From farming Dexter beef to wild sleeping in a tree tent, custodian of Finnebrogue Woods, Ed Lindsay, talks about his niche business offering in Co Down
Ed Lindsay and his wife of 24 years, Rachael, devised Finnebrogue Woods as a means of ensuring a sustainable future for their 200-acre lakeside farm. Finnebrogue is home to Fodder café, farm shop and deli, and is a wedding venue in the heart of County Down.
“I am the owner of Finnebrogue Woods, and I say ‘custodian’ because really, it’s looking after it before the next generation move in,” says Ed.
Add to the mix walking trails, bushcraft, foraging, wild cooking and tree tent sleeping experiences and it’s no wonder that the team “have been busier than ever over the last three, four years,” particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When people had nowhere to go, when we came out of that first lockdown in May/June 2020, when it was takeaway only, it was all still very strict and there wasn’t a lot of places for people to go to eat or to meet, the parks were all closed — and we had this little sort of niche,” Ed explains.
“We were doing takeaway, and people could meet in the car park and go for a walk and take their coffee or burger on to the trail. They were taking away so we weren’t breaking any rules.
“We just had a very unique offering that you could say was the perfect Covid business.
“And my goodness, they came and they came, and they didn’t stop coming.
“People were here for five and six hours at a time and we just became that destination for people, and that took it to the next level really.
“We just had that offering that ticked boxes in terms of food, safety, something different.
“From the early days it grew steadily before Covid, so we had got to another level.
“Our business pretty much did double overnight. And that whole August with Eat Out To Help Out… it was pure crazy.”
The growth of the business during the pandemic was something that happened quite naturally in response to the needs of the public. When Rob thinks about how the offering at Finnebrogue Woods has developed over time, he notices a pattern.
“We don’t have a big grand plan, we’re not particularly good when it comes to you know, five-year business plans and the rest, it always just seems to happen organically and we would react to a need, and say, ‘Oh, should we try this? Let’s try this’. That’s how the bushcraft came about.
“Rob our bushman, who is a fantastic character, knocked on my door, it must be four years now, and basically said, ‘Can I rent a bit of woodland to carry out my bushcraft business?’
“So I said, ‘I don’t know who you are, I’ve never met you before, but OK’. Rob built his bushcraft camp in the woods and we got a lot of traction through that, we would do specials through Fodder — coffee and bushcraft sort of thing.
“Later I employed him as the Finnebrogue bushman. That’s been fantastic and great fun, and he’s a very knowledgeable man with a lot of experience.
“Rob was raised in the Black Forest, Germany, with an outdoor lifestyle connected to the forest and mountains.
“He travelled overseas to Panama and Central America where he spent long periods of time living off grid with indigenous communities, learning how to adapt to the jungle.
“Rob probably spends half of life living in the woods.
“He’s never happier than when he’s got a group in, whether he’s telling them about foraging or poisonous fungi, or he’s building a shelter, or preparing somebody for an expedition in the Mournes, or he’s showing somebody how to make a bow and arrow with his bare hands with nothing other than what’s in the woods — he’s a super guy.”
Guests can combine bushcraft with wild sleeping via the Wild Night in the Woods back-to-basics overnight experience, staying in off-grid suspended tree tents and hammocks.
Rob says Finnebrogue’s clientele are ‘outdoorsy’ people and would often ask if they could camp on the grounds, which isn’t permitted. He recalls: “Everyone was going mad for staycations this time last year, and Rachael and I thought, we are missing out here.
“It’s Easter time and there’s definitely a market for this, but we don’t want to go mad, and we don’t want to go through planning applications.
“So we bought three of these amazing tree tents.
“They are basically like a tent but you strap them to the tree, so they are about three or four foot off the ground with a hole in the middle. They’re suspended and you climb in through a wee hole, and that’s your tent.
“We bought those and we launched a couple of nights. We really wanted to link it in with the bushcraft, so you were getting the benefit of that, and then in the evening, it was very much cooking your own food over the fire and being in our camp with Rob, with his experience, with his knowledge, stories and character.
“That was really giving people that unique experience of being in Finnebrogue Woods and having that bushcraft element to it, sleeping wild, but being in a really safe environment where they are actually learning something.”
In addition to wild sleeping and bushcraft, the site is also a picturesque wedding destination aimed at couples seeking a quirky or unusual location.
The tipi weddings side of the business perfectly combines the couple’s skillsets and interests, Rachael’s passion for events design as creative director of Blue Moon Event Design, and Ed’s wealth of tipi knowledge and experience via his company Magnakata, that hire out Nordic tipis.
The first wedding was held at Finnebrogue Woods in 2016 on the grounds of the former farm.
“We’ve got a lot of different facets to the business,” Ed says.
“Dad handed it down to me a few years back and I’ve taken it over. Nick Lindsay, he’s the proper farmer, he’s the worker, he’s still in every day.
“Finnebrogue looks magnificent but trying to make that pay in terms of agriculture in the traditional form is not easy at all.
“There’s big drumlin clay hills and we’ve a lot of woodland, and we’ve got the lake and things, but getting income from the farm in the traditional form is not easy.
“My grandfather, Christopher Lindsay, came down here in the early sixties.
“They bought the estate (but never bought the big Finnebrogue House in the middle).
“Dad started farming it for my grandfather as a young man and it was difficult to farm, very difficult to make money.
“He then came out of farming, his brother ran Lindsay Cars Ford Dealers, and my dad joined his brother selling in the car trade.
“When he retired in 2008, he bought a couple of cattle for himself and suddenly we had — a few years later — a 100 herd of Dexter cattle. And then we were back to farming again.”
Ed says he loves the varied nature of the business and his day-to-day role as custodian.
“Our offices are right beside Fodder; there’s not a minute that goes by that someone’s not knocking on the door or waving at you,” Ed says.
“I’ve got the general public on one side of the office, and I’ve got my employees and staff on the other side loading vans, and the farm aspect etc.
“I love the varied nature of it, I get bored very easily. But at the same time, I find it very challenging to concentrate on one thing because there’s just so much going on.
“We have been busier than ever and it’s all go, go, go. It’s planning, money, time and effort, in everything that we do, and I think we all really want to try and consolidate, and we want to improve our quality.
“We really like what we have, what our offering is, so we have no real plans to do anything different, but what we can do is just tweak and improve, make little changes, increase the quality of our food, increase the quality of our offering, and really just work on what we have to make it better for our clients, staff and ourselves.”
The next Wild Night in the Woods is scheduled for April 15 and costs from £45. For more information and to book, see finnebroguewoods.com