5 December 1997

Country life chronicles bind writers over years

THIRTY-five years ago a group of farm women, who all read farmers weekly, were brought together by Barbara Hargreaves, the Home Section editor, to form a writers circle. Although their lives were busy, they were often lonely in their rather isolated homes and lacking in female company.

Each farm woman wrote a monthly letter telling of her deeds and doings. News and views on farm work and farm and family life were exchanged, hopes and achievements told, together with happenings to families and friends, sorrows and excitements, fun and games. In fact they told the story of their lives.

One person collated the letters and posted the bundle, in magazine fashion, to the first person on the rota, who would read, take notes for a future letter maybe, and post on. The women came from all parts of England and Wales – the Brecon Beacons, Yorkshire, Devon, Derbyshire, Kent, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Lancashire, the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Purbeck.

Friendships were forged by letter, discussions took place, agreements and disagreements noted – we began to get to know one another. Farm life, animals and the changing environment were all documented monthly.

Family life unfolded, elderly relatives were cared for, sons and daughters became students, there were O levels and A levels and university finals. Marriages were celebrated – new babies were born, twin grandsons first, and once again the familiar story unfolded with the new generation. Four of the friends are now great-grandmothers.

One or two writers found the monthly commitment too onerous, one or two withdrew for other reasons – but still the writers staunchly wrote. By 1972 the group of 14 was whittled down to eight.

Moves to different parts of the country did not break the friendships. There was a move from Kent to Dorset, Yorkshire to Norfolk and back again to Bridlington. Emmie from Bradford-on-Avon moved to Salisbury and Rhoda moved from the farm in the valley to the farm up on the hill.

To celebrate 10 years of friendship the Scribes met in London. They rendezvoused in the Corner House at Trafalgar Square; eight countrywomen who instantly recognised one another from among the throng of people hurrying into the foyer. Was it the air of anxious inquiry each face displayed, or just a rosy, healthy colouring of cheekbones? "Theres Rhoda."

"That must be Ann!"

Of course, it was. Afterwards they lunched in the Civil Service Stores in the Strand, before walking to Fleet Street. There they were met at the farmers weekly offices by Farm Womens Club organiser Coralie Kirk and photographed and chatted to by a pretty young reporter.

The eight friends enjoyed the meeting greatly and were delighted to find how well they knew one another – after so long they were like a band of sisters. Subsequent meetings were arranged, another in London in 1982, when they picnicked in Regents Park in the warm summer sunshine, and then in home locations. They met in York in 1988 to celebrate 25 years of friendship, followed by Salisbury, Mortonhampstead in Devon, Brigstock in Northampton and Bempton near to Bridlington.

This year, in June, the "sisters" were in York again – but minus two. Those young farm-bound women of 35 years ago are going grey! (Or even white-haired). Jean from the Brecon Beacons is too poorly to contribute any longer, and Joyce from Bempton was the first to die – so sadly missed.

The remaining six Scribes spent two days and three evenings together in a guest house in York. They enjoyed touring the city, visiting the museum, sharing their likes and voicing dislikes. They lunched at the home of their York "sister" and another friend. It was time of reminiscences, exchanging photographs of families and confidences, talking of past meetings, past times, and hopes for the future, and perhaps next year a meeting in Shropshire.

There is change in the countryside, change in farming policies, change in the government, but they are still writing, still friends, still together although so far apart.

Shirley Percival