updated 9th April 1999

About us, and what we're doing

We've been here almost four years now. Only last month I was reading a book with an introduction by Henry Williamson and he could have been speaking for us:

'As I look back now, with the fourth year of my farming venture nearing completion, I am not sorry I turned farmer. People told me I had undertaken a tough job, and I knew it: but I did not know how tough it would turn out, I've had to buy my experience, in everything...............The farm was weedy, hedges tall and ragged, gates broken or fallen,.....the buildings ruinous ........the woods full of broken trees and dead elderberries. And all this viewed daily, hourly, by an impatient, imaginative temperament, which longed to see it altered in a moment.....
I am glad I undertook the work. Our bullocks lost money (beef didn't pay), the sheep trade fell and flockmasters sold up.....; although it meant that my capital was gone..., I knew things would come right.'
Henry Williamson, in the introduction to 'English Farming' by Sir E. John Russell. 1941.

I laughed aloud, when I read this. It was so amazingly relevant to us.

Looking back now, with the fourth year of our farming venture nearing completion, we are not sorry, either.
Yes, it has been hard, much harder than we'd realised. The farm was (still is, to a certain extent!) weedy, with broken hedgebanks, no fences to speak of, neglected woods, dilapidated buildings, fallen gates. We have worked harder than ever before in our lives, with a vision of how the farm should be (and is becoming), and, on my side at least, an enourmous impatience to have it done immediately.

We came here from London, in July 1995. We'd been in London for eight years, after eight and a half years in the Far East (Hong Kong and Singapore). James was a partner with an International firm of Solicitors.

I'll quote here from things we've written over the last few years. When I've time (I wonder when that will be?) I'll redo this bit.

Christmas 1996

James' bit: We have been living an incredibly hectic life over which we have not always felt in control. Monday was not untypical: see to the cows at first light (hay, straw, etc), regular morning session with builders doing the farmhouse, organise mini-digger which they have just decided they need, session with large digger driver who has come to shift major quantity of earth from behind house and mend leak in pond dam etc, set up cattle crush and race in preparation for visit by vet (for MAFF decreed TB test), encounter builder with face saying, "I've hit a problem," and learn that they have just found where the old well is (it turns out to be 6 feet square, 20 feet deep and is undermining part of the back wall of the house), spend some time halfway down well helping builders prop wall, assist vet when he arrives to do TB test on cows (fortunately no reactors, as TB is a major problem in the South-West), dismantle cattle crush etc, have belated lunch....
Despite the chaotic sound of this, we are enjoying our new life. We spent a bit over a year more-or-less camping in the farmhouse while the old barn was being converted. The barn is now finished and we have thankfully moved across to a higher plane of comfort and civilisation while the farmhouse is being renovated. We are hoping that the latter will be finished by the middle of 1997, though any more problems like the well may delay this. If so, we shall probably have to resort to a caravan as the barn will be open for holiday lets from July onwards.
While all the building has been going on we have been trying to get the farm straight and do some farming. It has taken longer than we expected to do all the very necessary work to the farm (hedges, fences, gates, water troughs, etc), but we are almost there. We had some useful, though unplanned lambing experience which began the day after last Boxing Day. There were 40 or so sheep belonging to a neighbour on one of our fields and I went out to check them in the morning as usual and did a double-take when I saw a lamb running round the field. The neighbour's comment was, "Oh, I did put a couple of ewes in with the ram early to keep him happy." For various reasons his sheep ended up staying with us until April and we spent many a night, torch in hand, chasing ewes round the field when they had lambs sticking out of their rear ends and were in difficulties. I got my arm rather wrenched trying to catch one of these reluctant ewes, and on the PPP claim form for the resulting physiotherapy the doctor put, somewhat laconically, "Injury with sheep." I'm not sure what PPP made of that.
In the midst of this I acquired a sheepdog pup who has turned out to be very keen. One day when I was moving a ewe and her day-old lambs down a farm track into the orchard the dog suddenly appeared, having wriggled her way out from where I thought I had securely put her. The ewe instantly went for the dog who ran to the only place of refuge she knew, her bed in the scullery. The ewe charged after her, and from afar I could hear a great commotion. I deposited the lambs in the orchard and ran down to the farmhouse to find the ewe rampaging round the scullery while the poor dog, in desperation, had climbed into the tumble drier.
We now have our own stock: 8 South Devon suckler cows, 63 Lleyn sheep (plus 3 rams) and 13 Angora goats (to improve the pasture). And we have seen round a whole season on the land, from planting corn, to haymaking, to harvesting and planting corn again. There is plenty of slog in it, some discouraging moments (such as finding a sheep dead from pasteurella, an illness one of the symptoms of which the veterinary handbook lists as "sudden death"), but also a great deal that is hugely satisfying, whether it is bringing in a trailer laden with hay bales or seeing frosty cobwebs sparkling on the grass in the early winter sunshine when doing the morning round of the sheep. It is hard to describe, but the most emotional moment of the year for me was watching the first grains of barley pour into the grain trailer from the combine.
I had never realised it but, as a farmer, one has extraordinary power to transform the landscape. It felt almost like vandalism when I ploughed the first furrow in the field we put down to barley in the spring: 5 acres that was green was, in the course of a few hours, transformed into a series of rich brown lines (gradually getting straighter and more parallel as my ploughing improved). And these things get noticed; a neighbour whose farm is over a mile away as the crow flies remarked to me a few days later, "I see you've been doing some ploughing." I was glad it wasn't horrendously wavy. At the moment we have some sheep on an 8 acre field which we are letting them graze about 1 acre at a time, using electric fencing. Some innate sense of neatness makes one put this up in straight lines and, since the grass turns a much yellower colour as the sheep eat it down, from a distance the rectangular squares are beginning to resemble a giant patchwork.
We are also deriving a certain amount of interest (I think that is probably about the right word), coupled with occasional amusement and frustration, in roughly equal measures, from having to deal directly with officialdom in a variety of guises, whether the VATman, MAFF or the local council. For its part, MAFF considers that we are not "new entrants" to farming, having been here since all of July 1995, and, according to the council, we "might need Building Regulation approval for this development", viz a proposal to lop a rather diseased sycamore which overhangs the road and is subject to a tree preservation order. More seriously, we have been getting to grips with the infamous Common Agricultural Policy and discovering that this is a system which pays us farmers for looking after the countryside since we could not otherwise afford to do so as a result of successive governments' cheap food policy (aided and abetted latterly by the big supermarkets) which has meant that the true cost of producing food in this country is not reflected in the price paid for it. Farming can get quite political, but enough of that....
Jo's bit: Too many people don't know what we are doing or even where we are. To those who don't, many apologies - it's not that we haven't thought of you, it's just that we're not very good communicators. To those that think they do - I don't think we know ourselves, as the change has been so major and life far, far busier than ever it was before.
Here we are on our little farm, 76 acres of a south-facing valley in the most beautiful part of England - views to Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor on either side, and south to Kit Hill, with rolling hills in between. James has no regrets about giving up soliciting. He's taken to tractor driving and dagging sheep like a duck to water. It's hard work but feels very worthwhile. I never thought I'd enjoy tedding hay, but circling a field with the breeze blowing through the old tractor (doors taken off for the summer) and seeing the view changing on each turn of the field and the lovely straight lines of heaped hay behind is incredibly satisfying.
The children love it here. Mary is busy in her last year at Swansea and finds this a peaceful place after the hectic social life there. She is brilliant with the animals. She will be going to Dartmouth next year as an officer with a full service commission in the warfare branch of the Royal Navy. She has a useful bursary from the Navy this year. She has been a very active member of the university Royal Naval Unit whilst at Swansea, though the impression we sometimes get is that her trips with the Navy are a glorified sea-based pub-crawl through the ports of the South-West and the Channel Islands!
Thomas did not do very well in his A levels. He had a terrific social life at Sherborne and work did not take the place it should have. He travelled overland from London to Capetown, was gone for 8 months and returned determined to do his A levels again. He's presently studying at the local comprehensive - as a "mature" (19) student he has to pay for his course which he is doing himself. He is, once more, having a very good social life (between school, Young Farmers and old friends) but work is being taken a little more seriously - so! The day for him starts with an early morning run to check the sheep, a large cooked breakfast and a 5 mile drive.
William is enjoying Sherborne. His reports read like those of at least three different boys - ranging from outstanding ability and enthusiasm to disruptive and unco-operative. He hasn't changed much, but his violin playing gives us more and more pleasure, and his voice has dropped without breaking. When he's home he's a great help on the farm, and he has a ferret which has played a small part in controlling the rabbit population.
I have started a Diploma in Counselling in Plymouth and I'm finding it very challenging.
We are both taking part in village life. James plays the flute in both the RC church and the local Methodist chapel. I have joined the WI and am representing the village in a Scrabble competition!
There is so much to say about life here: the lovely accepting local people, the hedgerows full of primroses and violets and wild daffodils, or glistening with frost now. It's so beautiful and always different -do come and see us here!


Christmas 1997

A Farmer writes........

Rib of beef gone, and lamb chops under threat: not a good time to be a beef and sheep farmer. I am astonished at how the real facts get obscured in the press (with the notable exception of the Western Morning News), but I had better not start down that particular road lest this turn into a polemic against politicians of practically all hues, Brussels and various other fitting targets. Suffice it to say that it takes a lot to get farmers out onto the streets to protest (where I would have been myself one day last week if the new beds Jo and I were putting up the night before the arrival of our first (paying!) visitors in the barn had not turned out to have mattress slats which were 1 inch too short - but that's another story).

It has been an eventful year in all sorts of ways. Although it seems a long way away now, lambing (which occupied all of April) is the thing which will stick in my mind where 1997 is concerned. It was the most continuously intensive thing I have ever done (easily beating anything from my previous existence) with incredible emotional highs and lows as first you managed to help a difficult lamb out successfully and then found that another perfectly healthy lamb had died for no apparent reason. Here April was a month of clear, cold, starry nights and the Hale-Bopp comet was an unforgettable sight in the north-western sky as one came out of the lambing shed for a frosty pee at four in the morning. I can still remember the feeling of sheer bliss when I went to bed the night after the last ewe had lambed, knowing that I would be able to sleep right through until morning.

Calves appeared at irregular intervals from April until July. We never knew quite when to expect them as the bull (or rather succession of bulls) we had hired last year had proved rather less proficient at their job than they should have been. We were up all night with one cow whose calf was trying to come out backwards and eventually called the vet at about 6.30am. He successfully pulled the calf out, and the feeling of elation coupled with the sight of the shiny, wet newborn creature suckling its mother against the backdrop of rolling green fields on a beautiful bright summer morning somehow encapsulated all that is best about this new way of life of ours.

A couple of weeks later the day went like this: 7.00am, check cows (two looked as though they were due to calve any day); notice small patch of clear mucous on ground and find one cow with a little bit of mucous at her vulva; conclude that she is getting ready to calve; 8.30am, check for signs of progress (likely to be slow as she is a first-timer); none, so bring her down, without the slightest protest, to a pen at the bottom of the field; 10.00am, still no progress; walk round field to look for signs of calf/afterbirth, more in the hope of preventing neighbours' mirth than in expectation of finding anything; 10.30am, call neighbouring farmer, who counsels patience; 11.30am, decide it is time to investigate, so dive inside up to my shoulder; nothing that one could definitely call part of a calf within reach; scour field again; 12.30pm, speak to another neighbour, who offers to come and have a look; 2.00pm, neighbour plus son arrive; both agree no sign of calf inside but suggest getting vet out to be sure; both help search field; 5.00pm, vet arrives; declares calf definitely already born and sets off round field; finds calf almost immediately, fast asleep behind clump of foxgloves; picks calf up, calf bellows and mother suddenly remembers she gave birth several hours previously and bellows in reply (having been completely silent all day). Later we discover that we are by no means the first people this has happened to!

Jo (farmer, driver, cleaner, cook, wife, mother, builder's mate, general dogsbody, etc., etc.) writes.........

This year has gone even faster than the last. My correspondence file has grown fatter and fatter with letters that I'll reply to as soon as I have a moment, and I'm horrified to find that if I don't make that moment happen now, Christmas cards won't be sent before Christmas - no hope of them arriving before, but.......

Looking back, all that we learned last year seems so little compared with this. I thought we'd learned about lambing - but delivering a few lambs is nothing compared to the whole process involving more than 60 ewes, 24 hours a day for a month. Milking ewes and then tube-feeding their poorly lambs, feeding ivy leaves to a sick sheep (she kept going for 3 weeks and then died - about £200 later), catching sleep when we could (how many nights till we slept in the same bed together?). I ended up as the one sleeping in the lambing shed as I find I have the useful habit of waking when a sheep bleats in that particular way that she does before giving birth! Various wonderful friends came to stay, expecting a holiday, and ended up cooking, looking after us, helping with sheep and so on. Any volunteers for next year?

Everyone who comes here finds it wonderfully relaxing - strange when we keep them so busy. One friend wrote: "I think the highlight for us all was loading the bales of straw in the moonlight." - an episode that I remember as working their guts out till past midnight. It was a full moon and rain was forecast.

Farming keeps us really close to the harsh realities of life and death. Our lambs were not thriving as they should and we found they had a cobalt deficiency. It accounts for several unexplained losses and it set us back a bit. However we are warned for next year. James didn't go on to say that the calf born on that lovely summer morning grew to be really tame, loved coming up in the field to have her head rubbed, and died suddenly of an allergic reaction at 5 months. It can be very painful - and then other days everything is so beautiful....

Building work has kept us busy. The house took all year. Our first paying visitors in the barn were here last week - we hadn't expected to have anyone till after Christmas. They were from Singapore which was nice and we really enjoyed their visit. To quote them,
"...It is easy to understand how people fall under the spell of this corner of the earth...The barn is a true home from home, cosy, friendly and beautifully done up..."
We are now open for business!

The house feels like home - a 1936 four-oven Aga, slate and oak floors - perfect. It has been really satisfying bringing it back to life. All I need now is my garden, and that is starting to take shape.

We love living here. James has joined the local orchestra and he's giving a talk to the WI in January (about life out East)! I'm doing bereavement counseling with a local hospice and enjoyed my diploma course (though I haven't done the written work yet). We have both just done an Alpha course, which was excellent - a great help spiritually and we made more new friends. I feel as though I've lived here for ever. The farm is taking shape, the new hedges are growing, the old hedges are recovering and everything is looking good (don't look too closely at the docks and thistles!)

The children are growing well too. Mary has started her officer training at Britannia Royal Naval College; she is finding it challenging and has been getting excellent reports. Thomas is reading International Applied Geology at Oxford Brookes and enjoying life. Will is much the same and not looking forward to GCSE's. They have all been doing their bit to help, from the evening shift at lambing to sending us off to enjoy ourselves on our silver wedding while they brought in the last field of hay under a threatening sky.


July 1998

I've been meaning to write all year. First I was certain to write before lambing and then we had some bookings for the barn and lambing started early. It went much more smoothly this year (and it helped to have an ancient caravan to sleep in up there). What then? Just lots of good intentions I suppose and foolishly waiting 'til I had time instead of just dropping everything else and writing.
I am printing brochures for our barn and I can't leave the computer to get on with it as every so often it goes mad and takes the bit between its teeth and races off printing things on mixed up bits of paper. It's the perfect opportunity to write letters while it clunks and hums to itself..
Life is still enjoyable and hard work. The weather has been the worst ever. We're still waiting to make hay. We've made a lot more silage than we wanted to so the sheep are going to have to eat it this winter.
We've been offered the use of a few more acres down below us. It's a lovely spot but horribly neglected and overgrown so there's more work to do!
It's been lovely living in the house and the garden is very slowly taking shape. A constant battle against slugs though! I find they are tremendously attracted by citrus fruit peel and melon skins so they are dotted around next to my most tender and succulent plants. Then I go out after dark and murder the slugs, Yuk!
Will is home, waiting for GCSE results and bravely cutting giant thistles.
Mary's ship is in Plymouth for some months so she is home most weekends, which is nice.
Tom is somewhere at sea with the Oxford URNU. I think he'll be giving us a hand for a few weeks when he gets back.
Jess had 7 puppies 5 weeks ago, all dogs. They're lovely but are getting more active by the hour. Do you know anyone who wants a Border Collie? They need masses of exercise and need to keep really busy. Jess is rather a long suffering Mum and much prefers to be out with the sheep to looking after her babies.
An old ewe (9 years old) had twins two months after the others. She's a bit past it and should really have been culled (yes farming is rather brutal) and we're having to bottle feed the lambs. Not something I'd expect to have to do in July but it seems to fascinate our visitors so we might lamb a couple deliberately late next year.
We've had some lovely calves this year and the lambs are thriving much better than last year's - thanks to supplementing the cobalt.
Our hedges have grown back beautifully after the drastic remedial treatment we gave them when we first arrived. The wild flowers in the hedge-banks this May were the best we've had. In fact May was the best month this year, sunny and bright, and everything blossoming and flowering like mad. It's difficult to remember it now on this cool wet day but February was lovely too, with Will and 2 friends camping down by the river for 4 nights.
Our pond still has a leak half way up the damn. We hope that by Christmas we'll be able to say we've solved that problem.
We've still not cleared the rubbish out of the quarry. We're waiting 'til we get some enthusiastic volunteers. It will be much better for wildlife when a little light can get in to the centre. Though even as it is the trees around it do provide nesting sites for the buzzards.
In spite of the weather the larks are still singing, and the sun usually does shine for part of the day at least!

If anyone wants to know what our children are up to now.
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