Fifty years ago this week, the Flindts arrived at Hinton Ampner, to take on the tenancy of Manor Farm, and join the ranks of that most unusual type of farmer, the tenant farmer.
We’re mostly just like other farmers, striving away, battling the idiot officials and the unpredictable elements, but subtly different from our land-owning brethren. Regular as clockwork, Quarter Day after Quarter Day, we sit down and write huge cheques to our landlords. (The National Trust will be on the phone soon, querying my definition of “regular”.)
And every three years, we have rent reviews. Some drag on for ages, as chinless Ya-yas arrive from up country asking Cirencester-inspired questions about 10-year rolling averages on second wheat gross margins. The best rent reviews take an hour; just me, the Trust’s local agent, and a big packet of HobNobs on the kitchen table. Not a Nix to be seen anywhere – just a feeling of a fair deal on both sides.
In a bored moment on another wet day during the legendary “barbeque summer”, I sat down and started totting up the rent we’ve paid. It hit seven figures when I reached back to the mid-1980s; and so, after what must in total be a million-and-a-half quid, what do we own? Nothing. Not a single square inch.
What is it like owning your farm? What do you do with all the extra cash? It must be fantastic to have a few spare grand burning a hole in your bank account every few months. Where’s that Jaguar brochure? Where’s the best snow this year? Life must be a doddle.
Mind you, when the rare mathematical tiling was replaced on the front of this farmhouse, I’m glad I wasn’t paying the bill. And when all the guttering was replaced, it wasn’t a drain on my pocket. We did have to put up with workmen arriving unannounced, but that’s the Trust’s way: it’s our home, but their house. And if this stunning 960-acre patch of Hampshire was mine, something tells me I’d have sold it by now, probably during those dark days at the turn of the Millennium, and I would have been on a Caribbean beach faster than you could say Cayman Islands Offshore Account No.2. And if I hadn’t sold it, there’d be the nasty business of who gets what when I’m dead – always a messy affair. All that my three offspring have to look forward to at the moment, come that day, is a choice between four pianos.
There are other advantages to being a tenant. Our Association is very cheap to join compared with some farming organisations, and you really, really wouldn’t want to get into a fight with its chief executive. But here’s the big one: we tenants are quite used to someone telling us what we can and can’t do with our farms. It must be awful, if you’ve owned and farmed land highly successfully for several generations, to find yourself being told what to do by some miserable government agency squirt with a 2.2 in Environmental Management with Media Studies from the University of Central Rutland. My landlord often says “Can, can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t” and we go through the ritual of finding and examining the Tenancy Agreement. But it’s usually with humour and in a positive way. We live quite contentedly with it all the time. Perhaps that’s what makes us tenant farmers so unusual.
Here’s to the next half-century at Hinton Ampner.