It has been hailed as one of the best campsites in the Midlands – but there's more to Callow Top Holiday Park than meets the eye. Gareth Butterfield reports.
ESCAPING the horrors of a foot and mouth disease outbreak, Alan and Gill Palmer were more than ready to sell off their organic herd of rare-breed sheep and cattle.
But the 2001 experience did not put them off animals for life – in fact, it marked the start of a nature reserve which Alan says has now become "a way of life" at the couple's holiday park.
Today, mini-lakes, nesting boxes and wildlife are among features of the reserve at Callow Top – which is set among 76 acres and has seven camping fields.
It's all to do with the couple's long-held philosophy of looking after the land and doing their bit for the environment.
"The foot and mouth disease scare really frightened the life out of us," said Alan.
"We realised that, if we lost the whole herd, then we'd have lost a big chunk of our livelihood.
"So, when we could, we sold the herd off and focused our attention on a nature reserve."
It was in 1975 when Alan and Gill bought a derelict, 25-acre small-holding.
As a campsite, Callow Top, in Sandybrook, just north of Ashbourne, has been named as a regional winner and ranked among the 100 in the country in a guide produced by Practical Caravan, Practical Motorhome and Caravan Sitefinder.com.
It has also received prizes for its "enduring commitment to conservation".
It was renowned naturalist Professor David Bellamy who gave Callow Top this seal of approval, presenting the park with the award through his role as president of the British Holiday and Home Parks Association.
The aim of the acknowledgement is to show tourists how eco-friendly their holiday is and if they are in a place which takes its environmental impact seriously.
And it is not the first time Callow Top has received the award – given to holiday parks following a rigorous inspection. This includes checking its low-energy lighting and the types of flowers it plants for decoration.
Alan, who studied for a BA in Conservation and Countryside Management at the University of Derby in the 1990s, said: "We just think it's how everybody should be behaving in this day and age and it's how we've always been, right from the start.
"With the knowledge we have of what's happening to our environment, I think it's only right to take a responsible approach to the way we run our business.
"We've always thought on environmental grounds and it's always come as second nature to us, so we try to improve the park each year and get a new gold award each time if we possibly can."
The site, which includes the incorporated Haywood Farm, started up its nature reserve with four big ponds – two of which are well-stocked with several species of fish and the others are handed exclusively over to nature.
Alan and Gill explained that, as soon as the ponds were filled, the wildlife moved in and they matured into beautiful mini-lakes and a reed-bed which are enjoyed by campers and locals alike.
One pond, lower down in the valley below the campsite and the fishing lakes, is planted up as a natural reed-bed and a walkway allows children to try out pond-dipping, catching and inspecting tadpoles and other small invertebrates.
Amid this natural setting is a bird-hide, which is open all year round to allow campers to keep an eye on the various species which pay a visit to the park – which also has 40 nest-boxes dotted about.
Obviously, a nature reserve is never going to pay the bills in the same way as a herd of cattle or a field of caravan pitches but, for Alan, it's all part of the way of life at Callow Top.
"It's more about what we get out of it, spreading the word and letting people take an interest in what's around them," Alan said. "That's what it's about for me.
"It gives us a lot of pleasure, and, if we can convert people into becoming more interested in nature and the environment, then that would be brilliant."
On top of the work he carries out to welcome nature, Alan also has an onsite pub with its own brewery and is contemplating bringing back some livestock at some point in the future.
He also has his eye on creating another pond, even bigger than the current four, which would overlook his barn conversion and brewery, with a view to letting people from the area use it as an educational base.
He said: "What we'd like is to open it on certain days for tours, but it's going to be a wildlife reserve.
"We'll open it for schools and students from the area to use as an outdoor classroom.
"People will be able to come and watch the place develop and see the pioneer species that take hold, which will happen quite quickly.
"I think that's the beauty of it all really, seeing how quickly the response is to the efforts we put in."
And, when it comes to efforts, running Callow Top is very much a "family affair".
Alan and Gill's three children – Kay, Sue and Robert – all help to run the park, along with their grandchildren – Jo, Dean, Lee, Jessica, Paul and Charlotte.
Alan explains that, having such a large workforce of people who have grown up with the park as their home, keeping on top of the operation never becomes too much for them.
He says: "It's all part of our lifestyle and a way of life for us.
"We've been doing it that long it's become like breathing. It never feels like hard work."