“Everything about the business was really to some degree a story about family”
We have been working with The Bath Soft Cheese Company for over four years and recently took an afternoon to sit down with Hugh Padfield the owner.
So….. there is a lot of history here, my great grandfather moved here back in August 1914, there’s a document that’s typed up with his name on it and how much rent they were going to pay and I just find it fascinating on so many levels. We think of 1914 as being so long ago, it’s a beautiful professional typed document with the key figures in red and the rest in black and his name on it, and at the same time you’re thinking in the historical context, a bit like we were before the EU referendum, they would have been aware that there would be problems in Europe but obviously no one anticipated the scale of disaster that was about to happen. So I just find it interesting to think of my great grandfather, my great grandparents, just moving the farm with plans of how things were going to work out. My great grandmother made cheddar, things must have then been very very different for those first four years.
They lived in the farmhouse where my parents now live. My grandfather Gordan grew up there, my father was born there and still lives there. I think by the times they were fairly prosperous tenant farmers, they had a mixed farm they had a few cattle, shorthorns to begin with and I’ve got lovely black and white pictures of my grandfather sitting on a three legged stool milking cows with the other cowmen, 4 of them milking with their heads resting against the flank of the cow. When you look at those black and white pictures the buildings all look exactly the same, but the change in lifestyle, the simplicity even when my father grew up, he talks about white washed walls, frost on the inside of the windows in the morning, there are pictures of my grandfather carrying churns across the yard using the old yokes you carried over the shoulders. Directly outside the house being a proper mukey farmyard, it’s amazing to think how much our world has changed since then.
So there was my great grandparents and then my grandfather, who I think to be fair was possibly more focused or interested in his hobbies than the farm but then my father came back from agricultural college determined to invest in a new milking parlour, determined to invest in the farm. In terms of what I’ve achieved, none of it would have been possible without those investments my father made. When we were growing up there were four dairy farms in the village and apparently about 35 on this stretch of road between Bath and Bristol and today we’re the only dairy farm on this stretch of road and that is because my father made the investment in making this a modern dairy, and he put in the hours, he milked the cows, he borrowed the money. When I think things are risky and dodgy I think back to my father being massively in debt in the 1980s with really high interest rates and very little in terms of actual assets.
I never actually thought I was going to take over the farm business, mainly because my older brother was passionate about farming, he was four years older than me and before I was even on the scene he was going around in tractors. But, he died of cancer at 34, which kind of threw the whole thing open, initially I still didn’t think that I would get involved but it’s funny how I kind of needed to see what it was like to have another occupation to see what I had on the farm. Also for me having children really changed things, farm life is so about that kind of children enjoyment of freedom, space, building dens. I was working in London, we had three children at that stage, we now have four, and the more I kind of thought about where I wanted to be, about where I wanted my children and my family to be, the more I thought I should go back to the farm. So I came back, in 2010, primarily with the thought that I would focus on the cheese side of the business and we’ve grown quite rapidly since. Back then the cheese was pretty much a hobby on the side of the farming. So if you look at the cheese business, my grandfather, like many many other farmers, had stopped making cheese in the 1940s, or late 1930s.
It’s amazing how powerful a little bit of legislation is in steering a whole industry.
My father recognised in the 1980s that we were all doing quite well in school, he’d grown up and it had just been about farming. He was in the young farmers, and although my brother was driving combine harvesters at twelve and breaking all the rules about what you shouldn’t do with children. Even I at fourteen I drove through several fences with a tractor having lost control. But despite the fact that we were doing that, we were also doing well at school and school was pointing us in the direction of university, and so my father wanted to do something that made farming more of an enticing proposition. Which is why he went back to cheese making. It was also around that time that the laws changed to allow farmers to retain their milk.
During the second world war, in order to make sure that they could fairly distribute milk they mandated that milk had to be sold to the government and then if you wanted milk you had to buy it back. This meant that all the farmhouses stopped making yoghurt, stopped making cheese, all the farmhouse cheeses disappeared. That legislation really led to the decline in small farmhouse cheesemaking. Interestingly France didn’t go down that route but they did go down the route of saying, there are certain kinds of cheese and that’s it. That’s why now that Britain has liberalised it’s market, everyone makes their own cheese and calls it, you know, the Merry Wyfe or whatever and you get millions of these differently named, differently made cheeses, whereas in France you get a region that makes camembert, and they all make camembert pretty much the same and another region that makes reblochon and they all follow the same recipe.
It’s amazing how powerful a little bit of legislation is in steering a whole industry. In some ways we’re now reaping the benefits where there is now a really exciting cheese industry in the UK that’s based on cheese makers, farmers and food lovers saying “oh I wonder what I can make”. Randolph Hodgekin was getting Neal’s Yard to really push forward the revival of artisan cheese in the late 80s / early 90s and my father started making cheese around that time, in 1993 he started selling the Bath Soft Cheese.
The thing about farming, is farmings all lovely and beautiful but there’s only so much you can do, you get really successful and you’ve got that much land, so once you’ve done it well, it’s difficult as you can only produce so much milk, or if you want to do something differently you have to reduce the number of cows you’ve got to make room. You’re confined. Whereas when you start something manufacturing wise, it’s different. Initially when I came back to run the farm we were using about 20% of our milk for cheese back in November last year I don’t think any milk left the farm, so we used 100% of our milk for cheese. Generally, I like to be slightly less than that, to give some flexibility. So I came back in 2010 and I built a house and then there was a time where we were making cheese in the same building as my great grandmother which was a fairly old and dilapidated building. Initially when I came back, I went to Oxford and did PPE, I went into strategy and consulting for four years and then telecoms for seven years.
When I first came back to the farm I felt like I was on holiday. My summer holiday growing up on the farm we’d either throw on overalls or a pair of cut off denim shorts and you’d work on the farm.. That’s what we did, we earnt money in the day and we went out during the evenings and we had more money than our friends because we were earning like £1 an hour and doing a 90 hour week. So yeah, coming back and working on the farm, it just felt like I was back on my summer holiday, doing things that were fun, that I’d chosen to do. But when you have those down moments, God, I remember towards the end of my first year, we’d started doing all these farmers markets in London, and I’d got up to doing about 6 on a Saturday. Which involved me driving rapidly around West London, setting up trestle tables, setting up the cheese and blasting on to the next one trying to get them all set up by 10 o’clock and then blasting around at 2 o’clock to pack them up. Doing all of this in the family car, so I decided I needed a van, so this dodgy van dealer sold me a second hand van, it was delayed and delayed and I really needed it for the weekend when we had loads of markets on. He turned up late on the Friday night and I spotted it wasn’t the registration plate he’d promised me so the whole thing seemed bloody dodgy, we had a row about it. I’d hired a van to cover the week before and the guy who had driven that arrived back with it and said I’ve filled up the tank with diesel, I said “don’t fill up the tank with diesel!” so I’d laid on the pavement to suck the diesel, which resulted in nothing but a mouth full of diesel, then I had a row with this chap, I then realised I’d let the front door slam, with my two baby sons in the house, so I ran round the back of the house, twisted my ankle climbing into the window, sat on the sofa with breath stinking of diesel, with a twisted ankle, having just bought a dodgy van and thought ‘I’m not making any money and when my wife gets back she’s going to laugh at me’.
The last 12 years have been really successful, first few years were about building up sales, getting our cheese sold in London, once we’d got our sales up, then we built a cheese dairy. All the time you’re desperately trying to keep the costs down, because it’s not the kind of business proposition that a venture capitalist is going to invest in to get a 30% return. You’re limited by your herd, plus as with coffee or shops or retail, anything that is so easily imagined by the public imagination, there is just a huge amount of competition. There are loads of people who are very passionate about cheese, who are making cheese, and that’s great but it just all adds up to mean the margins are very tight. So we built the cheese dairy and that was a huge step forward, and then luckily on the back of that, we were able to expand again.
We were able to start fulfilling a bit of a vision, making cheese in a way that people are able to watch it, watch the milking happen from our viewing gallery. We’ve built this viewing gallery that cost 100 grand and brings in no money, but having done that and opened the cafe up so people can come and have coffee, or milkshakes or cheese and then go watch the milking happen. It’s really what I wanted to do. A lot of it is about sharing with people what I love about being on the farm, people being able to have a coffee and then go for a walk down the river. Even down to the design of the cafe extension, we had these big round pillars built to match the old barn where my grandfather was photographed milking on three legged stools had these same round pillars, and they look beautiful, but the reason for them being round is so they don’t have sharp edges that the cows scrape against when they walk past. But by keeping them in the design it keeps this building as an authentic part of the farm, even though it’s a modern building it still retains some of the stone and the wood and the look and feel of the old buildings.
My father started with the Bath Soft Cheese, his intention was to make a cheddar as his grandmother had, and in keeping with the Somerset tradition of cheddar, my father being very much a Somerset man. A friend at a party said “why don’t you make Bath Cheese” my father said he’d never heard of it and he said “well I’m the president of the Admiral Nelson Society and I happen to know there’s a letter from Admiral Nelson’s father to Nelson where he says I know you and Lady Hamilton love the Bath soft cheese” so my father went and looked it up, found the letter, went to the reference library in Bath, looked up the recipe. It’s funny because a lot of the cheesemakers in the late 80s early 90s were learning from 2 or 3 cheese makers who were around at the time, but my father just took a recipe from Bath reference library and just decided to teach himself in the kitchen with the argar and the milk. As a result quite a lot of cheese was thrown away but the end result is a delicious soft cheese. Very much like a camembert, and I always thought camembert had been being made for centuries and centuries but in fact it dates from the 1790s which is exactly when Bath soft cheese originates. So a real British contemporary of camembert and very like camembert. It makes sense as there are so many similarities between the North of France and The South West of England in terms of cows, cider, milk and so that was doing well and I think if my father had been more focused on that instead of farming the business would have done well. He then brought out the Wyfe of Bath cheese, he wanted to make a cheese that was like the kind of cheese that farmers would have made before cheese making was codified. My grandfather would take the milk to the dairy as a boy on a pony trap on the way to school. So he would literally put milk churns on the back of a pony trap and drop them off at the Chelsea Road where it is now, and they would smell the churns when he arrived and in heatwives it was highly likely the milk would go sour before you got there and if it did, this guy would just smell it and he’d have to take it back. The only thing you can do with the milk at that stage is make a cheese. 19th Century they codified how to make cheddar, stilton, cheshire but back before then, what they would have called cheddar is anything from the Cheddar region and what they would have done is just made a very simple curd and then put it into a cloth or a basket and allow it to drain and eat it pretty young.
Wyfe of Bath we mature for 4 or 5 months and then we have an extra mature version that we mature for 12 months. It’s a very subtle, milky and fudgy, delicate cheese. So those were the two main cheeses when I came back to the farm. I was keen to develop a stilton type cheese, it completes the cheese board. So we experimented and came up with our Bath Blue, which is kind of a creamier, sweeter version of a stilton. We’d only started in 2010 and in 2014 we entered it into the World Cheese Awards, and I’d had a long day and I got back to the house and my phone rang and it was the guy from the World Cheese Awards “Huw, I’ve been trying to get hold of your father, your Bath Blue, it won” and I thought, great, it won the organic blue cheese category, but no it had won the whole World Cheese Awards, it won the world champion cheese. That raised the business’s profile. More recently we’ve made Merry Wyfe cheese, which is a washed rind cheese, washed with organic cider made on the farm. That cheese became the supreme champion at the Nantwich International Cheese Awards.
We’ve got a fantastic team of cheesemakers, when you start a business, it’s all about you and your passion and that gets you going but once the business grows it’s all about having a good team. We’re really lucky we’ve got a fantastic team in the cafe on the farm and making cheese. It’s trying to keep them all motivated and positive. That is really my job now, it presents a lot of challenges, but it’s a lot of fun as well.