Crafty idea has paid off for John

In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to John Alston, who, 32 years ago, came up with the idea of converting a series of derelict buildings at his Erpingham farm into craft workshops.

In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to John Alston, who, 32 years ago, came up with the idea of converting a series of derelict buildings at his Erpingham farm into craft workshops. Now one of North Norfolk's most popular attractions, Alby Crafts is home to a dozen business, ranging from artists and sculptors to woodworkers and glass designers . . .

John, who can trace his farming roots back to 1745, attended Wickmere and Aldborough schools before being sent to boarding school in Scotland at the age of 12.

After a year at college, he worked for a Norwich corn merchant, then returned to north Norfolk to help on the family farm at Calthorpe.

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After marrying Norwich nurse Valerie in 1954, John took over at Homestead Farm, Erpingham and, with his father becoming increasingly involved in his role as a Milk Marketing Board member, ended up also looking after the family farms at Bradfield and Calthorpe.

Passionate about promoting locally grown produce, John became the first chairman of Tastes of Anglia when it was founded in 1992. He was also chairman of the Home Grown Cereals Authority's Food From Britain committee, chaired Aylsham Grain for more than 10 years, was on the board of Eastern Counties Farmers for 13 years, was National Farmers Union county chairman during the 1980s, and spent 6 years as chairman of the country's largest potato marketing co-operative, Anglian Produce.

John's passion for farming was equalled only by his passion for rugby, which he played until the age of 54. A member of Norwich 1st XV for 10 years and captain in 1954, he later transferred to Holt Rugby Club, where he enjoyed spells as chairman, president, and as a referee.

Stints as president of Norfolk RFU and Norwich Rugby Club followed, with John later taking on the roles of president of Norfolk RFU and president of Norwich Rugby Club.

In 1973, the next door farm became vacant and, seeing potential in its ancient but derelict buildings, John and Valerie came up with the idea of setting up a craft centre.

Alby Crafts opened in 1977 and, while John concentrated on farming, Valerie ran the gallery, tea room and gift shop.

Both keen gardeners, in 1985, the couple set about transforming four-and-a-half acres of grazing meadow and poplar plantation next to the centre into a series of spectacular gardens with rare plants, 4 ponds, a stream, a wood and an island.

The gardens, which John and Valerie still look after, now welcome thousands of visitors every year.

The couple handed over the family farms to sons Jim, Hugh, Robert and David 20 years ago and, now aged 80, John has, in recent years, taken a less active role in the running of Alby Crafts.

However, he is still very much involved and continues to enjoy his twin passion of rugby - attending Norwich games every other week and following the sport on television.

What is the best thing about your job?

Having been self-employed all my life, I have never thought of the nine-to-five and counted the hours, and we don't think of the gardens as work - it's more of a hobby. I also enjoy meeting people, both the public and our craftspeople.

And the worst?

There isn't a worst thing!

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

The barn at Alby Crafts, it was built in 1851 by the owner of Felbrigg Hall, William Howe Windham, and it has very unusual stonework which I've only ever seen once before.

What is the one thing you would change about north Norfolk?

Better road access - we are losing all our industry because of the poor state of our roads.

What is the one thing you would change about yourself?

It would be easy to say my age, but that doesn't really worry me. You had better ask other people - perhaps my 10 grandchildren!

What is your greatest achievement?

My involvement with Aylsham Grain and Eastern Counties Farmers.

And your proudest moment?

Sitting next to the Queen at the Royal Norfolk Show in 1986.

Who or what is the love of your life?

My wife Valerie, she is an extraordinary lady.

Have you ever done anything outrageous?

Not in the last 20 or 30 years!

What makes you angry?

I find it difficult to become angry because if something upsets me, I try to analyse why it has upset me and then work out the consequences before I open my mouth to have a blast.

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

Book: anything by Arthur Hailey or John Grisham, film: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and TV: New Tricks.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a fair-minded man.