Entrepreneur deeply-rooted in the North East
From the 'strange uniform' of the High Sheriff of Northumberland to getting his hands dirty on the family farm, Karen Dent found out why Eton-educated rural entrepreneur Charles Beaumont is deeply rooted in the North East.
ONE of Charles Beaumont's biggest regrets, he says, is not being Northumberland-born. But the former county High Sheriff, who runs Trees Please tree nursery in Corbridge, didn’t take long to put down his own roots.
"I was born in London – it’s an awful admission to make. But I was seven months when I managed to persuade my parents to move to Northumberland – I knew it was the right place to be from a very early age," he laughs.
"And luckily they listened to me, so I have lived here all my conscious life. I certainly wouldn’t want to live anywhere else."
Beaumont’s business interests – ranging from the tree nursery, which was originally a farm diversification, to chairman of the Tyne Grain drying, storage and marketing group – are firmly Northumberland based.
But he shrugs off suggestions of an entrepreneurial streak and says he’s been lucky. Originally destined for the Army, he was "chucked out" of Sandhurst because his asthma was worse than he’d admitted.
"A lot of my friends were in the Army and spent a lot of time in Germany in those days when actually they didn’t have very much to do. So they were playing an awful lot," he says.
"And I always had a hankering to ski competitively – and I thought that was the best way of going about it. That’s what my friends were doing, so I thought why shouldn’t I do it too? So I missed out on that."
He freely admits he "had absolutely not the first idea" what to do next, but his love of the countryside led him to the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.
"I did the land agents course, which taught me I didn’t want to become a land agent, then became a farmer, which was great.
"This farm was available, so I decided I was going to try and farm it myself. I was young, keen, enthusiastic and you can do anything at that age, can’t you, so it seemed a great thing to do."
Starting from 230 acres in 1978, Dilston Haugh Farm has grown to more than 1,000, split between arable and livestock. It is managed by Beaumont’s eldest son, but this Eton-educated third son of Lord Allendale still enjoys getting his hands dirty.
"I find myself spreading fertiliser which is something I hadn’t done for 20 years. I love it. It’s absolutely what farming’s about to me – it’s not about sitting in an office," he says.
"The one thing we have pushed on is the conservation side and we have about 150 acres – something I hope to grow.
"I’m a trustee of FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group). They are a farmer-based organisation and charity delivering conservation advice to farmers, which nearly always ends up improving the bottom line.
"Our bird counts are starting to show increased numbers of species. Part of that comes from having the tree nursery funnily enough, because that produces a completely different habitat to what used to be there before."
Set up 10 years ago, Trees Please now out-performs the farm. It employs nine full-time staff and up to 20 more during the busy winter period. It sells almost three million, mainly Corbridge-grown trees, to 2,500 customers annually.
"It occupies one tenth of our landholding or lets but has a turnover of three times and the profit’s double," Beaumont said.
But further ambitions to expand hit problems with planners.
He said: "I was trying to create, with planners’ permission, a sort of public park just beside the new car park at Corbridge, where we would grow the trees – that would be our production area, but it would also be open to the public and have benches and glades, available for education and recreation.
"But the bit would need to have a small hut to enable us to sell things, and they wouldn’t let us do that.
"So we need to investigate and see if we can come up with something attractive to them, because I think it would be a great asset to Corbridge and an asset for us."
Beaumont calls the South Shields- based Tyne Grain co-operative, which he has been involved with from the outset in 1982, his "most satisfying" enterprise to date.
He said: "To set up a small business from the beginning and keep with it, and now we have four or five different companies in the group which I chair.
"GrainCo [the grain marketing company] is going to come up with pre-tax profits of around £1m – which eventually one way or another is going to trickle through to the members.
"It’s now the fourth largest grain merchant in the country – it’s the biggest in Scotland and the North East and we’re continuing to grow it organically.
"It’s one of the fastest-growing companies in the North East of England and it always was a slow-burner. So when we had the opportunity to acquire the 50% that we didn’t already own, I thought it was a no-brainer."
Independence – something he values highly – was learned early, leaving home for prep school at eight, then moving up to Eton.
"You’re given a pretty high degree of independence at an earlyish age, you’re not told what to do, say, what to eat. You run your own life at 13," he said.
"It gives you the assurance – it is elitist without any shadow of a doubt – but it does give a great broad understanding of all sorts of things that you wouldn’t have got otherwise."
This spirit led to 18 months in Australia aged 17.
"I had nothing planned. I literally had my return ticket and £50 – and I managed to get myself organised with a job and somewhere to live before the £50 ran out," he remembers.
"Once you discover you really truly can stand on your feet, then you want to keep doing it."
Closer to home, he became involved with youth groups last year during his 12 months as High Sheriff of Northumberland, a legal but largely ceremonial role.
"The High Sheriff spends quite a lot of time working with youth organisations and meeting some of those people who just give so much of their time, their personality, their soul – everything – into helping these people. It’s just fantastic."
The Northumberland High Sheriff’s foundation allocates around £20,000 annually to help such groups.
"That was the most enjoyable part of the whole thing, much more so than wandering around in this strange uniform," said Beaumont.
"You have to acquire a very strange uniform of black velvet breeches, jacket and waistcoat and silk stockings and buckled shoes and a sword.
"Some people actually get theirs made and it costs an arm and a leg; I luckily was able to scrounge one for a case of wine."
Researching whether any other family members had held the post led Beaumont to some grisly information.
"I discovered to my delight that in 1342, an ancestor of mine had been murdered by the High Sheriff, and even better, 11 years later, his two sons came back and murdered the High Sheriff who had murdered their father. So I was quite pleased to get through my year unscathed."
Family history fascinates him and his particular interest is the Second World War, when his grandfather Ismay was one of Churchill’s chiefs of staff.
"There were four of them and they met every day trying to turn the course of the war. He was the one that nobody’s ever heard of, because he was working behind the scenes the whole time," says Beaumont.
"He was this fantastic hinge between the politicians and the military – and they never agreed with each other – and Ismay had this great role of trying to bend each side just enough so they could keep going as a unified force."
His father too, was a war hero. A Spitfire pilot shot down over Holland, he spent three years in Stalag Luft III in Poland - ‘The Great Escape’ camp.
"His knee was completely shattered and the Germans were going to cut it off, but he met a New Zealander who had been a surgeon before the war," he said.
"Using fencing wire and no anaesthetic, he wired up my father’s knee and it worked. But he was very, very stiff and he walked with one very straight leg.
"When he got married he had to kneel on a pile of cushions because he couldn’t kneel down and then two years after that, he went to see someone about it and they took him into hospital and pulled out all the old wire which had just gone rusty – and he had a perfectly good knee for the rest of his life."
Beaumont now aims to follow his father’s route across Europe in a charity bike ride next summer.
"I would like to trace his steps on the Continent where he was shot and was taken to hospital in northern France and then taken to Poland. That would be about 800 miles, which is quite a nice sort of distance to do," he said.
Six years ago, he helped raise £735,000 in a charity cycle ride which covered more than 700 miles – or 20 miles in each county in England and Wales. The next year, he cycled another 700-plus miles from the Channel to the Mediterranean, raising around £9,000 for two Tynedale charities.
"I’m a great believer that small companies in small communities should try to take a role in that and So Trees please sponsored me to go all the way across France," he said.
"I don’t know if I’m entrepreneurial - I’ve just been lucky one way and another. You have an idea and you go with it and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
"I certainly very much prefer to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.
"You only get one chance – you must fit in as much as you possibly can and until you try things, you don’t know whether you can do them or not."
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