Tony Back Remembers
This article was first published in The LINK, March/April 2011
It was as a townie with an ambition to find a career in farming that I started working on Pepperwell Farm in Little Wolford in autumn 1959. On leaving school at 16 I worked for a year on a farm in North Devon before moving to Tamworth for a three-year agricultural apprenticeship, followed by a year at the Staffordshire Farm Institute and a year at the Ministry of Agriculture Experimental Farm near Hereford. The director of this farm knew Colonel Warriner's farm manager, Frank Bennison. When Frank was looking for a herdsman 1 was recommended and I accepted my first permanent job in farming.
With great trepidation I had taken my fiancée, Doreen, to see the farm for the first time. She had been used to a comfortable lifestyle as the daughter of the Borough Treasurer of Tamworth in Staffordshire! When we arrived we were quite unprepared for what was in store. The farmyard was overgrown and dilapidated and the farm cottage had not been inhabited for a long time. Jackdaws had taken up residence in the chimney and the 'cons' were very far from 'mod. Fortunately, Doreen could see the possibilities of country life and with the enthusiasm of youth agreed to give it a try.
Colonel Warriner's estate of Weston consisted of several tenanted farms, and as tenants retired or died the land was taken in hand. Pepperwell had been taken over some time before I arrived. The cottage was in urgent need of modernising, so while this was being carried out I lodged with Bill Harcourt and his wife at 'Dunroaming' at the end of The Lane which is now called Rosary Lane.
I married Doreen in January 1960 and we moved into Pepperwell with our dog, a handsome Gordon setter called Major, a wedding present from Colonel and Mrs Warriner. We enjoyed setting up home in the cottage, which now boasted the luxury of a sink .unit in the kitchen and a bathroom upstairs with water supplied from the wind pump up the lane. The previous occupants must have used a tin bath in front of the fire! The heating arrangement was pretty basic and winters were very cold and draughty. The only view from the windows was of the cattle yards. Doreen would say, "Whenever I look out of the window a cow is either peeing or pooing. The flies took some tolerating and one morning at breakfast Doreen felt something on her back and it turned out to be a mouse inside her jumper. When Doreen's parents came to stay, her mother pulled back the bedclothes and a mouse was nestled cosily in the middle of the bed! Just one of the joys of living in the country. Being in such a remote place made shopping for essentials difficult so we were very grateful for deliveries of meat, groceries and bread, which were left in a box at the end of the lane. When our sons Martyn and lan were expected, Dr Harris made regular visits to check up on Doreen's progress during pregnancy.
My first winter was spent caring for the 36 heifers and a bull, which were the basis of the dairy herd, assisting Doug Tennant with hedge laying, and helping to convert the buildings from a heavy horse stable block into a dairy unit. The heifers started calving in the autumn of 1960 and the size of the herd was gradually increased to 80 by breeding and buying in more cows. Working with cows needed a lot of patience and the ability to keep cheerful in pretty challenging working conditions. The days were from 6 am till at least 6 pm plus a check up last thing at night. This was not always compatible with family life and some days I saw very little of my children. Milking was far from glamorous. Cows are not careful when needing to relieve themselves and they took great delight in swishing their tails across your face when you were putting the units on with wet hands on a cold winter morning. Then you'd have to fetch another batch from the yard and your fingers would stick to the frosty gates. In summer it was the heat and the flies. Then there were the 'kickers' to contend with. We were pleased to receive a clean milk bonus for some years from the Milk Marketing Board. I think very few young people leaving school these days would consider this a good choice of career.
There were some amusing moments. One day I kept a cow in the yard to wait for a visit from the vet. Access to the loft was through a door, which led from the yard and I needed to fetch some supplies. The floor of the loft was rotten in places and quite unsafe. I climbed the stairs and the cow followed me up.
During the 1960s, however, one or two students were signed on each year to gain experience before going to agricultural college. This made my job more interesting and fulfilling with several of them going on to be successful farmers.
In time between milkings at Pepperwell Farm was spent working on the arable land and helping with the haymaking and straw carting. The farm reservoir was made in 1965 to provide irrigation for the grazing paddocks and the 20 acres of potatoes. Much time was spent moving the pipes every three hours through the day in the summer. Although farming was becoming more and more mechanised we were still doing a lot of manual work using pitchforks and shovels.
In 1967 we loaded all our worldly goods, including two small boys, onto a tractor and trailer and moved down the lane to Bird's Lodge, where my daughter Alison was born. This was much more comfortable and convenient for school as it was close to the road.
Three years later I took the opportunity to hand over the cows to Paul Marriot so that I could work on the arable side of the farm, which included shepherding. Around this time Henry Warriner arrived from industry and gradually took over from his father in running the estate.
The tractors we used increased in size and power and were equipped with primitive cabs, which over the next 20 years became more and more sophisticated with air conditioning and stereo radio. I enjoyed the development from the metal pan seat with basic springing, through foam cushions and no springing, to the luxury padded seat with adjustable springing.
Grain handling involved working in very dusty conditions and the introduction of dust masks made the job more pleasant and reduced the health risks. The use of hand shovels gradually gave way to the use of a two tonne hydraulic mechanical bucket. One of the most important changes in the handling of goods was the 50 per cent reduction in the legal size of sacks for foodstuffs and potatoes from a cwt to 20 kg. The use of 2 cwt sacks for wheat was phased out during the 1960s. Fertiliser continued to arrive in 50 kg sacks but in the early 1970s the pallet system was introduced, which meant the man-handling of sacks was greatly reduced. This has been superseded by half tonne sacks moved around with hydraulic machinery and the only hand tool needed is a good penknife!
I think much of the fun has gone out of farm work with the increased use of machines. We used to go out into the fields in twos or larger groups and we could converse with each other and put the world to rights. These days one is sealed up in a tractor cab and unlikely to speak to another person all day long unless CB radio is available.
In 2002 I retired early to care for Doreen. Sadly she died later that year. Looking back over the last 50 or so years I realised that I enjoyed farm work even though it was quite a hard life and certainly not a pathway to riches. Country life offered me a different kind of wealth. As a keen birdwatcher I was able to observe nature during each season of the year and for a time I was a recorder of butterflies for Warwick Museum. I consider myself very fortunate to have spent my working life in such a beautiful part of the country.
I will take this opportunity to say farewell to my friends in The Wolfords and add that you will always be welcome to join Margaret and myself for coffee in Ettington.