Retail village Ben’s Yard opens near Ely with shops, food and drink and wildlife trails
Ben’s Yard, the new rural retail village on the Stuntney Estate near Ely, has opened to the public following five years of work from its owners.
Shoppers and diners have been flocking to the site since it opened last Friday (June 30) to check out its family-friendly mix of independent shops, food and drink and wildlife trails – not to mention its Ely Cathedral-themed play area.
Created by Alastair and Victoria Morbey, farmers with four children, Ben’s Yard champions local businesses and British brands.
“We wanted to bring back old-fashioned retail values – less transactional, more experiential. It’s about taking time with people, in a nice environment,” Victoria tells the Cambridge Independent.
“There are so many different elements here,” adds Alastair. “There are three things we really went for – retail, hospitality and wellness. Ely is expanding. Why shouldn’t Ely have a place like this?”
The site, off the A142, boasts an attractive restaurant offering modern British and international classics, from pork belly to seared sea bass, and an enclosed outdoor terrace protects diners from unkind weather.
Opposite sits a café – with its own blossom tree – that offers salads, snacks and sandwiches.
The retailers trade in homewares, independent fashion and gifts, and there’s an electric bike shop too. A butcher, a hairdresser and a florist help complete what Victoria calls a “village retail” feel that has developed over years and was inspired by a challenge familiar to many families.
“We got planning permission in 2020 but we had the concept in 2017 when our youngest, Archie, was six months old,” explains Victoria.
“We found we had numerous jobs to do on a Saturday morning and had the children to entertain.
“What Alastair and I found ourselves doing was driving to north Norfolk. We would walk on the beach, then have lunch, and go shopping at Burnham Market, and then drive all the way back. Why shouldn’t that be here?”
The concept of creating Ben’s Yard on their family farm on the 2,500-acre Stuntney Estate began to crystallise.
“We wanted an experiential day where they had fun, we had fun and no-one compromised,” continues Victoria. “Somewhere you could take them for lunch that felt nice for mummies and daddies, that was also inclusive and to which I could take my grandmother, who is in a wheelchair as she’s had three strokes. Somewhere that I could bring my dogs, so as a family we could enjoy a really lovely day out without compromising, but still get the jobs done.”
They created the concept of a site with “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, where you can get everything in one place and not have to constantly get in the car”.
Events are also planned for the weekends so there is always a reason to visit.
“If you’re not sure what to do, you’ll find something really easily and accessibly here,” says Victoria, who says council planners were “really behind us and got the vision”.
“They made certain stipulations about not having businesses with more than nine units UK-wide, which is not what we wanted anyway,” she adds.
An old workshop was resited to make room for the retail village and then the couple got to work on the wildlife trails featuring a 2km path, suitable for bikes and wheelchairs and, at 6ft wide, ideal for two buggies side-by-side.
“As farmers, we’ve really enjoyed doing that – nurturing wildlife. My husband is totally into conservation. He’s brilliant at it.” notes Victoria.
“We had the reservoir already and the woodland, which was beautiful. We put in the reedbed and it has brought in an enormous amount of wildlife to the site.
“It’s a lovely 2km walk. It’s just enough for very little legs, or you could meet a friend for coffee and run it a couple of times.”
Alastair explains: “We took three hectares out of production. We created reedbeds, and have ponds and scrapes. The wildlife has exploded.
“We have taken 250 acres out of the farm and into environmental schemes. Nature and conservation are so important to farming. We’ve got to work together.
“Each season is different, with the woods and the reservoir – and we are so lucky to be able to take in the view of Ely Cathedral.”
Among the retailers which have opened their doors at Ben’s Yard is Freda & Bert, a gift shop business with another store and a flower shop at Burwash Manor.
Owner Dawn Hookway said: “We heard about this opportunity and I always wanted a third shop. We’ve got a great team.”
The beautifully-laid-out store is full of interesting, quirky and memorable gifts and games.
“I go to all the trade shows,” says Dawn, explaining where she sources her items.
Meanwhile, around the corner at Love Lane by Abi – which features items for the home – work to prepare the shop began a month ago.
“It’s really calming and lovely here,” says Abi. “I had a stall on Ely market and really wanted a shop. This is the big leap.”
It features everything from candlesticks made by an Ely-based business to lamps, baskets and plates sourced from the UK and around the world. Abi plans scavenger sheets for visitors to use around the wildlife trails.
At Thatch & Roses, Emily Lambert and Sarah Francis have switched from a studio-based flower business to a florist with workshop space for all ages, which will even cater for children's parties.
“It is a really good progression for us,” says Sarah.
“Every product is British and we are supporting small businesses,” adds Emily.
Over at Malloy’s Craft Butchery, you will find a specialist in Wagyu beef and retired dairy meat, in a well-stocked farm shop. Following its switch to Ben’s Yard, Malloy’s has turned its butcher’s shop at Cambridge station into a fishmonger.
“Wagyu beef flies in from Japan every week,” says Mike Malloy.
“It is the best in the world and has monounsaturated fats. It costs £230 a kilo so it is costly, but it’s the most delicious meat.
“Our retired dairy meat is over-aged. As an older animal – usually about 12 or 13 years old – it needs that time to age and mature.”
Spoke & Motor offers three brands of electric bikes – including top-of-the-range German-made Riese and Muller models, along with a more affordable range from the French company Moustache and British-made folding bikes from Gocycle.
“They all come with a service package and the bike tells you when it needs a service,” says Tony Williams, a member of the team.
Electric cargo bikes for families and businesses are also on sale at the shop, and you can try out the vehicles outside.
Meanwhile, hairdressing is provided by The Hair Company, while Something About Rose offers a collection of ladies’ clothing, jewellery and accessories.
There’s also a pop-up shop that will house independent brands, artisans and boutiques, which began with Simply So Lovely, offering organic clothing for newborns to age 12, along with accessories, books, gifts, and wooden and soft toys.
That has now been replaced with Sleepy Bee Studio, a family-run luxury stationery and gifts business that will be on site at Ben’s Yard until July 10.
Following the launch weekend, Victoria said: “Every business that is part of our rural retail village has the same ethos and exceptional customer service. When we look at Ben’s Yard today, we see exactly what we would have loved to have found for our own family five years ago, it’s also what other people have told me they want for their families. Together we’re so pleased to have made the idea a reality and we're delighted to share this fantastic destination with all our guests.”
But what of the name?
“Ben’s Yard goes back five generations, when the family first came here,” explains Alastair. “The first farm manager was called Ben. Over the generations, it stuck.
“We liked the history, the tradition. Why take that away, when we could incorporate it into something new?”
And that blend of tradition and modernity sums up precisely what Alastair and Victoria have achieved.