Countryside Alliance Magazine
Article by Stanley Johnson for the Countryside Alliance Magazine 'Update', published Autumn 2009
My parents bought a farm on Exmoor in the autumn of 1951. I was eleven years old at the time, at a prep-school near Tiverton in Devon, and I can still remember the magical Sunday, some weeks before the sale was completed, when my father collected my brother and me from school to show us our new home for the first time.
The farm lies in the steep-sided Exe valley, between Winsford and Exford, only a few miles from the source of the river. To reach it, you have to drive up a long and bumpy track. The wildlife, then as now, was spectacular. Herons, barn-owls, woodpeckers, buzzards, king-fishers, kestrels – this was just a sample of the birdlife. Red deer abounded – sometimes you could see as many as thirty at a time. Badgers, foxes, even otters coexisted happily. The place was rich in butterflies.
Above all, of course, ours was a working farm, devoted to the rearing of hill sheep and cattle. We took over a flock of Exmoor Horns from the outgoing owners and a few months after we had moved in found ourselves in the midst of our first lambing, the key event in the farming calendar.
My father didn’t think of himself as a ‘gentleman farmer.’ For him, farming was a vocation. It was something he had wanted to do all his life. War-time injuries had meant that he came to the land late in life, but I am sure that, once he started farming on Exmoor, he never had any regrets.
Of course, it was not all peaches and cream. Few farms on Exmoor then had mains electricity and, if you had a telephone, it was probably a party line. There was the Great Flood of August 1952, and the harshest of winters a decade later. There was certainly not a lot of money to be made either. One year our accountant reported that we had ‘made a profit of £13.3.6d’, but that was as good as it got.
My father had a tremendous sense of ‘belonging’ to the farming community. After a day’s work, he would head for the pub. His view was that if you wanted to talk to a man about a dog, the pub was the place to be.
If farming was the economic and social heart of Exmoor, it was also largely responsible for the sheer beauty of the countryside, the intricate pattern of field and hedge, wall and ditch. Sheep, cattle and ponies grazed the moor and kept it in good order, long before the word 'amenity' entered the rural vocabulary. Any crop-damage inflicted by the deer was seen by the farming community as an acceptable price to pay given the crucial role played by hunting in the life of the community.
Almost sixty years on, we still have that same Exmoor valley. And most of the farming families my father knew are still there today. We owe them so much. Though the farms now have lambing-sheds and many of the farmers have quad bikes, this is still recognizably the country which I knew as a boy. I would argue that, in a world of change, Exmoor has somehow miraculously managed not to change all that much. As some wise old bird once put it: "if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." . But that takes guts and determination too.
As I write, a public enquiry is being held in South Molton about a proposed 'ring of steel' around the edges of the moor as the wind-turbine enthusiasts push their giant engines into ever more inappropriate areas. This may be one of the toughest battles Exmoor has yet to fight.
Stanley Johnson's memoir Stanley I Presume is published by Fourth Estate and available from all good bookshops and amazon.co.uk ISBN: 978-0-00-729672-9
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