“It’s probably fair to say that Bedales first planted the idea of sustainability as an important consideration in my head,” says OB Ian Ripper. “The outdoor life that was integral to the school was always something that I very much enjoyed. I had a good time at school, probably too good, since I failed pretty miserably on an academic level as a result.”
After leaving Bedales, Ian, in his own words, “drifted aimlessly” to London, where he secured a job as a commodities dealer. He was soon posted to Nairobi, where Ian fell in love with Kenya almost at once. His love of the country was in almost inverse proportion with his love of commodity dealing, however, and when his firm recalled him to London, Ian decided on a complete change of direction. “I bought an old Land Rover, drove it across Africa and just kept on travelling,” he recalls. “Then I decided to join Guerba Expeditions, and was sent out to Nairobi to run the company’s office. I was given a stake in the company, bought another, and started to think about how we could combine adventure holidays with the idea of sustainability.”
Over the past few decades, Kenya has been the scene of an inspirational programme of tree-planting. The programme was famously associated with the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, but Ian was also influenced by others as he joined the campaign. “Maxwell Kinyanjui was an inspirational figure,” he says. “He was a wacky guy with the idea of financing a massive swathe of seedling planting. His main point was that just handing money to people is basically useless and that sustainability could and should be an important part of Kenya’s development.” Meanwhile, Ian was picking up an ecological prize for pioneering a scheme that involved the recycling of engine oil. “It was just common sense, as much as anything else,” he modestly explains.
After more than eighteen years at Guerba, Ian began to chafe at the increasingly office-bound nature of life. He had met and married Maggie, herself a professional ecologist, who had worked for the World Fish Centre in the Caribbean, and in 2006, the couple decided that the time had come to return to the UK for good. “Leaving Kenya was a matter of being the right time to make the move,” Ian comments. “Either I needed to commit the rest of my life to the country or move on, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to raise a family there.”
The quest for land and an existing, but run down, business that could be renovated and rebranded took Ian to Wheatland Farm. Immediately, he and Maggie set about rebadging Wheatland as a series of eco-lodges and cottages where families could enjoy environmentally sustainable holidays in green accommodation entirely powered by renewable energy, mostly from the farm’s wind turbine. “We wanted a place that we didn’t need to pay a premium on, but which we could advertise as eco-friendly right from the start,” Ian says, “and it was helpful that there were other local business where we could market ourselves. It’s a two-way street around here - our neighbours lend us their cows to graze in our fields, we send people up to their farm shop, and so on.”
Wheatland Farm is also run as a safe haven for the abundant local wildlife and receives grant assistance to help in the management process. This has introduced Ian to the delights of governmental red tape. “It’s not too bad, although I have found that they can be a touch cumbersome,” Ian observes. “I do most of the applications myself, which can be a bit of a nightmare, but the local planners have been pretty reasonable on the whole and the Devon Wildlife Trust have been a terrific help.” Wheatland has the rare distinction of earning gold level approval from both the Trust and the Green Tourism Business Scheme, as well as winning a gold award for sustainable tourism in the 2011 Visit Devon awards and scooping the prize for Low Carbon Business in the Devon Environmental Business Awards. In May of this year, Ian and Maggie scooped the top English prize for green tourism when Wheatland became the 2012 GOLD winner for sustainable tourism at the prestigious VisitEngland Awards for Excellence.
Environmentally sustainable holidays have moved more towards the mainstream in recent years; with the extra exposure come greater demands on Ian’s time. “The more we look into the whole process, the more we realise that there is so much still to do,” he says plaintively. “There is a ton of restorative work still to be done here and a new lodge to be finished off. You have to stay ahead of the curve if you really want to be green and stay green.”
Life at Wheatland Farm is hard work, then, but Ian Ripper isn’t complaining. On the contrary, he wants others to emulate what he has done. “Our ambition is to spread the word, to show other businesses that going green needn’t cost the earth,” he enthuses. “Historically, people haven’t always seen the value of land if it’s not producing crops. We want to change that and there’s no doubt that people are becoming more and more receptive to the idea.”
Ian Ripper was interviewed by James Fairweather in Summer 2012.