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Recognising excellence in rural communities

The Countryside Alliance Awards are an enduring recipe for success, says Sarah Lee.

The Countryside Alliance Awards have been going for more than 16 years, telling the stories of some amazing rural businesses. The list of alumni reads like a who's who of outstanding rural enterprises: from the Chatsworth Estate and Mr Filbert's, to Black Cow Vodka and Two Farmers crisps. The Awards recognise excellence and entrepreneurship, and we connect with rural businesses and communities to ensure that only the best of the best are crowned champions.

The Awards have been acknowledged as 'the rural business awards to win' by those involved, as they appreciate their value and what an award means for their business. We have gone back to some of our previous winners to find out where they are now and what winning has meant to them.

A passion for farming

We start with our first Clarissa Dickson Wright Award winner and now national judge, Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm. Peter was chosen by Clarissa as she understood and recognised the role that he has played in promoting good, honest, local food through a strong focus on animal husbandry, educating the next generation and campaigning to ignite a passion for food in people. These standards are something we still look for in our 'Clarissa' winners today.

Peter tells us it was a great honour back in 2014 to receive the inaugural Clarissa Dickson Wright Award, and it was recognition that all his efforts, often in horrible Cumbrian weather, were worth it after all. Peter says: "As I look back over the last 10 years, the world we live in has changed. As a farmer and producer of livestock, the recognition of what we do comes from fewer and fewer places. Out there in the field, it was important to me and an honour to be recognised by the Countryside Alliance, and the Award has meant so much to me." Peter continues: "During the last two years of mayhem, the confidence given to us by winning has steered us to diversify to more online and direct delivery, something we really never considered before."

Peter's commitment, knowledge and expertise surrounding rural communities, food production and the rural way of life led to him becoming a key member of the Awards national judging panel. He explains that being a judge has been really rewarding and has enabled him to support some remarkable businesses. He has been highly impressed when visiting applicants by the huge effort and dedication that they put in.

Peter finishes by saying: "If I were to look back at one of my proudest moments, it is receiving my award from the Countryside Alliance, [but] most of all then becoming a judge and giving awards to people and businesses in our rural society." We are grateful to have Peter's expertise and understanding of rural businesses on the judging panel.

Master butchers

Next, we have a business that is at the top of its game. Lavenham Butchers were national champions in 2021 in our butcher category and have stayed true to their 'field to fork' ethos, with a total commitment to providing locally sourced produce.

Greg and Jen Strolenberg have shown the utmost dedication and commitment to serving the people of Lavenham with top quality and sustainable meat. They sat down with us to tell us what winning the Award has meant to them and how it has benefitted their business.

Covid has seen many businesses working round the clock to serve their local community and it was no different for Lavenham Butchers. The pandemic took its toll on the team, but it also made them realise they were more than just a voice on the phone taking a delivery payment – they became friends and would-be social workers for their customers, providing a friendly voice to listen for a few minutes, so they had someone to talk to. It made the team realise how much more they can do to help their village.

Winning the award last year meant the world to them. As Jen tells us: "The team's mental well-being just rocketed after such a tough year and they were telling everyone we were on the local radio – it was manic!" Customers continue to pour into the shop and are thrilled when they see the plaque on the wall and learn that the team have been recognised as national champions by the Alliance.

It is not just the Awards that say that Lavenham Butchers are great – the online reviews back it up too. The business continues to go from strength to strength: they are increasing the new bacon recipes that they smoke onsite; new pies and pastrami recipes are being developed; and they are attending shows like the Taste of Sudbury with their 'Muntjac Masterclass', which encourages people to eat ethical and seasonal meals with low food miles.

"We loved being part of the Awards," says Jen. "The recognition for all our original ideas – from eating what we shoot to educating customers about where their food really comes from – helped put us on the map. The Countryside Alliance really champions proud producers and independent shops; it was a privilege to be part of [the Awards] and an honour to have won the National Champion Butcher 2021."

Next up for the team is to work on promoting the venison they shoot themselves and introducing new lines such as smoked products, from venison kielbasa to venison pastrami. Whatever future direction they may take, their customers know that they can trust in what they do and what they sell.

Community hub

The Countryside Alliance Awards were conceived in a pub – with the idea of championing rural businesses and the role they play in communities – so it was only appropriate that we introduced a pub category for the Awards, which was won by The Cotley Inn, Somerset, in 2021.

The Cotley Inn was taken over in 2018 by a young team who have transformed the pub – reviving it from the slumber of previous years and giving it new ambition and life. The staff work their socks off day and night to ensure that all the produce comes from within a 25-mile radius and strive to keep as much of it as home-grown as possible, including the meat.

The pub is now the heart and soul of the local community and an inspiration to many. The business has gone from strength to strength since winning our award, and was recently crowned the Best Pub in England at the VisitEngland Awards for Excellence.

Maddie Beaumont, who owns the pub alongside her partner Ben Porter, tells us: "We were absolutely delighted to win the Countryside Alliance Award for 'Best Pub' and wave the flag for rural tourism in Somerset. We are extremely honoured that our innovation has been recognised, particularly in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and we continue to be driven by delivering not only exceptional food and drink but [also] by providing memorable experiences for locals and visitors from further afield. The publicity that was generated as a result of the Awards was tremendous and the national press coverage really helped to boost visitors to our website, social media channels and through the door." It is enterprises like the Cotley Inn that set the gold standard for others to follow.

We applaud all those who have won and been nominated for a Countryside Alliance Award. We know that the platform these Awards give rural businesses is huge, but without those who take the time to nominate their favourite businesses, there would be no Awards at all. So, from the bottom of our hearts, we say thank you to those who nominate and make the Awards the success they are.

Nominations for the 2022/23 Countryside Alliance Awards are now open and remember, you can nominate as many times as you like!

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