Apple blossom at the Keenan house
First of all, apologies for the radio silence these past few weeks- I’ve been up to my ears in book 3, working on the manuscript ready to send to my agent, as well as the usual work, life and child related stuff, and one or two other unexpecteds that threw my groove a bit. However, I’ve now had book 3 back and I’m ready to embark on some edits. Before I do, I thought I’d write about the lovely interview I did this week.
Those of you who have been following my progress as a writer, and in fact, anyone who has read the first two Little Somerby novels, will know that I set the stories in a fictional Somerset village which looks a lot like the parish where live. I love to write about real places, as there are so many beautiful locations in Somerset to include. One of the most prominent landmarks in the novels is my version of a large cider farm, Carter’s Cider, the geography of which which was inspired pretty directly by the Thatchers Cider site in Sandford (no, Hot Fuzz fans, not that Sandford, that was actually Wells, a bit further down the road, but they do have their similarities!).
I know the site quite well, since I grew up virtually next door, and so it seemed the perfect place to include in the novels. And you all know just how much I love the oak vats :). So, when I was given the opportunity to interview Martin Thatcher, the current Managing Director of Thatchers Cider, I jumped at the chance. It was great to pick his brains for some technical information for book 3, but also to ask some questions to someone who has spent a lifetime involved in the cider business; someone who, if you like, really does have it running through his veins. So, on a beautiful sunny day in Sandford, I took a stroll up the road from my parents’ place to the offices of the multinational cider company with a local pedigree, Thatchers Cider….
This Cider House Rules: An Interview With Martin Thatcher.
Photo courtesy of Thatchers Cider
The main office of Thatchers Cider is a cool, welcoming place, and as I walk through the doors I can’t help but notice the mix of contemporary oak and glass with the old stone building, and how perhaps that blend is a metaphor for the business itself. Thatchers, after all, was established in 1904, and is now in its fourth generation. The business has grown and expanded exponentially over the years, and now exports to Australia and the United States, among other countries. But is it still the family firm it once was? I am looking forward to finding out.
I am greeted with a friendly smile by the receptionist, and in a short time I come face to face with the current Managing Director, Martin Thatcher. I’m pleased to get a warm welcome from him and his assistant (after all, I’ve made no secret of the fact I’ve written what is now a trilogy of books where his manor is quite a central focus, albeit in a fictional sense, and up until now I’ve had no idea what he thinks about my use of the cider farm in fiction!). We sit in a quiet, bright and airy office and I breathe a sigh of relief.
There is so much I want to ask, and I’m very aware that I only have an hour or so to do it, so we get straight to it. After an explanation of the role and process that a taster has, (the heroine of my current WIP is an expert taster, and I needed to know what that would involve), and some conversation about the role of the Cider Maker, we move on to the experience of running the business itself.
The Business, and the Buzz Words
Alongside the more technical questions I ask, (is blending and tasting the same thing? No, they’re different jobs), it is lovely to get Martin’s perspective on what it’s like to be at the head of the business. That balance between local responsibility, staying true to the founding principles while also moving forward, is something that is clearly very important to him. I am particularly struck by something he says about the inevitable jargon and administration that comes with running a successful multinational enterprise. You might think that someone who oversees such a complex business might be caught up with the current buzz words and management speak, but not from what I can gather. As a lover of words and a hater of business-speak myself, it is refreshing to hear his disdain for the use of the word ‘resources’ instead of people. This view is also particularly evident from the large proportion of his staff who live locally (nearly a fifth). Quite an impressive statistic, considering the rise in rural house prices these days!
History versus progress?
Of course, I am also interested to know what it is like to work in a business where, inevitably, one eye is on the future while the other is mindful of the fourth generation heritage. How do you balance the responsibility to the past with a vision for the future? The answer, it seems, is to take a practical approach. While the big picture might be balancing the scales between history and hereafter, the day to day involves not getting too caught up with the corporate desires for reporting ad nauseam. Martin claims an interest only in reports that will take the business forward (what will happen is more important than what has happened, unless you can learn from it). That’s something that was clear from the outset – balance is key, just like making the best cider!
A family affair
One of the things that really strikes me is just how much a family business Thatchers really is. When asked what it’s like to work with close family, Martin, with a wry smile, reminds me that I have written about the relationship between a driven son and a cantankerous father (Matthew and Jack Carter do have some, er, interesting conversations in the first two Little Somerby novels!). In reality, he says, working with the family is something they’re all very used to, and though they might have different ideas about how to get somewhere, the ultimate destination for the business is something they tend to agree on. To be honest, I don’t think Thatchers would have seen the success it has if that wasn’t the case! While conflict is good for fiction, it wouldn’t be quite so helpful in the real world. And it seems the next generation is waiting in the wings, too. One of the interesting things Martin says is that the current generation will be judged on the actions of of the previous one, and he’s determined to pass the business on in the best form he can to his children. I think that’s a lovely sentiment!
When asked what the high points are of his role, he is equally candid and impassioned; walking early on a Spring morning among the dew soaked trees of Myrtle Farm’s orchards, watching the sun rise over the vale, is an experience that would make anyone’s heart beat faster, and may have been used to capture the hearts and minds of certain suppliers of the Thatchers products over the years, too! It certainly sounds like something out of a romance novel! In fact, I might well develop that scenario in one of my own at some point…
There is also something to be said, he admits, about the scent of pressing apples, that emanates from the Thatchers site in the early autumn, and is high up on his list of the best things about being a cider maker. Having spent many Septembers in the village myself, I can definitely concur. The scent hangs in the air like Somerset’s own perfume. That aroma has definitely made it into a novel…The Second Chance Tea Shop, in fact!
The ‘magical’ cider vats, from the 2015 open day
The magic of the vats
It’s no secret that I was inspired to write the first of my Little Somerby novels by a very specific memory that was triggered while I was on maternity leave with my second child. I’ve written about it before, but it became important when I realised it was a jumping off point for writing a whole novel. My experience of seeing the vats for the first time as a dreamy seventeen year old, and that sense of them just singing with stories and tales was something that stayed with me for a long time, and even now sends a shiver down my spine. Somehow, when I first encountered them, it was as if, when I put my hand on the side of one of them I could just feel the magic; as if they were talking to me. If you don’t believe me, go on a tour and feel it for yourself.
The huge oak cider vats are part of the iconography of the cider business, and it seems that they haven’t just inspired me, but many, many people, including Martin himself, who refers to what happens in the vat barn as ‘magic’. At the moment, visitors to the site only get to see the vats if they’re on a tour (a pity – I was dying to ask if I could take a quick look while I was there, but didn’t quite have the nerve!). There’s no doubting the mystique that they hold – you might even say they have a mythical status in the Thatchers story. They are a true icon of the business, and it’s safe to say that their future is assured with the plans that are afoot to showcase and preserve them for the generations that follow. Soon, I am told, they will be housed in a more modern building that will ensure they continue to work their magic for years to come.
Fiction versus reality
And so I finally ask the question I’ve been most nervous about; how does the Managing Director of Thatchers Cider feel about the fact I’ve put his site into a work of fiction? Am I just about to be given my marching orders? Well, it is with some relief I can reveal that Martin is pretty OK with it, and might even just be a little bit flattered. I think it helps that his wife has read The Second Chance Tea Shop and apparently liked it, despite one or two coincidences that made me giggle when I found them out! He himself claims to have read about half the novel, which is not a bad endorsement, considering he’s not exactly the target audience! So it seems I’m safe to keep referencing the notable landmarks of Thatchers in the name of bringing to life Carter’s, and might even be allowed on site in 2019 to sell some copies of the novels on the next Thatchers open day (watch this space…). I do feel genuinely pleased that he’s taken the fictionalising of his firm so well, since I’ve had so much fun (and quite a bit of success) from writing it into my love stories.
So all in all, it was great to be able to sit down with Martin Thatcher and ask some questions, and it has definitely given me not just the information I needed for book 3, but also satisfied my curiosity about what it’s like to be at the head of such a successful business. And the only question I didn’t dare ask? What happened to the apostrophe in the company name? (But perhaps that’s for another time!).
My thanks to Martin for his time, and also to Angie Meek for arranging the interview, and Kelli Coxhead for setting up the connection – you’ll all get a shout out in book 3’s acknowledgements in 2019!
Want to buy the novels? Here are the links!