Wednesday, 9 February 2011

An example of sustainable development

It may nestle alongside the must substantial ancient monument in Britain. Yet Battlesteads Hotel at Wark, near Hexham in Northumberland certainly isn’t behind the times. Because faced with an electricity supply problem, its owners, Dee and Richard Slade, have shown rural businesses how to increase food production, cut costs and their carbon footprint whilst still protecting wildlife and the environment. Now they are hoping others will follow suit. 

The couple took over the 17-bedroom hotel and restaurant close to Hadrian’s Wall five years ago and faced an immediate problem in supplying hot water and heating for its guests at peak periods during the day. With much of their capital tied up in refurbishing the 18th century building the prospect of massive investment to improve the electricity supply forced the pair to consider renewable energy sources.

Out went the old, inefficient oil boiler. In came a biomass boiler that runs on soft wood chip from nearby Kielder Forest. Total construction cost £60,00, for an efficient system which more than copes with the demands of twice as many annual visitors as previously. And with oil prices continuing to rise, the cost at around 2p a kilowatt per hour for energy is around a fifth what the Slade’s would have be paying if they’d not made radical changes.

“We will have paid for our investment in six years through employing a carbon neutral system using by products from natural forest maintenance that has the added advantage of helping to maintain local jobs. It’s great,” said Dee with pride.

Yet that is far from the end of the story because also arriving in 2008 were solar panels. Despite Northumberland not being the sunniest place in Britain, the energy generated has been more than sufficient to set in motion a massive expansion in home grown vegetables, salads and fruits at Battlesteads. Considering its set in a region where ground frosts can be anticipated into June and as early as mid-September this is a considerable achievement.

Surplus heat is piped into polytunnels, the first of which is used to plant seedlings, which are moved outside when summer arrives. A second helps ensure a twelve-month growing season, which means fresh herbs are never more than four hours from being ready.

Meanwhile matting has been laid in the vegetable gardens, the aim being to reduce the laborious and costly weeding tasks and then use salvaged water to irrigate the planted products. 

“We have an incredible range growing in our gardens including broad beans, sprouts, rhubarb, broccoli and thyme. Next year we should have raspberries and strawberries. From the comments we’ve received from visitors, including regular Ramblers Association groups, I think people appreciate the food we are serving. This is known as an arable area. Yet we’ve shown what’s possible and the great thing is the spin off has seen the return of many birds, bees and butterflies, which we are further encouraging by erecting bird feeders and constructing lavender beds. I think what we’ve done here, including increasing the numbers employed from three to seventeen, can provide an example to others and whilst there’s an awful lot to learn about the countryside its clear that sustainability is the future,” said Richard.

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