“Originally I come from Hythe, in Kent, where I was born 83 years ago. My father was a builder, and I had two brothers and a sister. We lived there until 1940, about the time of the evacuation of Dunkirk. That was when my school was evacuated also, but we went to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, where it was thought to be a lot safer for children in case there was an invasion. I was there for two years, and when I came back, I started my apprenticeship as a plumber, working for my father. When I was old enough, I registered for National Service. If you waited until they called you up, you went where you were told, including coal mines, which wasn’t very appealing, but since I’d volunteered, I was able to join the Navy, just before my 17th birthday.
After training, we went over to Ostend, to join a minesweeper. By now the war was over, and we spent 3 months or so sweeping German mines, up and down the coast of France, Belgium and Holland. One job we had was to retrieve a sunken German armed trawler from St Peter Port, in Guernsey. It had been raised from the seabed where it had lain for two years, and we had to tow it back to Willhelmshaven in Germany. The trawler was classified as a war grave, with the bodies of German sailors still on board, so it wasn’t pleasant, and after we crossed the North Sea we were met by 7 German E-boats, who escorted us into port. After that, we were transferred to fishery protection, going with the fleets from Grimsby and Aberdeen up to Bear Island in the Arctic. We also went to Loch Fyne, helping the herring fleets find their catch with our Asdic echo sounders, which we had been using to detect mines.
I spent 3 years in the Navy in all and enjoyed it, so when I came out I finished my plumbing apprenticeship. Things weren’t too good in the building trade at that time, and I found it hard to settle down. In 1949 Mary and I got married. Then in 1953, my brother-in-law, Bob Browning, who was farming here in Sydling St Nicholas, offered me a job. He wanted quite a bit of building done, so we moved down from Kent, and I built a dairy for him, converted buildings for calf pens, and in between times I did general farm work and lorry driving. The farm was about 1500 acres, and there were 2 dairies, milking Red Poll cattle, and we also grew corn and potatoes. We hauled all our own cattle cake, and later fertilizer, which was why we ran the lorry. Like many of the farms up this valley, it was tenanted; Winchester College owned a lot of land in those days.
When I started, I was the 23rd member of staff on the farm, which gives an idea of how labour-intensive farming was then. 3 of the staff were Lithuanian displaced persons; there was the keeper and his boy, and the strappers who were the old boys who did the hedging and ditching. It was like a small army coming up the road in the mornings, with everybody coming in to work, mostly on bicycles. We grew mangles and swedes for the cows, which meant a lot of back-breaking hoeing, and at one time we had 160 acres of potatoes – we were very big potato growers. Over at Martinstown, there was a camp of Nissen huts, where people from all walks of life came for a holiday picking potatoes, and I’d go over there to pick them up with the lorry. I turned up at the farm once with 30 Swedish girls on the lorry from the camp, and that certainly made the blokes’ eyes pop. There were about 60 cows in one dairy, and 80 in the other, quite large-scale for those days, and each dairy was looked after by 2 dairymen and a helper, and they’d sometimes help out with the potato harvest; the boss would say “I need 10 ton by breakfast-time”, and we’d go out and pick them. After breakfast the dairy staff would haul them in, and later we’d weigh them and bag them up. The farm had a sales outlet in Poole, and they would collect the potatoes and distribute them to shops around that area. In winter we’d be busy riddling out potatoes from the straw-covered clamps in the barns. It was a cold job sometimes, but working with a good crowd you could always have bit of a laugh.
After I’d been on the farm about 3 years, I took on tractor-driving. We used crawler tractors for ploughing, and we’d try to plough everything by Christmas. Apart from a couple of Fergusons, they were all American. There were 3 Case tractors, 2 Allis-Chalmers, and 2 International TD-9’s. The first one I drove was an Allis-Chalmers Model M. It was only 35HP, but it would lug on a 4-furrow plough quite comfortably, doing about 7 acres in a full day. With no cab it could be bitter, and I remember one day when, after a day’s ploughing on the top of the hill, my ears were so cold nobody dared touch them in case they fell off. We always reckoned it was 3 coats’ difference between the top of the hill and down here. For harvesting the 500-odd acres of corn, we had 3 combines. There was a Massey-Ferguson 726, with an 8ft cut, and 2 Massey 21’s which were 12ft cut. You could guarantee that if there were 3 combines in a field one of them would be broken down. I also drove one of the two balers, an Allis-Chalmers Rotabaler, a machine which could drive a man crazy. If the crop was fit, it went ok, but if it was a bit damp it was constant trouble. I pulled that behind a crawler, and every time it made a bale you had to hit it into gear, and out again, using a hand clutch. We made 20-30,000 bales of hay every year, which was a lot of gear changes, and somehow we must have had the fine weather to make that much hay, which doesn’t seem to happen these days. Of course, if a machine broke then, you fixed it, and I always enjoyed the machinery side of the job. Bob Browning was a clever man, who could turn his hand to anything, and he taught me a lot about mending machinery.
There were always plenty of rabbits; in fact, there were so many we were almost farming them. I was told that the rabbits paid the keeper’s wages, and his rent, and for all the shooting. Trapping rabbits was mostly what the keeper did, with about 500 traps which had to be moved around the farm, and there were two ex-army jeeps to do that. At their peak, we trapped and shot 26,000 rabbits one year, and then of course the myxomatosis came and the keeper was pretty much out of a job, although he worked more on the farm after that.
Gradually, through the sixties and seventies the machinery got bigger and better, and there were less people working here inevitably, despite the fact we still farmed dairy, corn and potatoes. The Red Poll cattle were replaced by Holstein Friesians, combined into one dairy. In 1984, Winchester College decided to sell the land, and it was bought by Mr Langley-Pope. He said he thought I’d be more use to him in the workshop, and that suited me down to the ground, so that’s where I worked up until the present owner, Mr Cooper, bought it. When I first worked here it was farmed more or less organically, which was how everyone farmed. From then on it got gradually more and more intensive, and now, Mr Cooper’s converted the whole farm to organic production. So I’ve seen it go full circle, with the main difference between 1953 and now being the amount of paperwork.
Sadly Mary died in 1986, but we brought up four children on the farm. Vanessa, the oldest, came with us from Kent, and Russ, Mark, and Nicola were born here. I had to pay 3 shilling a week rent for the house we lived in then, and the wages were just over £5 a week when I started. I’m still doing one day a week, looking after the farm water supplies, which keeps me out of mischief. Seeing all the changes in farming over the years, it’s been an interesting life.”