25 December 1998

50 YEARS ON, EXMOOR LIFE KEEPS ITS FAMILY VALUES

Weather, terrain and family tradition means life changes

slowly on Exmoor as Tessa Gates found when she visited a

farm and family first featured in farmers weekly in 1948

CHANGE has come slowly to Eastcott Farm, above Porlock, on Exmoor. Still part of the Porlock Manor Estate, it has been tenanted by members of the Westcott family for well over 100 years. They have been on Exmoor since the Middle Ages.

"My grandfather came here in 1871 and the first tenancy agreement we have is dated 1873," says David Westcott, as he shows off the beautifully-scripted document. It details each named field together with its individual rent. New Close Field, for instance, described as arable, was costed at 15s (75p).

When farmers weekly visited the farm at Christmas 1948, Davids parents, Ernest and Emma, ran it, helped by David, then 24, and his brother John, who was 28. They were photographed sitting round the huge open fire place in the kitchen, playing cards by the light of the oil lamp.

Today the kitchen is still recognisable although the open fire has been replaced by an Aga and a generator provides electricity. Water is still supplied by a spring and John still smokes a pipe. He remained a bachelor and took over the farm on the death of his parents in the 1970s.

David, who is now a widower and has six grandchildren, married Margaret, a Land Army girl, and raised four daughters on the neigh-bouring Birchanger Farm, which he worked for 45 years. The brothers retired to a bungalow in Porlock village five years ago, but are still regular visitors to Eastcott Farm, for it is Davids daughter Sally and her husband, David Basford, who farm there now.

They have come into farming at a time when others are trying to get out. Both worked in computers – Sally at a merchant bank in Bristol. "One day I thought, thats enough, I am coming home," she says, and they took over from her uncle John. Her sister Jayne, too, felt the need to get back to her roots and took on Birchanger Farm when their father retired.

&#42 Spartan conditions

For Sallys husband, David, who is in his early 50s, it was quite a change, as he was not used to country life let alone the spartan conditions of an Exmoor farm with an outside loo and a tin bath. However, they seem to be on top of life and in addition to Eastcotts 69ha (171 acres) they have taken on 30ha (75 acres) bought from another hill farm. A suckler herd of 40 Ruby Red Devons and 500 sheep are the mainstays of the farm.

Their son Robert, who will be five on Dec 27, was the first boy to be born to the family for 30 years and could well follow the family farming tradition.

"Back in 1948 we farmed 100 acres plus commoners rights," says David. "We had 250 sheep and 10 or 12 cows plus poultry and pigs. We grew all our vegetables and we were more or less self-sufficient."

&#42 Milk round

They also had a milk round and the brothers can remember the days when they had to carry 73 litres (16gal) of milk the three-and-a-half miles down steep lanes to the village, on a yoke across the shoulders. The milk round was a good outlet for the farms eggs and poultry and 30 or 40 cockerels would be brought on each year for table birds. "We picked them and mother dressed them," says John, who starts to chuckle as he recalls one particular incident. "One cock bird, which we thought was dead and which we had plucked, jumped up and ran about. It was the only time I ever got to chase a naked bird round the yard!"

In 1948 the brothers were pictured carrying kale on their backs for their cattle – rather inappropriately dressed in suits and ties, plus wellies. This was posed for the photographer, of course, but such physical work was an everyday thing.

Ploughing was still done by horse, the farm had three, but they were soon to get their first tractor, a Ferguson A20 costing £240. "When we ploughed with horses you would plough an acre a day and walk 14 miles doing it," says David. "When ploughing a single furrow on a ley in January or February, three or four hundred seagulls would come dropping in behind you picking up all the grubs. They do not have the chance to do that now with the modern tackle.

"Farm work is much easier today but the paperwork is enough to make you go mental. We would have to have a nice blonde farm secretary if we farmed now."

Life was not all work, of course, and before television was common people made their own entertainment. The brothers used to enjoy whist drives in the village. Dances were popular with them both. David, still enjoys life. He is president of the Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders Society and is finding himself in demand to speak about his life on Exmoor.

He is very interested in weather and records the rainfall every day. He remembers the night there was 36 degrees of frost, and the snow of 1947, which fell in January and lasted until May. "In 1963 it started earlier – on Boxing Day – and there was still snow on the ground in April. We could not get out with the Land Rover until March 20," says David.

&#42 Christmas birth

He has particular reason to remember the last white Christmas on the farm. "Sally was born on Christmas Day 1956 and that was the last time we had snow here on that day," he says.

For Sally and her husband and son, Christmas Day will be spent much as it was 50 years ago with stock to see to before a quiet family meal.

Despite a very changed world the essence of life at Eastcott Farm is the same. Most of the buildings are the same and in one there is still a threshing machine as old as the brothers themselves, that may well be there in another 50 years unless someone comes up with a good home for it.

For David and John farming has been a way of life and they would both choose to do exactly the same again.

"You do not get rich farming on Exmoor, but the people are marvellous," says David. It was true in 1948 and it is still true today.