There’s nothing that gets you in the festive spirit more than picking the perfect Christmas tree. But imagine doing it right next to where the man who cancelled Christmas, Oliver Cromwell, is buried. It’s the ultimate act of defiance, but Stephen Wombwell, owner of Newburgh Priory in Coxwold, thinks it’s fun to cock a snook at Britain’s foremost Scrooge.
Set amidst the rolling Howardian Hills, Newburgh Priory is one of Yorkshire’s oldest monasteries. The former Augustinian property was founded in 1145, but was sold by Henry VIII following its dissolution in 1538. It is now home to Stephen Wombwell and his family, who have lived in the priory since 2010. Yet, the 12th century stately home has an interesting secret – one of its attic rooms is home to a stone tomb said to contain Oliver Cromwell’s headless body.
Despite being buried whole in Westminster Abbey, Cromwell, the notorious statesman famous for abolishing Christmas as Lord Protector of England, was dug up by a vengeful Charles II and his body was hung from the walls of the Tower of London. Cromwell’s daughter, Mary, married Newburgh’s Lord Fauconberg and is rumoured to have paid a bribe for her father’s headless corpse to be returned home. ‘Mary couldn’t get the head, which is now in Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge,’ says Stephen. ‘She did manage, however, to get the body, which she buried in the roof void here.’
While having a dead body in your own attic would perturb even the most stalwart, Stephen appears to be unfazed by the ghost of Cromwell’s past. In fact, he’s brave enough to celebrate Christmas right under Cromwell’s nose (if he’d had one there). For the last seven years, Stephen has been growing Christmas trees at Newburgh, and how he’s ready to sell them in their thousands for the first time. ‘It’s rather fun, it’s sort of a stick your tongue out and laugh moment at someone who was a bah humbug,’ says Stephen.
The priory is open to the public during the summer, welcoming inquisitive visitors yearning for a peek into its Tudor past, and is available for event hire all year round, but it’s the festive season which sees Newburgh really come into its own. The stately home and its ancient grounds are transformed as the calendar takes its final turn, bearing witness to an abundance of merriment with lights, decorations, and trees, lots of trees.
For years, Stephen had been growing trees in small batches on the estate with his childhood friend William Standeven, giving them to local schools and churches within the Coxwold community. But, after taking over the running of the priory from his father, who retired in 2010, the forestry fanatic was inspired to branch out, and turn his hobby into a blossoming business.
‘I was looking for some sort of diversification on the estate,’ Stephen explains. ‘We have a lot of rental property here, so I wanted something which would bring in more active income, and Christmas trees just jumped out at me. Me and William are both country boys who love being outdoors, and we both love Christmas, so it’s a really nice thing to be involved with.’
The first Christmas tree seedlings were planted in the ground in 2012 and Newburgh is fast becoming one of country’s biggest Christmas tree growers, with 220,000 across 110 acres. Each winter, Newburgh’s old brewery is transformed into a floodlit winter wonderland, ready to welcome families and festive feel-gooders on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree.
From the 29th November to 22nd December, the pop-up Christmas shop is set to sell around 2,500 trees – from traditional Nordmann firs to Norway spruces – each grown and hand-picked by Stephen and William. Planting the trees in March, the pair work tirelessly during the spring and summer months to ensure each tree is to the highest quality, maintaining the ground soil and spraying and trimming the trees by hand.
But its during pruning time – when the trees are ready to be cut – that the operation really begins to motor, with Stephen bringing in up to 12 full-time staff to help. ‘It all gets a bit crazy,’ he admits. ‘We start at 7am, cut and net the trees in the field, before taking them back to the shop to be sold. We sell our trees within five days of cutting so they’re as fresh as possible.’
Readying his gardening gloves for another punishing stint in the fields, Stephen has this year decided to start selling his trees wholesale, giving the business its biggest yield yet. All of the wholesale trees will be sold through Infinity Christmas Trees – a consortium Stephen set up 20 months ago with a handful of other growers from across the UK.
Yet, while selling wholesale promises to bring in more money to the priory (where the annual running costs can reach over £500,000), it’s clear to see that Stephen’s passion is beyond just making profits. ‘When you’ve got families coming in with young children, excited to find the right Christmas tree, that’s when you know it’s been worth it,’ says Stephen. ‘That really is the essence of why we do it. And being right next to the resting site of a world-renowned Scrooge – it doesn’t get much more fun to be honest.’
You can buy Christmas trees at Newburgh Priory from Friday 29th November to Sunday 22nd December 2019. Monday – Friday 10am to 6pm, Saturday & Sunday 10am to 4pm.
Coxwold, York, North Yorkshire YO61 4AS