A fruit farm which began life as part of a national war-time drive to grow more food is entering its busiest season.

McLauchlans of Boxted fruit farm - also known as Boxted Berries - lies on the edge of the Dedham Vale.

The small family horticultural business near Colchester spans 14.5 acres and has operated a pick-your-own operation for about 60 of its 85 years in existence.

(Image: Charlotte Bond)

At one time, queues of jam-makers would form during its short, two-and-a-half month season - and as deep freezers came into fashion in the 1970s and 80s, householders keen to freeze down  a year's supply of fruit provided a new wave of customers.

It has remained a popular destination among foodies and fruit lovers and draws a mixture of jam-makers, freezing enthusiasts, local food fans and families seeking a fun day out.

It is now run by the third generation - siblings Jim and Rebecca McLauchlan.

Jim is in charge of the horticulture side while Rebecca returns to the family smallholding to help out during the picking season. 

Siblings Jim and Rebecca McLauchlan at McLauchlans of Boxted at work in the strawberry field (Image: Charlotte Bond) As well as growing a variety of fruits including strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries Jim also grows vegetables such as sweetcorn and broad beans.

Rebecca has helped out with marketing for many years, and about four years ago launched a popular food truck called the Wandering Blossom.

This sells coffee, home-made cake and paletas - or home-made ice lollies with fresh fruit - zingers - or ice lollies made with lemonade and strawberries - to pick-your-own customers.

Rebecca's lollies (Image: Charlotte Bond) The business was started by Jim and Rebecca's grandad Charlie McLauchlan who moved from Tollesbury to Boxted in 1939. His legacy lives on and Grandad Mac's ancient Massey Ferguson tractor is still used on the farm today.

"In 1939, this was all unfarmed land around here in Boxted," explains Rebecca.

"Because the war was starting, the Salvation Army divided this land up into 10-acre plots and built these houses on them."

Each of the 20 or so plots - which were subject to an agricultural covenant - developed in different ways and the area remains a hive of activity, she says.

(Image: Charlotte Bond) Charlie grew fruit and vegetables including plums and apples and in the 1960s introduced pick-your-own - following in the footsteps of his own father who grew fruit around Tiptree.

"People came down with massive buckets and were making their own jam - this was before fruit was imported," says Rebecca.

"When freezers arrived they would pick them to freeze them to last the year."

(Image: Charlotte Bond) Over the past five years as good, fresh, food becomes more of a preoccupation, the McLauchlans have seen an uptick in interest from younger customers. These want to source their fruit locally after becoming conscious of the environmental impact of importing it.

The McLauchlans believe they can provide something supermarkets can't. Their fruit is fresh and the varieties they use - such as Hapil strawberries and late-mature Malwina strawberries - are more unusual.

The Hapil is "a big, voluptuous, odd-shaped out-sized strawberry but it will only last a couple of days", explains Jim. 

(Image: Charlotte Bond) The Covid pandemic resulted in many more people discovering the farm, says Rebecca.

"I think that's when a lot of people got to hear about the farm and turned to pick-your-own as a family activity because it was one of the few things that were available. 

"After the first lockdown, you can imagine the amount of pent-up energy - we had a system so there were only a certain amount (of customers) on the field."

Today, parents and grandparents like to bring children to the site to pick the produce themselves.

Jim and Rebecca are struck by the fact that some of their customers don't know what a gooseberry is when they arrive.

(Image: Charlotte Bond) The McLauchlans freeze much of their fruit to sell in their farm shop - which remains open throughout the year and also stocks produce such as potatoes, eggs, asparagus and flowers.

The fruit farm is very traditional - there are are no polytunnels and the strawberry crop is grown straight in the ground.

"That's why they taste a bit better," says Jim. 

Some loyal regulars come from as far as Birmingham and Upminster in London to stock their freezers. Others arrive from Ipswich and Basildon. What customers really love is that it is a small family farm and the pace is "gentle", says Rebecca.

A staff of around 20 help out in the summer months, but from October to January/February, it's just the family.

Rebecca - who previously lived in Los Angeles - has tended to live overseas with her husband's job but now comes home to help out during the season.

"The nice thing is we have some customers who have knowns us as kids," she says.