I was the only farmer in a room full of chartered surveyors last week. Don’t worry, I hadn’t been kidnapped. I wasn’t lost, either. I was actually there voluntarily. I was delivering an after-dinner speech to our regional RICS group.
I wasn’t short of material on the subject; the challenge was whittling the speech down to the 37 best jokes about land agents. Obviously, I also had to allow myself time to squeeze in a couple of remarks about absurdly colourful cords and tank-tops.
The main speaker for the evening was Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage. It can be quite competitive when you share a stage and I was worried that he might get in before me and tell my gag about the cup of tea and a certain part of Peter Kendall’s anatomy. Fortunately, he didn’t tell any of my jokes. This was surprising, given their age and the fact that he was a historian. Instead, he gave a fascinating presentation about the impact of rural industrialisation on Fenland architecture.
The subject was pertinent to the surroundings because the dinner was held in the assemby rooms close to Lincoln cathedral – unquestionably the greatest building in my home county.
Like most of the finest ancient buildings in this part of the world, its construction was funded largely by wealth generated from agriculture and the wool trade.
Around the time that our great churches and cathedrals were built, agriculture was our most important industry and most of our trade was with Europe. The eastern ports of England were, therefore, the biggest and most profitable in the country. There was once a time when my local town of Boston was the largest port in the UK, which explains how it comes to have such a magnificent church, St Botolphs – or Boston Stump as it is known colloquially.
It was from Boston port that the Pilgrim Fathers departed for America. America developed and industrialisation took place; Britain’s ports, heavy industry and trade moved to the west coast and the economic prosperity of the eastern farming counties started to fall.
The quality of a nation’s architecture depends entirely upon its prosperity. The charming appearance of rural Britain was created by a profitable farming industry. Our stately homes, the provincial churches, the stone walls and hedgerows, the thatched cottages, the Georgian manor houses and brick-built barns all came about because someone was making a bob or two from the land.
Farming has been less profitable in the past century and our buildings have become uglier. We haven’t improved the look of the countryside for well over 100 years.
Modern farm structures are engineered to perform their function for the lowest possible cost. They are not designed in any real sense of the word and rarely is any regard given to how they blend in with their surroundings.
It isn’t frivolous to invest in attractive architectural aesthetics. Through periods of low commodity prices, many farms have been saved from ruin by selling off the odd barn conversion or by converting traditional buildings to create a new income. The investments of our ancestors have served the farming industry well. Our generation should be doing its bit to smarten up the countryside.
The appearance of our farmyards is our public face, it has a massive influence on the way that the general public perceives farmers. Perhaps we should consider this more thoughtfully when we are commissioning new buildings.
We keep hearing that the countryside will becoming an important part of the economy in the future: it might just be time to present ourselves accordingly.
Matthew Naylor, aged 37, farms 162ha (400 acres) of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a Nuffield scholar.