New life for an old quarry as it transforms into an eco-tourism development

PUBLISHED: 12:54 28 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:54 28 July 2020

Birchwood Estate, Devon

Birchwood Estate, Devon

Image is copyright of Steven Stringer / Steven Stringer Photography Ltd / All Terms subject to approval from Steven Stringer Pho

A former quarry is going back to nature through a multi-million pound eco-inspired holiday homes development, discovers CATHERINE COURTENAY

Driving along a narrow lane, down into a wooded valley, it’s hard to imagine that this was once the route to a busy quarry.

A concrete works is still in operation at Venn Quarry when I visit, it’s the last working area and due to close this year. But opposite is another entrance to the site, one which contains a rather beautiful, wood and glass building; it’s a glimpse of the exciting future facing this former industrial site.

Venn Quarry is just a couple of miles from Barnstaple, between the villages of Landkey and Bishop’s Tawton. It’s been worked, on and off, since the 1800s and from the 1930s it provided gritstone for road construction until the site was mothballed by Aggregate Industries in 2006.

It’s not easy to summon up love for a quarry – noise, heavy lorries, dirt, dust and grey mud spring to mind; so it turns out to be refreshing and illuminating when I meet Red Paxton, who’s in that lovely entrance building, a sales office.

Several years ago, Red climbed a nearby hill and saw the site for the first time.

“I was with dad. We stood on top of the hill and looked back and we could see everything and beyond... for miles. It was to die for.”

As we walk around the site, his enthusiasm for both the quarry and its future is infectious. Red is a director of Habitat First Group, the company set up by his dad and now run by Red, with siblings Ruby and Rory. It builds and operates luxury holiday home communities and Venn Quarry, renamed Birchwood, will become the third site in their portfolio.

Habitat First is not your normal developer. The company has evolved slowly, a deliberate move, says Red.

It’s not ‘build and sell’, he says, it’s more organic and it’s a self-funding model. They will spend months, years even, preparing the site and marketing it and only building when people buy the plots.

Tree House exteriorTree House exterior

The locations are all disused quarry sites. “We don’t want to use a beautiful space that people are enjoying anyway,” says Red. Buying holiday homes in existing villages can have a negative effect on local communities; so a purpose-built development on an unwanted site is the responsible way to own a holiday home, he says.

Habitat First is obsessed with sustainability and the environment. Every aspect of this business is monitored for its eco credentials and the aim is to be carbon zero by 2030. The families it targets are those who want to be immersed in nature and the outdoors, to enjoy ‘barefoot living’ holidays. The company employs an ecologist to work on the sites, monitoring wildlife and ensuring maintenance work is sympathetic to nature – she was none too pleased when gardeners cut too far under the hedges on another site, reveals Red.

The Birchwood development will grow gradually over the 63 hectare site, with the first group of 17 homes at The Stockyard. Two and three bedroom, Nordic-inspired modular homes, the Falcon House and the Tree House, have been designed by local architects Koto Design. The homes are carbon neutral, almost entirely plastic free and made from sustainably-sourced timber.

The Stockyard will have a private woodland area, complete with fire pits, wood-fired hot tubs and a children’s treehouse with rope swings. Having an exclusive-use area acts as an incentive for people who buy a plot early on in the development.

The rest of the site, which includes the main quarry area with its spectacular rockfaces, has been landscaped in preparation for future development; more homes but also bike and walking trails and outdoor activity areas. It’s already rich in woodland, a stream runs through and there’s an old orchard and lake. Just as important though are plans to create more native hedgerows, plant meadows and grow trees. Large areas of mown lawn are not the idea says Red. “This won’t be manicured,” he says. After all, barefoot living is all about creating a little bit of wildness.

All of this will be overseen by ecologist, Dr Phoebe Carter. So woods will be properly coppiced, hedgerows and meadows cut at the right time and wildlife protected.

It will be some time before the Birchwood project is complete and it will continue under the ownership of Habitat First which will maintain the site and run services and activities. When not in use owners can rent out their properties through Habitat Escapes, the company’s rental arm. Red adds that they’re also keen to encourage local people to use the facilities, public footpaths already wind through the site which is on the Tarka Trail, and there are plans to one day build a café alongside the lake.

“Seasonality is difficult says Red, so having public access helps from a business point of view and it’s better for the local community.”

Falcon House interiorFalcon House interior

We climb to the plateau of the main quarry area. Looking down across the stream valley and wooded hills, for the first time I see how the quarry sits in the surrounding landscape, and it’s a very beautiful location.

There are other redundant quarry sites across the South West, some in more populated and touristy areas, so why did the Paxton family choose North Devon for this unusual project?

As a holiday destination North Devon has growth potential, says Red. Birchwood is in a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve and just 20 minutes away from fabulous surfing beaches. “It’s still untouched,” he says, “And people just love Devon.” u

Homes at Birchwood are available from £399,000, which includes the build and plot.

Holiday in nature

Habitat First Group was started by Jeremy Paxton, who had previously founded the Watermark Club. He bought Lower Mill Estate in the Cotswolds in 1999 and developed a luxury holiday home site for people who shared his love of nature and the outdoors. The second site, Silverlake in Dorset, followed with Birchwood in North Devon the third site. As well as nature and the environment, the focus is on quality, eco-friendly architecture and Habitat First and the architects it works with have won awards for their designs. Lower Mill Estate and Silverlake have been named ‘Excellent’ in the Building with Nature accreditation scheme.

Birchwood in DevonBirchwood in Devon

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