Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer

 

 

CHRONICLES OF A NORFOLK FARMER

 

Contributions to the Daily Express, 1937–1939

 

 

norfolk farmer    
First edition, HWS, 2004  
   

Introduction, by John Gregory

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

Postscript, by John Gregory

 

Critical reception

 

Book cover

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 2004, paperback, ix,166pp, 30 illus.; 200 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 2004, quarter-bound in royal blue morocco with brown cloth boards, 30 numbered copies

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

Introduction

 

 

Henry Williamson had earned his living from writing since the end of the Great War, and by 1936 was a highly successful writer with several bestsellers to his credit; his latest, Salar the Salmon, had been published to critical acclaim the year before. With a young family, he was living on the edge of Exmoor in a thatched cottage next to a deer park with a river running through it – the river Bray, where he had spent thousands of hours watching, through the changing seasons, the water, the wild life and the fish, and on one occasion actually catching a salmon. It was an apparently idyllic life.

 

Then, in 1937, he decided, with no previous farming experience at all, to buy a derelict farm of 240 acres at Stiffkey, on the North Norfolk coast. This was a remarkable decision. Farming was in deep depression, and had been for years; there was no guarantee of success – indeed, a probability of failure – and he was risking everything, against the advice of experts and friends.

 

Why, and what drove him to this? Certainly he felt mentally exhausted; Salar had been a struggle to write – ‘one word a minute, and that chipped from my breastbone’ – and he was so late in delivering it that the typescript was being posted to the publishers chapter by chapter as each was finished, so that they could begin typesetting it. He also felt stale, ‘written out’. He had lived in North Devon since 1921, and had put everything he knew of the countryside and its wildlife into his books. He was worried about becoming a mere ‘potboiler’.

 

Williamson stated that this new undertaking would give him new experiences to use as material – ‘what a grand book I’ll write about trying to get this little corner of England into good heart again!’ (Daily Express, 7 August 1937). There was far more to it than that, however. Always an intense man, he felt deeply about the condition of England in the 1930s, then in a depression that had put two million people on the dole. To Williamson this was typified by the state of agriculture. Many farmers were going bankrupt, their mortgages called in by the banks; fields were left to go to scrub, and farms becoming derelict. He knew that just one man could not make a difference, and yet even so he felt compelled at least to try, despite all the risks, and despite a chronic lack of capital with which to run the farm:

 

I dreamed of English fields feeding English people. It seemed so natural, so true. I hoped that I might help awaken the English to this natural truth. I wanted a revolution, in thought and action.

 

If I broke myself in this farming venture, at least I would be entitled to plead for others – for the land – for the generation growing up to inherit the dole and the thistles. (Daily Express, 14 December 1938)

 

To help with cash flow, for his capital was limited, Williamson intended to rely on selling newspaper articles, many of which would chronicle his experiences, good and bad, in starting his new venture. These appeared in the Daily Express, and are presented here in collected form for the very first time, chronologically and exactly as written. Several were subsequently incorporated into later books, including The Story of a Norfolk Farm and the farming volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, but they retain here a freshness and immediacy that gives them an appeal all their own. The Express also printed during this same period a few short stories taken from The Labouring Life, a book now long out of print, and these too are included.

 

The title, Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer, is actually Williamson’s own, for an early 1940s edition of Who’s Who listed it as one of his published works [and I looked in vain for a copy for several years!]. I am told by Anne Williamson that it had been intended as the sequel to The Story of a Norfolk Farm, but was never actually published, perhaps due to the exigencies of the war and paper rationing.

 

Of the illustrations in the text, there are those that originally accompanied the Express articles, which lend them a certain period charm. I must particularly thank here the Imperial War Museum for allowing me to use the photograph that headed the article ‘They saw the same star rising’, and for providing a fresh copy of the print. Additionally, Anne Williamson (for whose help, as always, I am most grateful) has provided a number of photographs from the Henry Williamson Literary Archive, while John Fursdon has kindly given me permission to use his marvellous photograph of Henry Williamson on his Ferguson tractor. The photographs of the farm buildings and fields are my own, taken on my first visit in 1968, a time when I feel that the farm must have been very much as Williamson would have known it, only just over 20 years earlier. The photograph of Ypres was taken in 1992, on my first visit there.

 

Finally, I would like to dedicate this collection to the memory of Stephen Francis Clarke, who died, tragically early, in July 2004. It was Stephen who, as an enthusiastic teenager, first introduced me to Williamson’s Lewisham, North Devon and Norfolk – areas that we delighted in exploring. At that time working for a London bookseller, he very soon set up in his own right. Trading as Clearwater Books, he specialised in Henry Williamson’s first and limited editions, becoming pre-eminent in his chosen field. He was a good friend, a staunch supporter of the Society’s publications, and will be much missed.

 

John Gregory

2004

 

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Contents:

 

How do they know? They must come back from the cities
Try digging, for a change All these things are mine

Don’t go fishing today

We shall not harm you
Spend a week in the country Did this horrify you?
Have you ever worked with your hands? I hope you get a day’s fishing soon, Mr. Chamberlain
Death of a fly they passed an Act about So we poured our barley into the gutter
When you move house, ghosts cry around Do you know why owls fly so silently?
One man begins a new adventure . . . Can a fish jump?
Hunter’s moon There’s a lot of angry talk up here . . .
There are 17 different sorts of creature . . . We shall miss our ‘tarkies’
He saw a beetle from five hundred feet away The snow will soon be all gone
Fox in the moonlight Bang! My first wild duck!
They saw the same star rising . . . Nine o’clock on Monday mornings
A village David and Goliath The old raven lost his meal
All these men get is 6s. a day The casebook of P.C. Bullcornworthy
Guest Hickey is Henry Williamson My sheep have silver outlines
The joy of a real job of work Taking a country walk today?
The darkening of the door On the ramparts of Ypres I can lie at ease
Will it never rain again? The great cuckoo mystery
Can I recommend death by shooting? Even farmers take a day off sometimes
Cats that go wild don’t last long £1,000,000 couldn’t beat nature
The miracle of the rivers We won’t be beaten
They, too, keep faith A big bang on the home front
Summer day . . . such a day as yesterday At the point of the ploughshare
The lonely couple  

 

 

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Extract:

 

One man begins a new adventure . . .

 

 

A few weeks ago I became a farmer.

 

At noon one day the old tenant went out, and I was the ingoing man. At one minute past noon, I was the occupier of an agricultural holding of two hundred and thirty five acres.

 

It is a beautiful farm – it has everything to delight a yeoman’s heart. There is a chalk trout stream (though half-polluted, alas, by a young and zealous drainage board which regards it only as a drain) where until a year or two ago two-and three-pounders were common.

 

There are woods where wild pheasants live, osier beds for duck, arable for partridges, leafy groves where the woodcock flaps in the autumn twilight, fields where the wild goose flights.

 

The first day of my farming life was fine and sunny, yet ragged with wind and north-west cloud. I decided to walk round my land.

 

The farm lies on the east coast of England. It is a district which once was famous for its barley; now more noticeable for its thistles and docks, its decaying farm labourers’ cottages, and the notoriety of its late rector.

 

I hurried across my first stubble field, a thick mat of weeds. I felt like a soldier just before zero hour.

 

The distant sea was dark blue, and very cold-looking, scored with white crenellated lines where the waves broke on sandbars.

 

I walked fast, trying not to think of all the things to be done before this land could be good again.

 

For I knew I had taken on a pretty big job. Farming, for a beginner, is a complicated and, some say, impossible undertaking for one who has had no experience of, but only a hesitant instinct for, the working country life. It was too late to draw back now, I told myself for the thousandth time.

 

I felt very hollow as I walked across the next stubble, as ‘dirty’ as the first. Would my capital last? And how was I to begin? What sort of tractor? And who would drive it? And how deep should it be ploughed?

 

Or should it be horses, costing anything between fifteen and sixty pounds each? A pair of horses would plough an acre a day – eighty acres to be ploughed. And all good farmers had got their stubble already ploughed.

 

I hurried through a wood, which was honeycombed with rabbit warrens. Should the rabbits be trapped, ferreted, or gassed? Thousands of warrens. Farming was a business. A farmer was fortunate if he got five per cent return from his capital each year. With say, £ 2,000 as capital, that meant £ 100 a year.

 

Two horses badly bought – one field wrongly done – five cows getting disease – any one of a hundred unknown things like that – and no profit. A dozen mistakes – and no capital remaining!

 

It is a law of nature that a man shall get out of the soil only what he puts into it. For a few years a bad, a lazy, a poorhearted farmer may be able to beat this natural law. The land may be in good heart when first he takes it over.

 

After a few years the land under his stewardship is in poor heart. It is weedy; its crops are poor. He leaves – perhaps to go to another farm, and cash its fertility.

 

As I walked between the fields called Fox Covert and Hang-high, I told myself I must do something to get the barley stubble and old grass ploughed up before the winter. The old unresolved problem turned up again in my head. Tractor? Horses? Or both?

 

Horse dealers were notoriously sharp people to deal with. ‘Greasy heel’ I knew, since all the summer a mare with her foal had been filling the air of the otherwise empty pastures with a memory of long unburied dead on a battlefield.

 

Horses were liable to have things the matter with them like bog spavin, bone spavin, blood spavin (wish I’d not ragged about during that 1916 Transport Course at Belton Park, Grantham, but listened more attentively to the staff-sergeant’s lectures!) – splints, thrush, anthrax, pole evil . . . I must buy two good horses . . .

 

Where could I get oats to feed them? And where keep it from the rats which swarmed in the Elizabethan brick-and-flint barns and buildings?

 

And the water not yet laid on to the cowhouses, although the well certainly was dug, and the horse-yard, slough of despond last winter, now a concrete road. (Alas, that the zealous helper laid it smooth and therefore slippery-dangerous to ponderous iron-shod beasts, instead of the herring-boned pattern I’d asked him to put down in my absence.)

 

Harness . . . straw . . . hay – I’d have to buy the stacks of the outgoing tenant, at valuation. Hay was O.K.

 

I descended to the meadows – eighty acres of swamp, a good snipe bog, but badly needing the dykes and drains digging out. Hundreds, thousands of hours’ patient digging before good bullock-fattening grasses could grow there again in spring and early summer.

 

And the fourteen acres of ‘roots’ – ten of mangel and four of turnip – oughtn’t they to be lifted, topped, clamped – otherwise dug, leaves slashed off, picked up, carted, dumped in flat piles and earth-covered to keep out the frost?

 

What was it the old bailiff had said? ‘You can’t farm light land wi’out a ewe flock.’ A sheep, I learned, ate turnips where they grew, thereby fattening itself for the market while manuring the ground for next season’s wheat.

 

Ingenious; but what sort of sheep ought I to get?

 

Some one in the pub had said, ‘You oughter buy crones.’ Before this, I had thought that an old crone was a sort of witch who lived in a wood; but apparently it was a sheep with so many teeth, an old ewe, in fact, whose milk might not be sufficient for feeding her lamb. ‘What you want is ewe hoggets,’ said some one else. I nodded, wondering bleakly what was the difference between a hog and a hogget.

 

It took two hours to get round my land, on my first day’s walk as a farmer. I returned, with wet feet and a thousand tangled thoughts, to the turkey house which is my temporary home.

 

For there is no farmhouse; and the cottage I bought to convert to a farmhouse is occupied still by an old man and his wife, who pokes a rusty gun at me whenever I go near her window. ‘Devil, thief, fool,’ she shouts. ‘Be off! No right here at all; go away!’

 

Modern version of a hard-hearted landlord: he lives in a damp and dark, a rat-ridden, queen-wasp-buzzing, door-fallen, abandoned turkey house, while the poor old tenant, earning £ 2 as gardener and also getting the old age pension for himself and his wife, lives both rent and rate free.

 

But it’s a good life if you won’t weaken. Meanwhile, wife and five children are parked out in their old nanny’s cottage in Devon.

 

I wonder, what will it be like when it rains? And the ploughing? And the draining of marshes? Hoggets, Fat Prices, Thin Prices, no prices at all, no capital, no home, no children, no bailiff . . .

 

Stop! It was worse in the war.

 

Today it’s Robinson Crusoe. Tomorrow I’ll find Man Friday. Next year, Swiss Family Robinson. The year after . . .?

 

It’s the land that matters . . . England.

 

Monday, 8 November 1937

 

 

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Postscript

 

 

With this volume the Henry Williamson Society completes its collections of the articles written by Henry Williamson during ‘the Norfolk years’ of 1937–1946. He wrote continuously for newspapers throughout this period, and chronologically this present book is the first. Why he finished writing for the Daily Express in October 1939 is unknown, but he was already writing for the Evening Standard by that time, and he may well have found it too much of a strain composing articles for two newspapers concurrently, as well as running the farm. Alternatively, it is just possible that the Express may have been asked by the authorities not to use his articles, in view of the critical nature of the final one. The Standard continued to publish his contributions until 1941, and this collection was published by the Society as Heart of England (2003).

 

Between 1941 and 1944 Williamson wrote a regular column, ‘Green Fields and Pavements’, for the Eastern Daily Press. These were collected and published by the Society under the same title in 1995, to celebrate the centenary of Williamson’s birth.

 

Finally, Williamson returned to the Evening Standard, writing a column that was published most weeks until the end of 1945; Old Hall Farm was sold in September of that year. The Society published these articles in the two-volume A Breath of Country Air (1990, 1991).

 

Together, these four books form a substantial body of work that covers a crucial period in this country’s history, and a time of great change in agriculture. Williamson originally wrote these articles for mass circulation newspapers, which are ephemeral by definition – at that time the next day’s wrapping for fish and chips. Today they are social history, but, more importantly, they remain eminently readable, to be enjoyed now by a later generation.

 

John Gregory

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (Anne Williamson), September 2005

 

. . . [this] latest collection of HW's articles [were] written for the Daily Express during what was a very critical period, an era of upheaval in HW's own life and in that of this country – and in Europe.

 

As ever with HW, his mind ranges far and wide. It covers the same era as The Story of a Norfolk Farm, and uses some of the same material but because these pieces were written for publication in a national newspaper they have both an immediacy and yet a viewpoint which goes beyond the farm. They certainly complement and round off the picture we have of those years. Enhanced by the actual illustrations used at the time of printing, plus a good sprinkling of photographs taken by John Gregory at a time when the farm still looked more or less as it did when HW owned it (this is no longer so!) and including some from the HWLE archive, this is a splendid volume both for HW readers and also for the public at large. . . .

 

I would remind you that HWJS 40 (September 2004) was devoted solely to the Norfolk Farm, and included John's masterly article on the background to these articles, with many facsimile illustrations. If you read these two in conjunction, the total effect is extraordinarily stimulating, and apart from our personal interest in HW, they also form a valuable social record of that time, as does so much of HW's writing. . . .

 

 

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Book cover:

 

The front of the e-book edition is the same as that for the book; the photograph shows Bob Sutton at harvest time, on '. . . my new tumbril . . . shining with varnish over its red and green paint, my name in white letters on the side.'

 

 

norfolk farmer large

 

 

A scan of the original photograph:

 

norfolk farmer bob sutton

 

 

 

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