Fear and loathing in Diddly Squat Farm Shop

Fear and loathing in Diddly Squat Farm Shop

“We were somewhere around Chadlington, on the edge of the Cotswolds, when the drugs began to take hold.”

Jeremy Clarkson was put on God’s good earth as a service to the journalists of Oxfordshire.

“Jeremy Clarkson admits he is still struggling to win over Chipping Norton locals.” “Jeremy Clarkson issues warning and apology as parking issues continue at Diddly Squat Farm.” “Jeremy Clarkson beats Gary Lineker as 'sexiest man' in UK.”

Today, Oxfordshire Live has three front-page stories on the man. “I visited Clarkson's Farm and there are seven fake things you need to know.” “Clarkson's Farm star earns just 50p an hour as he opens up on UK farming struggles.” “Petition opposing 'planning injustice' at Diddly Squat Farm passes 130k signatures.” The Oxford Mail is more restrained with just one: “EXCLUSIVE: Council brands Clarkson's Farm season 2 as 'misleading’.”

Clearly, the Oxford Clarion has been failing its readers by not reporting on the phenomenon that is Diddly Squat Farm Shop. This must be why the Oxford Mail has 82,000 Twitter followers and we have 1,150.

Diddly Squat is high in the Cotswold Hills, somewhere between Chipping Norton and the village of Chadlington. There is no direct bus from Oxford.

We decided to cycle there instead.

“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then cycle like a bastard from Oxford to Chipping Norton.”

The shop is open Thursdays to Sundays. At weekends, queues can reach three hours – almost twice the time it takes to ride the 22 miles from Oxford. A snowy March weekday seemed like a better bet for our Hunter S Clarkson road trip.

There is, needless to say, no bike parking at Diddly Squat Farm Shop. There is a lonely bus stop for the adjacent caravan site, coned off to prevent shop visitors from parking across it. A sign in the car park advises drivers to “Look left and right when exiting”. You might have thought that a fanbase reared on Top Gear and The Grand Tour would understand the rudiments of driving a car, but best to be safe.

Parking has been a bone of contention. Clarkson wanted to build a new car park. West Oxfordshire District Council said no. Oxfordshire County Council issued warnings about the resulting traffic chaos and the churned-up verges. Thames Valley Police was concerned about parking overflowing onto the busy A361. Clarkson fulminated about “bureaucrats”. This is, broadly, the plot of season 2 of Clarkson’s Farm.

Arriving by bike avoids the traffic trauma. Still, even on a dismal weekday, the shop was full enough.

“Nobody can handle that other trip – the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into Diddly Squat Farm Shop and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Chipping Norton twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head.”

You can’t get much for $1.98 at Diddly Squat Farm Shop.

Milk, or rather ‘Cow Juice’, is sold from a vending machine. Before filling up, you buy a Diddly Squat branded bottle from the shop. This will cost you £6.10.

Both milk and refillable bottle are from North Cotswolds Dairy in nearby Shipston-on-Stour. We found the same milk four miles down the road at the Charlbury Deli. There, the bottle costs £2.05. But then it doesn’t say “Diddly Squat” on it.

A jug in which to serve your Cow Juice will cost you £24. They nestle next to some printed mugs half-heartedly proclaiming “I am a f***er”. These are £12 each.

You can buy 150g bags of Diddly Squat Fudge, made by the Cotswold Fudge Co in Kingham. “Jeremy’s Sausage” is “produced and packed by Hook Norton Butchers”. There’s a fridge full of local cheese, more or less: Rollright, Windrush Valley, Simon Weaver from Upper Slaughter. Alex James, the bassist from Blur turned cheesemaker, is represented with wedges of Blue Monday. James lives on a farm in Kingham but contracts manufacturing out to a firm in North Yorkshire.

Not much of what’s on sale is actually made on Clarkson’s Farm.

We found a couple of items. A jar of “Diddly Squat Bee Juice” is £12.80. The village shops will sell you a jar of locally produced honey for £5, but that doesn’t have a sentence on the back saying “Made, despite the injuries to Jeremy Clarkson, in the Cotswolds.” There are bags of hand-cooked chips made with potatoes from Diddly Squat Farm, by a firm in Ross-on-Wye.

There is lager. A lot of lager, in what is a very small shop. The chiller cabinet is full of lager. The shelves are loaded with lager. The floor is stacked with lager. Buying sausages requires reaching over a pile of lager. Jeremy knows his customers and, evidently, they like lager. It was 0°C outside, so we passed up the opportunity for a pint of Hawkstone Lager at the open-air bar behind the farm shop.

Instead, we bought a jar of OX7 chilli marmalade for £4.80. It felt like good value by Diddly Squat standards.

We didn’t see Jeremy. But we passed a smiling Kaleb on the way out while loading our haul (one jar of marmalade) into the panniers. He seemed amused that anyone would want to cycle to Diddly Squat on a day like this. He may have had a point.

“There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of a cheese binge. And I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon. Probably at the next village deli.”

A mile down the road from Diddly Squat Farm Shop is the village of Chadlington. Clarkson’s public characterisation of the village is that it’s full of “people who wear red trousers” with nothing better to do than object to his expansion plans. Locally he is more emollient.

We didn’t see any red trousers in Chadlington. We did, however, find a local food shop. Chadlington Quality Foods is a community-owned deli with stacks of locally grown veg, home-made frozen ready meals, and a really good cheese counter. There’s sourdough from Chipping Norton and cake from the shop’s own kitchen. A few of the local items were the same ones you’d find at Diddly Squat, just cheaper. But there are perhaps 40, 50 times more lines on offer here than at the farm.

We asked whether Clarkson’s Farm has brought more custom to the shop.

“A little! We get a few people coming down. They’re always surprised how much we sell – we’re a proper shop. Diddly Squat’s not very big, is it?”

Still, they sympathised with Clarkson’s attempt to keep going in the face of the dominant supermarkets. “It’s hard to tempt people away from Lidl in Chipping Norton.” We did our bit by buying some outstanding Montagnolo cheese. (Not local.)

Next door is Slatters, an old-fashioned butchers of the sort that’s rare in Oxford, let alone a village with 800 residents. On the street corner is Café de la Post, a friendly, gently French-themed café that appears to be the hub of village life.

Chadlington isn’t a one-off. Cycling back, the next village is little Spelsbury, which has “the Cotswolds’ smallest farm shop” – Church Lane Produce, a roadside stand selling veg, eggs and preserves, all made by the resident smallholders. Then there’s prosperous, liberal Charlbury, where the deli/cafe bustled with steamed-up windows and a constantly on-the-go coffee machine.

Suffice it to say you could enjoy a day touring these, the food shops of the West Oxfordshire Cotswolds, returning to Oxford with panniers full of sourdough and cheese. But Diddly Squat would not be the highlight of your visit.

“Big crowds still tight around the ‘Bee Juice’ tables. Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Swindon. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them.”

West Oxfordshire District Council patiently explain that the reason they have to be so strict with their planning conditions is that “Diddly Squat Farm is in the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

You would be forgiven for not realising this. Diddly Squat’s setting is not outstandingly beautiful. The potato fields are not particularly natural. It is an unexceptional piece of intensely cultivated farmland with some distant views of hills. The AONB ends just 500m away.

Nonetheless, the national AONB regulations are what the District Council has to work with. It finds itself caught between Government planning guidance it had no part in setting, and the “common sense” complaints of a dilettante celebrity farmer with a very loud megaphone.

Councillors and officials are exasperated by Clarkson’s bull-in-a-farm-shop approach to planning. You can hear the gritted teeth in their rather passive-aggressive statement. “The council gave advice to try and solve the issues in a constructive way but unfortunately, this advice was not followed.”

It is, of course, a pantomime. The main plotline of season 2 is Clarkson’s struggles with the council. WODC rolling over and acquiescing to a new car park and a restaurant would make for shorter traffic queues, but worse television. Clarkson is ultimately not a farmer, but an entertainer, and WODC have been set up to play the pantomime bad guy.

Still. It may not be much of a farm shop, but Diddly Squat draws in the crowds as a (very small) Clarkson theme park. If the Cotswolds can tolerate developments such a Wildlife Park, a Farm Park, several tourist-centred gardens and much else, why not a Clarkson Park?

The media confection of the “Chipping Norton Set” may give the impression of comfortable luxury. In reality, Chipping Norton is a mixed town much like any other in Oxfordshire. Diddly Squat is close to the poorest estate, and just one field away from a travellers’ park home site, The Beeches. A new source of employment would be a great boon.

His most famous local employee is, of course, Chipping Norton lad Kaleb Cooper. In an interview with the Sun, Clarkson said: “Kaleb’s fantastic but it worries me how he’ll ever be able to afford his own farm. He’s up against hedge fund managers now who don’t necessarily want to farm it.”

Jeremy Clarkson has a net worth of £47 million.

“As your attorney, I advise you to tell me where you put the goddamn marmalade.”

Clarkson has been a TV megastar since the 1990s. The longest section of his Wikipedia biography is headed ‘Controversies’. His career remains buoyant despite a series of crass comments on TV and in newspapers, most recently concerning Meghan Markle.

Will Diddly Squat Farm Shop continue after season 2? Set aside from the Clarkson’s Farm series, its commercial potential as a gift shop with cheese and lager is limited. Clarkson could continue to run it as a rich man’s plaything. He could work with WODC to expand it into a successful attraction, bringing employment to local people and putting Chipping Norton on the tourist trail. Or he could film a Season 3 in which the evil local council conspires to bring down this hard-working farmer, resulting in the tearful closure of Diddly Squat at the end of the last episode – and the redundancy of lovable Kaleb, who Jeremy helps with a leg-up towards owning his own farm. Who would fail to melt at such an ending?

On such a cold morning, “melting” was front of mind. By the time your Oxford Clarion reporter returned home after our road trip, we had lost most feeling in the ends of our fingers, and the Clarion bike was encrusted with slush and grit from the snowy roads.

We did, however, have a pannier full of cheese, bread and vegetables from the village delis, and chilli marmalade from Diddly Squat Farm Shop. The lid had not been tightened properly before sale, and as a result the vegetables were coated in a marinade of Clarkson-branded marmalade. The pannier was a lake of sticky, chilli-scented goo. Perhaps that’s all you can expect for £4.80.