Death of a young farmer

I originally placed this hidden in the midst of photos of the East Kent Ploughing Matches I have attended. The title is an allusion to Seamus Heaney's poem, Death of a Naturalist.


Death of a young hill farmer


Here are a lot of pictures of different men (and one woman) with their tractors preserved and lovingly maintained from the bygone ages of early- and mid-mechanised farming.


It is hard to imagine now how much tractors revolutionised agriculture and changed the support systems and skills needed to run and maintain them.


I'm not really that interested in tractors. But the little farm work I have done was on a small upland Welsh cattle and sheep farm in the 1970s.  I worked with a lovely family - John and Elwen on their farm in Merionethshire (now Gwynedd).


At that time there were still two brothers in the next valley who used a horse and sledge to bring in a meagre hay crop from their steep, stony fields. The first summer I worked with John and Elwen we collected the hay loose by pitchfork and used big ash-toothed hay rakes to bring in the spilt grass at the field margins. 


One of my early duties at the farm was to stand on the trailer and stamp and pack the hay down as it came flying up in huge forkfuls.  The dust and midges in the still, blessed, evenings of those rare harvest days were aweful.  But the smell of the fresh mown hay from meadows that had not been ripped out and replanted with rye grass was something you don't forget.  And to go into the cow barn in the middle of a freezing winter day and smell the smells of the summer past was about as evocative as it got.


In later summers I progressed to tractor driver on a one of the little grey Fergie's (Massey Fergusons) that John kept going. I drove a wuffler round and round the patchwork, stone-walled fields of not more than a few acres spinning the thick cut grass up into the sky to aid its rapid drying before the next Atlantic depression breasted Moel Ysgyfarnogod and soaked everything.


Back in those days young boys would be plonked on tractors and more or less told to get on with it.  I remember helping out at another farm - Bryngoleu - and being told to take over on the tractor. 


Gareth showed me the clutch and brake and went back to loading bales with the family and friends who'd come to help to get the harvest - of oats and hay - home. I held the heavy clutch down for what seemed like hours, the sun beating down, my thigh muscles trembling harder and harder. 


Then Gareth gave a shout to move on.  Knowing no better I released the clutch in one go, the tractor lurched forward and the engine died.  Much laughter erupted behind me where Dai the loader on the trailer had described a perfect somersault up and down onto the bales of hay as a result of my 'driving'.


John's tractors were not at the cutting edge of agricultural machinery and the brakes on one of them were wearing thin, to say the least.  This was alright if you kept the tractor firmly in low gear. On another occasion, a visiting camper was helping out. He was one of those guys who thought he knew everything giving weight to the old adage, 'The only fool you'll find in the country is the one who's come from town.'


He was in charge of bringing a creaking load of hay down the steep, winding track to the barn. For some reason he pushed the clutch in on the descent and tractor and trailer released from the gears and sturdy old engine, roared down the rough track like the Horses of the Apocalypse, just squeezing through the narrow gateway and eventually running out of steam on the flatter approach to the barn. Camper-man was ashen as he got off the tiny tractor and didn't do much driving after that.


On my last year helping out John had acquired an ancient red bailer. It was a huge innovation and made collecting and storing the hay a much simpler task.


The only trouble was given his shortage of land John would cut hay from the little marsh fields (see bottom left of linked aerial view above) full of fragrant Meadowsweet (erwain in Welsh).  Despite many hand-cut drainage ditches, (some of which I had cut with an ancient, half-moon slane through the soft-rush root clumps and solid peat) the land could still lie very wet in the short mountain summers.  And the cut grass would not hasten to dry out and would make a bale that had the consistency of a loaf of half-cooked rye bread.


To lift one of these bastards by the rough jute bailer twine high enough to get a knee behind it to hoist it onto the trailer was a man's work indeed. Despite the anxious stress of every rain-threatenend harvest John had a captivating sense of humour. When he'd wrestled one of his marsh beasts up onto the trailer he'd pause briefly, and with the sinking sun twinkling in his eye look at me and say, 'Diawl, that was a heavy one, Ferguson.' 


There were even times when John had to admit defeat and the bales were given a two-man swing and chuck to get them up to the higher reaches of the burdened trailer.


On another occasion the bloody bailer broke down.  The intricate knot-tying mechanism had developed some kind of problem.  To get at it a large bolt needed to be eased off and removed.  But it had become frozen over the years.


I'll never forget John, who was a powerful Welsh oak of man with a chest as broad as the Welsh Black bull he kept, standing on top of the bailer with a wrench fixed to the head of the bolt with a scaffolding pole slipped over the wrench to give a degree of second class-leverage that would have impressed old Archimedes himself.


With all the force in his body he leaned into the scaffolding pole, harder and harder until with a dry bang and a release that threw him to the ground, the bolt head sheared from the shaft. Picking himself up, slightly dazed, from the close-shaved turf John let out a long and vehement, 'Yr arglwydd mawr' which to me sounded like 'Arrr-glue-eth-Mao-er'.


(For years I thought this was some terrible curse but it turns out it's translated English equivalent is something along the lines of 'Heavens above' (see Forum Wales). But the way John said it hinted at something darker and harder than heaven.)


I don't remember how the situation was resolved except that it necessitated calling up a mechanic in Porthmadog and an agonising wait, the clouds collecting and the wind picking up, to get the machine back into action and the harvest in.


I'd get sunburn on my forearms from driving the tractor and looked forward to Elwen's teas, with cakes and corned-beef sandwiches in the tiny kitchen with the blackened range, the door flung open to let in the light.


And there were times when there was nothing to do in those hectic haying days, not many but a few, and we'd sit at the field edge, our weary sprawled bodies stirring up the heady smell of meadow camomile, watching the swallows swoop low over the windrows of hay drying in the fleeting sun.


I gave up on my dream of escape into upland farming and was cajoled down a different path, for better or worse.

John is long gone but hopefully still shouting 'Tyd yma' to his enthusiastic sheepdogs high up above in the mounntainous, heather clad 'ffridd'*  that is heaven.


The farm became a 'holiday cottage and camping lakeside retreat' where visitors can rent tipis or stay in the house  -  'a beautifully renovated old farmhouse cottage dating back to the 16th century' that lets for £750 a week in high season.


So, I'm not interested in tractors per se. Except a little bit. And if I'm honest and I had the room I'd have one rotting away somewhere in the garden. But seeing all those men and their trusty little machines at the East Kent Ploughing Match did bring the memories flooding back.


 * Fridd is commonly-held upland summer grazing.


See also my piece of installation art at Storehouse.