vehicles off.  While the news is breaking that much of Stonehenge is actually a recycled Welsh stone circle, it is worth remembering that recycling, and sustainability, are old as the hills.

William Hanham

Deans Court, Dorset

Claydon Courtyard

Claydon Courtyard: Sustainability

Home to the Verney family, Claydon Estate is a thriving, family-run country estate. Situated within Claydon Estate’s 18th century courtyard is the Phoenix Kitchen, their low-waste, sustainable eatery.