Carla Carlisle's Wyken world
PUBLISHED: 10:57 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 10:57 03 February 2015
Carla Carlisle might have her roots in the deep south of America, but she is every inch an English country lady. Catherine Larner talks to her about life at Wyken Estate with husband Sir Kenneth Carlisle
A thousand acres may sound like a sizeable parcel of land, but in modern farming, unless you have other strings to your bow it will not offer much of a living.
Twenty-five years ago, newly married Carla and Kenneth became the fourth generation Carlisles to inherit the Wyken Estate just outside Bury St Edmunds. They quickly realised that if they were to hold on to the family home, they needed to be inventive and enterprising with their property.
“The happiest days of my life were thinking of the ways in which I could diversify,” says Carla, who was born in the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta, in the deep south of America. “I got very excited about buffalo.”
The prairies of East Anglia – the flat fields of sugar beet and the wide, open skies – were reminiscent of the landscape of her youth, but it was Carla’s life after America, based in Paris writing for Food and Wine magazine that ultimately proved the inspiration for Wyken.
“I had specialised in writing about wine growing regions so I saw this wonderful south-facing slope that was sandy loam over chalk. It made absolute sense to plant a vineyard there.”
Kenneth backed her wholeheartedly. “Of course the irony was that shortly after we planted the vineyard, farming went through a very good period!” recalls Carla.
Today Wyken Vineyard wins awards for its wine and for the cuisine in its restaurant. People travel for miles to wander round the gardens and visit the extensive country store, boutique, bookshop and Leaping Hare cafe.
“We always said we had to create a place where you could buy the wine and where it would be a great pleasure to drink the wine, and eat food that went with the wine,” says Carla. “Even though it has expanded beyond my original dream, it was all part of the vision. And my husband did embrace it.”
Everything has been executed with flair and passion, exquisite good taste, and a tireless attention to detail. Carla is involved in every element, attending trade fairs with her shop manager, deciding on menus with her chef and restaurant manager, liaising with stallholders at the monthly farmers’ market. And throughout it all, each week for 12 years, Carla was also writing a column for Country Life magazine.
“I was doing all this and my husband was still farming, and Sam, my son, was so tiny. But the columnist at Country Life had left, so they asked me to try out. I felt that competitive thing – I wanted to win the prize even if I didn’t want the prize.”
The editor liked the sample columns Carla submitted and took her to lunch to offer her the position. “It is fatal to ask me to go to lunch because I agree to anything.”
Despite the commitment of this weekly deadline, Carla delighted in the freedom she was given by the editor of the magazine, and also the relationship she was able to enjoy with readers following her week by week.
“The column presents a portrait of life on a Suffolk farm over an interesting period,” she says. “It was when farming was making a transition.”
These vivid, entertaining and highly personal pieces have been collected in two books. The first was called South Facing Slope and is now in its fourth print run, having sold 10,000 copies. The latest, A Thousand Acres, has just been published. A third volume will follow eventually and will include personal essays creating, she says, an “ersatz memoir”.
Carla’s life is quite a story. Born in 1947, she was raised in the deep south of the US, amid the heat of Civil Rights activism and Vietnam protests – indeed her own activism led to a series of arrests. In her 20s she battled leukaemia, ran a left-wing newspaper in San Francisco, then worked as a freelance writer for American journals while living in Paris and London.
At the age of 38 Carla was introduced to Kenneth Carlisle, a Tory Member of Parliament. It was love at first sight and marriage quickly followed, with a child born when Carla was 41. “I was in a wonderful domestic mindset,” she says. “It was all very exciting.”
Carla’s life has changed radically from those early campaigning years, but her influence is, arguably, just as strong.
“I try to do good in the lives of the people who work for me,” she says. Endeavouring to give a fair wage to everyone involved with Wyken, she supports local craftspeople and takes an active interest in the lives of the staff, many of whom have been with her for years. There are 50 people on the payroll, all living locally.
The workforce on the estate has fluctuated over the years – there were 40 recorded in the Domesday Book, but just five when Kenneth inherited Wyken. Now, it is possible to farm a thousand acres with one and a half men.
“If we hadn’t diversified this farm and created what we’ve created here, there would not be a community here at all,” says Carla. “I think we have something rare and to be treasured.”