Community, farm, events venue, shop: the beautiful Falconhurst estate in Markbeech, near Edenbridge, is many things to many people – but to the family who live there, first and foremost it’s home

On a beautiful summer’s Friday as I roll up at the Falconhurst Estate for my meeting with George Talbot, it’s all go. Locals are popping in and out of the well-stocked Falconhurst farm shop, with George greeting them by name as they arrive. Housed in what was once the base for the estate’s fire station, it’s a handy, attractive place at which to find fresh local fruit and veg, some grown in the kitchen garden here, or to buy fish for the weekend, from the fishmonger who’s here once a week. Av Padda from Halstead Bakery is outside selling her patisserie (and who am I to turn down a deliciously sweet and squidgy amaretti biscuit?), while, back in what was once the base for the estate’s fire station, everything from cheese, to chocolate, wine to pasta, are on offer. This, too, is the spot to grab a coffee and a lemonade, which will keep George and me hydrated as we chat.

Great British Life: George Tallbot (c) Saltwick MediaGeorge Tallbot (c) Saltwick Media

George, in his 30s, is descended from John Chetwynd Talbot, who began building Falconhurst back in the 1850s, with the family having lived here ever since - his parents in the main house, and various relations, from siblings to aunts and uncles, elsewhere on the estate. Explains George, ‘John had an aristocratic background but made his money through hard work: he was a highly successful barrister – attorney general to the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, no less. Originally from Staffordshire, he visited the area and fell in love with it, eventually buying 400 acres – made up of several tenant farms with a view to creating a bolt-hole and model village here.’ Creating a model village sounds like a pretty ambitious undertaking to me, but – as with the Cadbury Family and their model village at Bournville – the Chetwynd Talbots, says George, were driven by a deep Christian faith. ‘John already had form, having built a church on his Staffordshire estate. Here, along with his wife, Caroline, he didn’t just build the house we still live in, but Holy Trinity Church, a school and schoolhouse, plus houses for the workers on the estate, creating the village of Markbeech as it stands today.’

John died of tuberculosis at the age of 46, leaving two children and Caroline, who sounds every bit as energetic as her husband. ‘Yes, she went on to finish and further develop the village,’ confirms George. Faith and philanthropy were traits they clearly passed on to their descendants, with several Bishops in the Talbot line and the family continuing to ‘put back’ into the community, albeit in decidedly 21st-century ways.

Great British Life: Dairy cows are organically farmed here (c) Saltwick MediaDairy cows are organically farmed here (c) Saltwick Media

Explains George, ‘We manage 200 acres of woodland and farm 550 acres, primarily dairy farming of Holsteins, Friesians, Jerseys and Ayrshires, having gone organic in 2000. We encourage as much biodiversity as possible, with some regenerative methods happening now and with plans to increase these in the future.’ Further income is generated through a holiday let managed by the Landmark Trust plus residential lettings of 26 properties on the estate – everything from a 16th-century farmhouse to Victorian cottages and a barn conversion. ‘Our tenants are a mix of those who might have lived here for decades plus some younger couples, staying here, for instance, while they build their own homes,’ says George. ‘And of course throughout the area there will be families with roots going back to the Falconhurst estate, even if these were generation back and they’ve long since moved on to their own places.’ It certainly helps to give this small part of Kent its sense of continuity.

The farm shop, opened by George’s half-brother Dan and his wife Charlie back in 2019, heralded a new era for the estate. ‘Dan realised we needed an outlet for our produce here, that Farm Shops are a real attraction for local communities and that there wasn’t really a ‘destination’ farm shop in the area, so ours could fill a gap.’ It was at this point that George, who’d been working in hospitality in London, returned home to help out – and rapidly found a passion project of his own: ‘I needed to!’ he jokes, ‘Otherwise I’d have spent the rest of my time here solely on hedge-strimming and general maintenance!’ Through his connections in the food world, George established a regular programme of supper clubs held on the estate that’s been going strong since its inception in 2020 (‘we’d just had a partial lifting of lockdown and I think everyone was just so grateful to be able to go out and have a drink’) – everything from Asian fusion food, to wood-fire cooking. ‘It feels like we’re offering something different – and when we’re able to attract chefs down from London and elsewhere in the country, locals seem to relish the chance to enjoy a different dining experience on their own doorstep.’ Of course it doesn’t hurt that the setting here is beautiful – nature to enjoy on long summer evenings, with a rustic barn – complete with bar – providing shelter during the suppers themselves. ‘Deliberately, we’ve not done the barn up too much – you’re still aware you’re in an agricultural setting – but our food, our china, our cutlery and our prep kitchen are all on point, so guests get the best of both worlds.’

Great British Life: The barn laid out for an event (c) Saltwick MediaThe barn laid out for an event (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: Supper club guests (c) Saltwick MediaSupper club guests (c) Saltwick Media

This space can be rented privately for celebrations and is particularly popular as a wedding venue, though couples can also choose to set up their own marquee in the beautiful gardens here, which the family also rent as an event space by arrangement. They are the ‘pride and joy’ of George’s mother, Nicola, who works with a small team to create a wonderfully relaxed series of ‘rooms’, where everything from grasses to roses to an orchard flourish, with the gardens wrapped around the mellow-stoned old house and beautiful views across the surrounding countryside. A cutting garden supplies flowers to the shop and has recently opened to the wider public, and the gardens as a whole are open, like the Farm Shop, Monday to Saturday. Additional openings take place in support of the National Gardens Scheme and to raise funds for Markbeech church. Nicola’s ‘learn to garden’ workshops have also proved popular: ‘she’s just keen to share her enthusiasm for all things horticultural and her conviction that it’s something everyone can do and enjoy. Plus it’s another reason to spend as much time out here as she can!’ jokes her son.

Outdoor space is given over not just to the gardens but to summer events, including regular outdoor yoga sessions, run by a local yoga teacher Melissa Mailer-Howat. And when I visit, George is busy setting up chairs for a sell-out al fresco performance that night from Wild Arts Opera. But though he’s in charge of logistics, it’s his father Charles – another barrister – who masterminds and books musical events on the estate. ‘His plays oboe and piano and trained at the Royal College of Music, so that’s always been his passion. He’s spearheaded bringing opera to the estate on an adhoc basis, supports local music charities and directs the Markbeech choir at the church, too.’

Great British Life: Charles Talbot with Lulu (c) Saltwick MediaCharles Talbot with Lulu (c) Saltwick Media

And – beyond hospitality - what’s George’s passion? He leads me past the farm’s goats, Rocky and Rosy, past a large and lovely natural pond and out until we’re gazing at the Falconhurst Cricket Pitch. ‘This is where I’m probably happiest,’ he says, ‘We’re a really friendly team, made up of locals – and we’ll play against similar teams from nearby Cowden and Hever – there’s no nicer way to spend a summer’s afternoon as far as I’m concerned.’ It’s a love of cricket that’s certainly in his genes – there’s been a club here since 1854, and at one time there was a highly successful women’s team based here, too, spearheaded by his remarkable great-great aunt, women’s welfare worker and public servant, Dame Meriel Talbot.

With such a long history of community service, naturally George and his family are keen to ensure Falconhurst flourishes for the next generation – his parents already have grandchildren whose ages range from six months to 14. ‘All of us see Falconhurst as home,’ he says. ‘But above all, it’s an opportunity to share what we have, to support the village and to create memorable experiences for our guests. I love the fact that other families who visit, or who celebrate life events here can create their own memories and forge a connection with Falconhurst in their own ways. I hope John Chetwynd Talbot would be pleased with what we’re trying to achieve here.’

Great British Life: Beautiful views across the estate (c) Saltwick MediaBeautiful views across the estate (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: Sheep safely grazing beyond the garden walls (c) Saltwick MediaSheep safely grazing beyond the garden walls (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: Nicola Talbot at work in her 'pride and joy' the Falconhurst gardens (c) Saltwick MediaNicola Talbot at work in her 'pride and joy' the Falconhurst gardens (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: The walled garden (c) Saltwick MediaThe walled garden (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: A picturesque ruin next to the house (c) Saltwick MediaA picturesque ruin next to the house (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: Where the farmshop stands was once the estate's fire station (c) Saltwick MediaWhere the farmshop stands was once the estate's fire station (c) Saltwick Media

Great British Life: Estate cottages at Falconhurst (c) Saltwick MediaEstate cottages at Falconhurst (c) Saltwick Media