Ploughing engines work on
the farm that time forgot
A glimpse of how ploughing
used to be, as
Andrew Pearce reflects
on a day in Norfolk
OUT on the highway a Fastrac drones by, hauling carrots off the fen and into the next century. Hes in a hurry as Fastracs usually are, boiling up the early October leaves in a blast of diesel fumes. Got to get on.
Should the driver glance from his cocoon of aircon and stereo, he might wonder if hed fallen into a time warp. Across a nearby field a Fowler balance plough is voyaging like a slow landship, winched by an engine thats no more than a tumble of smoke in the distance.
And if he hopped the fence to hitch a ride, hed hear something that modern tractor drivers never hear: the sound of silence. Nothing but the swish of mouldboards peeling soil, the occasional crack and chirp of stone meeting steel.
For this is Richard Parrotts Fengate Farm, Weeting, where time (and machinery) tends to move at a different rate to the rest of the world. Home to many mighty bits of steam tackle and host each July to the Weeting Rally, today its a testbed as a pair of ploughing engines get their last run before winter lay-up.
The engines – new in 1925, and named Saucy Sue and Bonzor Tom after Grand National and Derby winners – were among the last of their kind, made while an era begun in the 1850s was already fading away.
Built by Fowler of Leeds, bought as a pair and owned by Essex farmer-contractors C * Cole and Sons ever since, they mark the highwater point of working engine evolution.
Nothing fancy, just 22t of British know-how, built for heavy land cultivation or mole draining, with 650yds of cable on their underslung winch drums and a relatively efficient 16 nominal hp twin-cylinder powerplant up top. Cost new?
Around £3500 for the pair, and that price included a matching plough and cultivator. Not much more than it takes to keep a modern tractor in tyres.
As you settle into todays upmarket air seat and reach for the start key, spare a thought for yesterdays engine crews. Ploughing was a four-man job: two drivers, a steersman for the implement and a boy or local half-wit to do the cooking.
Start at 5-5.30am by cleaning boiler tubes, then light the engines fires. Grease and fettle the machinery. Get under way a couple of hours later as soon as steam is up. Finish as it gets dark or carry on with oil lamps on the plough and engines, maybe moving to the next farm over uncertain roads before youre done.
If coal quality and the boss allows, get an easier start tomorrow by banking up the fire overnight. Keep at it year round, breaking only between the end of winter ploughing and the start of spring cultivations.
Luckily, for our exercise the timetable is more relaxed. Calvin Ross is in charge and the brief simple: limber up the engines and turn over some stubble, noting what needs to be done in the winter workshop.
These engines efficient twin-pot unit has a second, larger piston to pull energy from the first cylinders exhaust steam. Until the fire and steam production settles, frisky response keeps the driver on his toes.