When I arrive at his farm, high on a Dorset hillside, Martin Clunes is attempting to hitch his two beloved Clydesdale horses, Ronnie and Bruce, to a metal buggy. The operation isn’t going smoothly. One of the horses panics and skitters across the yard dragging the buggy, which thumps into the side of a parked car. Only gradually does Clunes, issuing a string of loving sweet-nothings interspersed with a few terse expletives, regain control.
Once the horses are hitched, he invites me to ride with him up a steep rutted track to the high- est point on the farm. Would it be rude to refuse, or a prudent act of self-preservation? The two- year-old Clydesdales have never pulled the buggy up that track before, and Philippa Braithwaite, Clunes’s wife, asks him anxiously if he thinks this is the right moment for a pioneering journey. “Oh yes,” he says. Despite the little drama in the yard, he has complete faith in Ronnie and Bruce, whom he calls his “boys”. With a wan smile, I climb aboard. So, rather more enthusiastically, does Tina, a cocker spaniel.
Driving, in all its forms, is a pleasure that at the moment has to be confined to the farm, following his six-month ban in November last year for clocking up 12 penalty points. Certain newspapers duly wrote about a man behaving badly, but much worse, the episode cost him a lucrative job fronting commercials for Churchill Insurance after just 12 months – the company deciding it didn’t want a man disqualified from driving to sit next to its trademark nodding dog.
“I was very surprised by their reaction,” Clunes says now. “It was neurotic and very heavy- handed. Quite rude, actually. They never said goodbye. They never said thanks. They washed their hands of me completely.”
The Clunes family (Martin, Philippa and 13-year-old Emily) share the 135-acre farm with 13 other horses, two other dogs, two cats, 90-odd sheep, ten chickens and seven cows. Even on a bleak January day, it’s the very picture of a rural idyll. But more than that, it’s a working farm, with Clunes very much a working farmer. Except when a certain haemophobic GP with a practice in a sleepy Cornish village, intervenes.
Doc Martin, the popular ITV drama produced by Braithwaite and starring Clunes, is filmed every other year, and this is one of those years. So in March he’ll head for Cornwall. For four months he’ll get back to Dorset only at weekends. TV work subsidises the farm, so he’s not about to withdraw from it.
“But I imagine there’ll come a time when television withdraws itself from me,” he says. “I do love my job. But I’d really like the farm to wash its face. That’s still a way off, because there’s been a lot of investment in infrastructure. It wasn’t really farmed before and it is now, so that’s been an outlay, which will take a while to get back. But you know, little by little. And we’re putting the animals to work.” He gestures to Ronnie and Bruce, slogging up the track ahead of us.
“We’ve put these two on TV.”
In ITV’s documentary, Heavy Horse Power, Ronnie and Bruce loom large as Clunes looks at the traditional uses for working horses, and how they’re changing. “In France, they have as many breeds of working horse as they have sausage,” he says. It is, I venture, an unfortunate analogy. “Yes, better make it cheese,” he says, with a huge, rumbling laugh. “Anyway, to keep the breeds alive over there, they use them to collect recycling. That doesn’t need to happen in a hurry, does it? It’s a rather green use of a green power source.”
He’d like to see the working horse make a comeback in British farming. He already uses Ronnie and Bruce for plenty of jobs around his 135 acres, and when they’re old enough, intends to plough with them. “I’m not in a position to tell anybody how to farm, but there are too many reasons for a farmer not to get out of a tractor. It’s their business, I suppose, but people do manage without them. It’s slower, but without tractors, farmers wouldn’t have the expense of diesel.”
It’s tempting to see Clunes as an old-fashioned romantic, working his fields here in Thomas Hardy country in a way Tess of the D’Urbervilles would have recognised. But there’s a difference between his brand of romanticism and over-sentimentality. “I can’t afford to be stupid. Emily is very good with the orphaned lambs, bottle-feeding and all that. It’s a good lesson for her.” But they don’t name the lambs, “because we all like a bit of lamb on the plate. What we do know, hand on heart, is that these lambs have had a really good life. I mean, look at the view.”
The view from the top of the farm is indeed spectacular. It stretches across rolling country- side to West Bay and many miles beyond, towards Exmouth. It’s far from the madding crowds of London, where Clunes grew up, and where Emily spent her early childhood.
“The move to Dorset happened so incrementally that we hardly noticed we’d done it,” he explains. “We had a house in a village down here where we spent weekends, and when Emily was four, we moved lock, stock and barrel. But there was nowhere for a pony. Philippa had always ridden as a teenager, and Emily had ridden since she was two, sitting on a grumpy old Shetland in Richmond Park, called Scooby-Doo, who must have launched a million riding careers in his time. So we got a little pony and kept looking for a couple of acres to rent. Then Philippa spotted this place while she was out on a walk.”
It was an old farmhouse and a row of cottages, with 105 acres attached, to which they added another 30. They funded the purchase and refur- bishment process by selling the village house and their former home in south-west London, as well as borrowing “a shedload”. They weren’t really planning on becoming farmers, but some of the land was rented out for grazing, and gradually they recognised the sense of using it themselves.
“We started with about 20 ewes,” he recalls. “Then we got some more, then some rams, and it sort of snowballed. We’ve done a really good deal with a butcher, Frampton’s of Bridport, who takes everything we produce. Now that we deal with Phil Frampton, I don’t have to take them to slaughter myself. But with the first few I thought that was a duty. There’s a nice family-run abattoir near here, and I took them myself.”
Clunes has no desire to be a gentleman farmer, leaving the mucky or challenging stuff to others. “We have all sorts of help on hand but if I can do it and I’m here, I’ll do it. I can lamb now. I’ve been doing that for two years, and I take it in turns with Spud, our stockman.” It was Spud who taught him the rudiments of lambing. “It’s a real effort to get up at 2am and go out into the cold and wet to check them, but once you get there, it’s sort of a maternity ward. I do quite like the ewes, especially when they’re pregnant, and when you get that first bleat from the newborn lamb, it’s pretty good.” He’s delivered dozens of lambs now; more James Herriot than Doc Martin.
Even with the more obliging sheep, there are still times when he feels out of his depth. “Something happens when they’re born that gives them a kick and gets that first breath going, but there was one occasion when the lamb was already dead, and I went back in and pulled another one out that was perfectly healthy. I left the mother that night, but when I went back she was obviously poorly, and then she died, probably because there was another lamb inside that had died. I hadn’t gone back in and looked for a third, and I felt really, really bad about that.”
It’s engagingly honest of Clunes to relate this story, for he must know that he’s exposing himself to the charge, albeit unfair, that, for all his willingness to roll up his sleeves, he’s really just a wealthy man indulging himself, sometimes at the expense of his livestock.
What, I ask, do the locals think of him? A chuckle. “I really have no idea,” he says. “But one neighbour, a full-time farmer, just sort of quietly but sincerely said to me that he was glad to see someone investing in farming, putting money in, rather than trying to take money out. I took great heart from that.”
So he should, and moreover he deserves enormous credit for conceiving and hosting a burgeoning annual fair in aid of local charities, which this summer will boast a Big Wheel and dodgems, as well as, inevitably, a heavy horse display featuring his boys. Could it also be, though, that there is a mid-life element to all this, an urge, at the age of 51, to redefine himself? “Yeah, possibly,” he concedes.
Clunes remains greatly in demand both as an actor and for voiceover work. Until such time as the farm is self-sufficient, that work will continue to fund its expansion.
“We could cope with 200 sheep eventually,” he says. “And more cattle too.” They may diversify further. “We’re talking about maybe growing asparagus on five or six acres,” he says, cheerfully. “Now that would certainly be something I could manage with the boys.”
Martin Clunes: Heavy Horse Power starts tonight at 9:00pm on ITV