10 November 1995

Always be an audience for tales of the old countryside

OLD country characters seem to be an endless source of fascination to writers and publishers, judging by the number of review books Farmlife receives.

Publishers David & Charles have a whole series of them, including one about farmers* written by Tom Quinn. He has talked to farmers who have worked through the tremendous changes in agriculture this century, and their very personal stories will strike a chord with many farmers weekly readers.

Richard Body, "a marshman born and bred", remembers hand-sowing turnips and beans. "And very hard work it was," said Mr Body, of Hope Farm, Romney Marsh, Kent. Now in his 90s, he has a letter written by his grandfather offering £30 a year for 122ha (300 acres) of land in the parish of St Mary. The shrewd man wrote another letter soon after withdrawing the offer, explaining that money was tight. The family secured the farm in 1898.

Joe White of Chagford, Devon, has only left Devon once. His farm, where he lives with his sister Annie, was one of the last to stop using horses and he still has all his fathers horse-drawn machinery, kept in good order. "You cannot beat a horse," said Joe, who used them until the mid-60s, "even ploughing with a horse was not as hard as people make out."

But many things were much harder than we can imagine today.

George Greenheld had spent a lifetime working with sheep and horses in the Yorkshire Wolds. His father was killed by a horse when George was 12 years old, and his mother died a year or so later. He was put out to work with relatives who treated him like a slave.

"They paid me £25 a year and tried to work me to death," he said. It was all the more cruel, as he had been struck down with polio at about the time of his fathers death and was not expected to ever walk again. He only did so through sheer perseverance.

It makes life today seem like a doddle.

Poachers** come under the careful scrutiny of John Humphries, in the same series, in his sequel to Poachers Tales. The stories about such men are legion but this is the first time I have read about one resorting to drag!

Humphries tells of Jacko, a Norfolk poacher who would dress as a woman in a long, black dress, mac and hat and would regularly set out on a bicycle to bag a brace of roosting pheasants with a 4.10 shotgun hidden in a little case strapped on the bike. The theory was that no one would suspect a woman of poaching if she was seen cycling near the coverts.

But his cover was blown when a courting couple spotted him answering a call of nature in an unladylike stance. The girl happened to be related to one of the gamekeepers and, although she didnt know Jacko had been poaching, she knew that a man in womens clothing was up to something suspicious. Jacko ended up in court and was fined £2. TG

*Tales Of The Old Country Farmers, by Tom Quinn. David & Charles (£16.99).

**More Tales of Old Poachers, by John Humphries. David & Charles (£17.99).