The ‘vale of little dairies’
Sturminster Newton, situated in the heart of the Blackmore Vale was referred to by Thomas Hardy as ‘The vale of little dairies’. Prior to the First World War, agriculture was very different to the way we see it today. Milk production was generally on a small scale and farms used much of the milk for their own consumption, selling any surplus locally.
The development of transportation by rail in the late 1800’s, specifically the Somerset and Dorset Railway that ran through the town created a potentially fast route to the growing market for milk – London.
In 1913 a group of farmers in Sturminster Newton decided to form a Co-operative which could distribute their milk more efficiently and a creamery was built alongside the railway line from where their milk could be easily sent up to London. In 1937 the creamery was taken over by the Milk Marketing Board.
Following the Second World War, the 1950’s meant that local creameries came into their own. The Milk Marketing Board decided that each of its creameries would specialise in a restricted number of regional cheeses and Sturminster Newton concentrated on Double Gloucester, Caerphilly and Cheddar.
Many changes occurred over the subsequent years and new technology meant that the creamery was constantly evolving. October 1983 saw new a cheese making building increasing the manufacturing capacity from 58,000 litres to 72,000 litres of milk per day. Ten years later a £1.7m investment was made by Dairy Crest Ltd to further increase capacity to 80,000 litres/day.
However, during the 1990’s whilst continuing to produce high quality cheese for all the major UK retailers, the creamery was under increasing pressure to reduce its manufacturing costs.
The Cattle Market
The weekly cattle market had been a regular feature of the town since 1906 and at one time was the largest calf market in the south of England. However, by 1997, the trade in veal calves was no longer seen as viable and the market closed in June that year breaking a history of a market in the town for over 700 years.
The market closure was a major blow to the town, not least to the Creamery as it had brought in a lot of business from farmers and traders far and wide. There was a sense that Sturminster was losing its place as a market town and that it needed to look to the future for ideas to help invigorate the community.
The Cheese Festival – the beginnings
In 1998 the Creamery won many awards for cheese in the various national competitions and the Creamery Manager, Peter Mitchell, was approached by an enthusiastic community liaison officer who wanted to know if, as the largest employer in the town, the creamery could do something to help bring back the much needed visitors and put Sturminster Newton back on the map.
Initially, they looked at the possibility of holding an event to promote cheese – not just produced at the creamery but also by other cheese makers in the area. However, to give the event more attraction to visitors they could not rely on cheese alone as being the only attraction, so other small scale food producers were invited.
In 1999 they began preparations for the first Cheese Festival. A committee was set up known as The Cheese Board, who, together with the local National Farmers Union and the County Council, provided the much needed funding to help start the event. A programme of events over the second weekend of September was devised. The Creamery opened to visitors and Harts of Stur provided some refreshments and a BBQ. The local scouts provided a tent on the recreation ground for stall holders and there was even a fashion show, live music and a quiz in the evenings.
The weekend turned out to be a great success with the promise of being repeated the following year - and it is still going strong.
Dairy Crest eventually gave up on the Creamery and in November 2000 announced it was to close at the end of that year. The closure was a huge blow to the staff and local dairy farmers, who had supplied their milk for decades. It was also a big blow to the town that once again was faced with yet another tradition being brought to an end.
In 2001, with the Creamery closed the inevitable question was raised as to whether the Cheese Festival could continue without its main sponsor, but by then it had become a great success and was attracting interest from other potential funders; stopping it was not seen as an option. It was decided that it would continue with the emphasis still on cheese and cheese makers.
Several years have now passed since the Creamery closed and the event is bigger and more popular than ever. The Cheese Festival is still run as a charitable event, by unpaid volunteers, within a framework provided by Sturminster Newton Rotary Club, with the committee comprising Rotarians and members of the local community. Over the last few years over £100,000 has been raised for the benefit of local charities and organisations.
Cheese Festival Branding Redesigned by SNHS Students
Sixth Form Students from Sturminster Newton High School (SNHS), who are currently studying various ‘A’ levels, have been working closely with Sturminster’s Cheese Festival committee. The committee set the group a task to redesign the branding for the Cheese Festival. The committee wanted the branding to look modern and fresh, yet still hold the traditional values of this annual event. Despite their brief, the committee were open about what they wanted, allowing the students to use their imagination and creativity in creating these designs. One of the designers, Eliza, came up with a mouse rolling a ball of cheese for the logo. The whole team loved this idea and knew it would work. The mouse looked iconic, memorable and appealing to all ages. The group decided to name the mouse – ‘Eliza Mouse’.
‘Eliza Mouse’ was later incorporated into the different designs that were created by the team as well as using the traditional features of Sturminster Newton and the Cheese Festival such as the ‘bridge’, ‘cheese and wine’ etc. The group have tried to capture the festival feeling in the branding, yet also keep that traditional element of the event. The group of students presented their final ideas to the representatives of the committee - two banners, a letterhead, sticker and stamp designs. Each student had a specific feature to work on, and all outcomes were linked together as a team effort. The students have enjoyed the opportunity that the cheese festival committee gave them to be able to redesign the Cheese Festival branding.
The students are all excited to see their work being used in the advertising for the Cheese Festival in 2016 and for many more years to come.
Keep a look out for ‘Eliza Mouse’!