Modern, sustainable business taps into one of the oldest drinking water sources in the UK
There are some who say that appreciation of fine water that is good enough to bottle is a modern fad. The water sourced by British Water Cooler Association (BWCA) Member company, Wenlock Spring, is proof that it really is such not a new phenomenon.
Wenlock Spring Water bottles premium Spring and Natural Mineral Waters near the border of Shropshire and Wales from an artesian spring that has been in continuous use as a water source since 1086. Fast forward to 2006 and the company saw its best year ever in terms of production and sales.
View from the bottling plant
The company has grown to become not only one of the UK’s most successful in its sector, and the 3rd largest water cooler contract bottler in the UK, but has also developed to be one of the most environmentally sustainable operations, too. Family-owned Wenlock Spring Water bottles water for both watercooler use and small packs. Sourced in a beautiful rural area on Wenlock Edge, the waters are sourced from boreholes deep below the ground.
One of the environmental aspects of which the owners are especially proud is the amount of energy generated via a biomass boiler which the Orme brothers decided to install and commission in 2012. Says Bruce Orme: “We are situated in a very rural area and we didn't have three phase electricity - only one phase. We used diesel generators to make three-phase electricity in order to heat buildings and the water that is used to wash bottles prior to filling”.
The biomass boiler burns woodchip harvested from the farm. The fuel is cut in summer and stacked where it is left to season for 18 months. When ready for use, a contractor is brought in to chip the wood.
Trees of various species are used but in particular, larch, willow and conifers. The green, renewable energy created, including the use of closed loop systems, means that the system is carbon neutral.
Says Bruce Orme: “We have an extensive tree planting programme as, to be self-sufficient, we need 50 acres of woodland at any one time. We experimented with other options such as growing Miscanthus (silver grass) but found that the boiler efficiency dropped from its potential 200kws to just 150 kW per hour. It became clear that wood is the better option”.
The renewable energy is used to heat the offices, Cleaning in Place (CIP) systems and washrooms. 44% of all energy used is derived from renewables on site. Pride in the woodland is evident, despite the fact that so much wood is needed for the biomass boiler. The farm ‘next door’ lays claim to housing the oldest oak in the country at around 1000 years old, claim the Ormes.
The company has removed its former diesel generators completely saving 150,000 litres of diesel per year. “Without it [the biomass boiler] we wouldn't have been able to run the company as we do, as we are right on the limit of the three-phase electric grid,” explains Matthew Orme. “In addition, since 2012, the price of electricity has gone up by between 15% and 20%”.
Storing the woodchips for the biomass boiler
This is an area that has been productive in various ways over the centuries. Historical records note that this was a centre for honey production: ‘Apiaries gave rise to the name Ape Dale’. The area was also home to settlements as long ago as the Iron Age.
At the heart of the estate is a 12th century farmhouse, which receives mention in the Domesday Book as it formed part of a larger settlement that included Wenlock Priory.
Brothers Matthew and Bruce Orme, and their team of around 40 colleagues, bottle both Spring Waters and Natural Mineral Waters, producing the Shropshire Hills brand for their own, Wenlock coolers as well as producing water for small pack products including private label for various contract customers. Of the water bottled at the plant, 20% is Natural Mineral Water whilst the remaining 80% is Spring Water or other drinking waters. Glass packaging accounts for 30% of number of bottles and these come in 330ml, 750ml, 500ml, and 1 litre sizes; coolers are offered in 11,12 and 19 litres although the company can fill virtually whatever size is required by contract customers.
Started in 1988, the company arose from the family’s arable and sheep farm which they’d owned and run since 1983. Previously the family farmed in Lichfield. Their father Robert Orme, who continues to farm, started the water coolers business as a means of diversification and his sons Bruce and Matthew were later to take over the business.
The biomass equipment is by no means the only aspect of running an environmentally sustainable business. Wenlock Spring has also installed PV panels which contribute more energy to the network. The Orme family also installed LED lighting to replace their previous fluorescent luminaires. This saves an enormous amount of energy and money and offers the added benefits that the lights don't attract flying insects. and The cool nature of the lamps mean that no surplus heat is generated which used to necessitate air conditioning in the meeting rooms, which are no longer needed. Having invested £20,000 on the initial upgrade programme, the payment on the new lighting was 90 weeks. After that period the company anticipates saving around £10,000 per year.
Keen to support other British businesses, Wenlock Spring recently upgraded its transport fleet by investing in a 7.5 tonne, 150 horsepower Daf lorry being made at Leyland and at Fred Smiths in the Midlands. Around 66 trucks are created there every day and all are built to order.
“It is fantastic to be able to order a bespoke truck, built in Britain,” says Bruce Orme. “We need something quite robust because of the rural locality,” he adds. They are proud of the fact that the water generally travels a very limited distance from the bottling plant.
Another aspect of the sustainability programme is the work undertaken to lighten the glass packaging for its small pack bottles. Working with their packaging partner, the 75ml glass bottles which previously weighed 450gms are now down to 400gms. The company is also improving its PET – offering by moving to a new generation of smaller and lighter bottles.
Water is plentiful on the Welsh/English border but the company has nonetheless altered the pipe work to save 1million litres of water to recycle around the site.
All the water used on the site is monitored before being discharged in an underground reservoir after which it flows through reed-beds and then, the clean water, eventually enters a river.
In addition to growing trees, the Orme family has made a big difference to the local ecology and wildlife habitats by planting new hedgerows. The site boasts 18 acres designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and natural methods of farming are chosen where possible.
The Wenlock Spring Water team are enthusiastic supporters of local charities including providing support for a local hospital – the Royal Shrewsbury League of Friends; schools; fund-raising for the Motor Neurone Disease Association; and support for the Severn Hospice.
The owners are hands-on team managers, along with some specialist colleagues. Bruce Orme oversees retail sales and general site and infrastructure management.
Matthew Orme is responsible for production and operations working closely with Kevin Henderson, the Production Manager. A recently-appointed colleague, Anna Lenartowksa, is Quality and Technical Manager, and has joined the company having worked at various food factories and food packaging.
Most staff are local although the company employs 3 non-British colleagues. It’s an important employer locally, as water companies often tend to be, providing much needed employment for people in remote rural districts. The owners are proud of the contribution they make to the local community in this regard, with many staff having been with the company for a decade or more.
Bruce Orme (l) and Matthew Orme (r) show Phillipa Atkinson-Clow of the BWCA around the warehouse
It is the synergy of the business and the landscape that is the overwhelming lasting impression of this site. The respect for the landscape is evident when Matthew and Bruce talk about the topography of the area. “The limestone escarpment where we are located, that forms the Wenlock Edge, used to be located nearer the equator and moved during the ice age We therefore find fossils of creatures that lived in the sea during this period. The land is layered beneath the surface with shales, mudstones, granite and chalk and the limestone escarpment in the area was once the seabed”.
The Orme’s sense of place and their sense of duty in acting as stewards of this special site stand the company and this segment of Britain’s landscape in good stead for the future.