Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel

An exclusive excerpt from Josephine Roberts' new book, Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel

Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel, by Josephine Roberts

Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel, by Josephine Roberts

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Excerpt courtesy of Old Pond Publishing, England, 2011; www.oldpond.com. 

Some people probably think that vintage tractors are quite un-cool. Having a passion for “old iron,” as the Americans call it, may be seen as even more “anoraky” than stamp collecting or train-spotting. But to me old tractors are beautiful. They hark back to an era when engineering was simple, elegant, easy-on-the-eye and not all covered in plastic.  

Old tractors also have a distinct edge in that they keep working, pretty much forever, unlike many of today’s machines, whose complicated electronics start to pack up as soon as the warranty expires. Personally, I’d rather be seen driving an early Field Marshall tractor through a busy town, than behind the wheel of a shiny, red Lamborghini.

I didn’t own my first tractor until I was thirty. It just wasn’t something women my age did. In a way, it just didn’t sit well with other things that I thought defined me. I liked Nick Cave, for instance, and reading the Guardian. While the sort of people I’d seen who owned old tractors wore flat caps, boiler suits and nutter jumpers (Christmas jumpers in the style of Val Doonican). I didn’t have any of these items in my wardrobe. I might not have been able to distinguish diesel from tractor vaporising oil – but I thought what the hell.

In a happy coincidence, it just so happened that I’d recently bought a ramshackle old smallholding, in a romantic bid to get back to my family’s hill farming roots. Retrospectively, this probably contributed to my thinking, for the first time ever, “I am in need of a tractor,” or maybe just, “I want a tractor.” I’m not absolutely sure which.

I know that I wanted to use one and not just show it off the way some people do. So I also knew that I had to get one that would be capable of performing most of the tasks around a seven-acre holding. Then at least it would look like I had a proper reason to own a tractor. This factor, coupled with cash limitations, forced me to stay away from the really arcane models. You can get tractors from the 1920s and they look amazing – really more like little steam engines than tractors in fact – but you are likely to pay thousands for one and very unlikely to be able to use it to bale hay. When the inevitable occurs and it breaks down you might discover that there’s only one chap alive in Britain who knows how to fix it. The odds are high that he is hiding under a flat cap in a shed somewhere on the Isle of Skye.

In the end I played it safe. My tractor came from 1959/60 – the era just before things went pear-shaped and plastic. It wasn’t expensive to buy or complicated to use, and it isn’t difficult or costly to maintain; at least not like the real antique machines or, for that matter, ultra-modern tractors. It’s a Massey Ferguson and it’s bright red.

I’ve had numerous adventures on my little tractor. It has made thousands of bales of hay – more than paying for itself in the first season. Only twice has it ever broken down, which was down to there being dirt in the fuel or, as the farmers say, “shit in the tank”: a comment that should never be taken as an order. My tractor has powered all sorts of machines and it has been with me to vintage rallies. On one occasion, it nearly killed me, or rather, I nearly killed myself on it by not adjusting something I should have adjusted on an implement that I was using.

You see while tractors aren’t at all difficult to drive, they can be quite unforgiving. Say, for instance, that you are in the wrong gear going down a steep hill, well that can be curtains, which isn’t usually the case with a car. If it were the case, we probably wouldn’t see anywhere near the amount of traffic on the roads that we do.

Sometimes women think that some of the things that men do – for instance driving tractors and mixing cement – are somehow difficult but that isn’t the case at all. Of course men definitely do things that are difficult but I wouldn’t class driving a tractor as one of them. It’s not really any harder than driving a car, a bit different perhaps, but not any harder for sure.

Now most will agree that a lot of crap is talked in pubs. Well, one day I was enjoying that particular pastime when I noticing myself saying that I’d love to drive a tractor on a holiday through Wales. Before long I was saying this almost every time I’d had a drink and I started becoming aware that I was becoming a talker, instead of a doer, which made me feel that I’d better just shut up and do it.

Then I had an unplanned pregnancy. In a way, this further spurred me on to do the trip because I knew that babies can seriously alter your life and that if I didn’t do it soon, then I might never do it. Once the baby was born, I might turn into a space-wagon-and-three-way-pushchair-owning type of person and then I might be too busy ironing sleep-suits and sterilising plastic items, ever again to enjoy pointless yet pleasing pastimes. My big fear about having a baby was that it might be the end of me as a person in my own right and I might never be able to do my own thing ever again.

Well, Father-to-be didn’t get where he is today by telling me what I can and can’t do, so he did the decent thing with regards to my tractor trip idea and said something along the lines of “Hmm.” The whole time I was preparing for my trip, I kept meaning to look at a map and plan a route but it just never really happened. Then, the week before, I saw a road map and noted with horror that driving from the southernmost tip of South Wales would involve driving through hugely industrial areas, like Ystradgynlais and Pontypridd: places that are deeply unsuited to tractors and tents.

In my mind the trip had to have a catchy title, like “From Somewhere to Such and Such Place,” rather like from “Here to Eternity” but with actual place names involved. I pondered over St David’s Head to Holyhead, but to be honest I wanted to finish somewhere pretty, like a beach perhaps, and by no stretch of the imagination can a port full of ferries, looking like oversized dishwashers, be described as a beach.

I scoured the map for other catchy pairs of north and south names. Eventually, I came up with “Pendine Sands” and “Whistling Sands,” and being that these two were fairly far apart – or as far apart as is possible in a country where nothing is that far apart – and not in the least bit grim, that is what I settled on. I was going to travel from “Pendine Sands to Whistling Sands”; alright, so I admit that it wasn’t exactly “South to North”, nor was it “Here to Eternity” for that matter, but it was the best that I could come up with. It meant starting down in Cardigan Bay, near Tenby, and driving up to the Llyn Peninsula, not far from Anglesey.

If I’m honest, Pendine Sands felt like an ironic place to start a tractor trip. This beach was the place where Land Speed World Records were once made: the irony being that Pendine Sands equals “fast”, whereas tractors equal “very slow”. I liked that contrast. It was Wrexham-born John Godfrey Parry-Thomas who set the record there in 1926, and who later died trying to defend his title in the same location. In order to really live the irony I drove as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast at all, along the aforementioned beach. I managed to get a good bit of noise and smoke out of the tractor, which always gets the adrenaline going because what it lacks in speed it certainly makes up for in sound.

As it turns out, I’m glad that I did it while I could, because I have since heard that the powers-that-be have stopped all and sundry from driving vehicles along the beach. They probably did this because people with nothing better to do felt the need to replicate the sporting glories of the past by driving (annoyingly) up and down just as I had, something quite unpleasant for everyone else using the beach.

Parry-Thomas wasn’t only a superb racing car driver, it turns out that he was also a brilliant engineer who patented a vast number of inventions. The little Museum of Speed, which is situated at the edge of the beach, tells the whole story of the Land Speed Record, where 171.02 miles per hour was reached by Parry-Thomas, in “Babs,” a 27,059cc rocket-shaped car, and, as it later turned out, death-trap.

A year after setting the Land Speed Record, the Welshman was back on the sands trying to defend his title, when “Babs” skidded and rolled, and Parry-Thomas was instantly killed. He was the first driver to be killed while pursuing the Land Speed Record and he was just forty-two years old. It struck me as rather odd to discover that “Babs” was buried in the sand where she fell and the beach was never again used for Land Speed Records. Rumour has it, that in a bizarre punishment-style ritual, “Babs” had her seats slashed and her clocks smashed before she was buried. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know.

While there was no happy ending for Parry-Thomas, there was for “Babs” when, in the late sixties, after a bit of controversy, an ex-engineering student from Bangor, called Owen Wyn Owen, dug her up, and began slowly restoring her to her former glory. Today, “Babs” is alive, well, and living in Wales, demonstrating the fact that while vehicles can return from the grave, humans cannot, except of course on television.

History aside, now back to me. Following a set itinerary can be tedious; it often means that you are forced to spend far too long on some things and not enough on others. The fact is that it would have been entirely possible to decide in advance exactly what route I would take and to book, or at least plan, a place to stay each night, but that would have meant knowing how far I would travel each day. But that was something I couldn’t anticipate, as tractor travel was new to me.

I knew that it would taint my journey, however, if I felt that “I have to be in Llan-bla-bla by tea-time tonight,” and it might also mean that I might have to rush past unexpected gems, just because I mustn’t be late for a camping arrangement at Llansuchandsuch – where’s the freedom in that? Also, let’s face it, Wales is hardly the Gaza Strip, and it’s not as if it is a dangerous place to wander about in, so what on earth was the need for a set route plan?

With that in mind, I decided that the best plan was to have no plan at all, except to follow my one desire, which was to stay off all main roads. This meant that I needed loads of Ordinance Survey (OS) maps, so that I could find and follow the single-track roads, avoiding the main roads and big towns like some fugitive Luddite-type figure.

Not only are main roads dangerous when you can only drive at about twelve miles an hour, because you stand a good chance of being rammed up the backside by a lunatic – some people’s idea of fun, but not mine – but they are also very boring to drive. The tractor that once seemed to fairly zip along the lanes, suddenly becomes painfully slow – as opposed to “chilled out” slow – on a main road, because the thought of a boy racer with his brains in his pants is never far from one’s mind.

In any case, I wanted to see something other than road signs and fast traffic. I had driven up through Wales before; I had already seen mid-Wales through the windscreen of a car, taking in little more than the sick verges of the trunk roads flashing by at sixty, and the dusty backsides of the other cars. That was just what I wanted to get away from. I wanted to see real life, not commuter-belt, trunk-road life.

My trip would be like a cycling holiday without the sweat and certainly without the Lycra – a cycling holiday chugging on diesel. I would see great scenery, at a perfect pace; not frustratingly slow and yet, not so fast that I’d be unable to take stock of my surroundings. Most importantly, I wouldn’t be viewing the world from behind a windscreen. I would smell and feel things. There would be a real sense of “here and now,” with people pegging out washing in their gardens, herons taking off from ponds, my hand on the throttle and time to look around. The point of this journey would be the journey. I had water, food and a tent on the tractor with me and there was nothing else that I needed. I would experience the open lanes and all that they had to offer and not think of them as something to get past quickly in order to be somewhere else.

Once I started viewing my journey like this, it turned from being a drive up through Wales into a little voyage of discovery. I was looking forward to spending several days all alone, because I knew full well that being alone might not happen that much again in my future. So I took my maternity leave from my job at the funeral parlour, and asked Father-to-be if he would mind towing a trailer down to Pendine Sands, with my tractor on the back.

When it came time for me to be on my way I felt a twinge of sadness saying goodbye to Father-to-be, not because I didn’t want to be on my own, but because I felt a bit guilty about leaving him to drive a noisy, slow, old Land Rover, and a huge empty trailer, all the way back up north. I suddenly saw what an effort he had made, bringing me and my pesky tractor all this way down; and how he was probably just a little bit worried about me; and how he might be hoping that I would show signs of nesting, instead of taking off with an elderly tractor and a cheap and unlikely-to-be-waterproof tent. But at the end of the day, he wanted me to be happy, and that’s why he was going along with it all.

Bless him; he had made sure I had all sorts with me, just in case. I had packed a stove and gas bottle, a water container, tent, food, sleeping bag and a few pairs of big knickers. Father-to-be had then insisted that I take gallons of spare diesel (as if there were no garages in darkest Wales), more tools than I would ever know how to use, a huge orange flashing light to strap onto the roll bar of my tractor (which he made me agree to fit whenever I went onto a main road), a first-aid kit and even a vintage-type strobe location light. The strobe light even came in its own metal case, in case I should need to be located in the dark by a midwife in a helicopter.

As for my midwife, she just sighed lots and told me to take my NHS hospital maternity notes with me, just in case. I don’t think she understood why on earth anyone who didn’t have to would want to drive a tractor anywhere, never mind through Wales, especially while heavily pregnant, sleeping in a tent each night, peeing in a hedge and eating crap dehydrated food. Pregnant women all over the UK tear down the motorway at ninety, stressed out, ten feet from the back bumper of the car in front, some chatting on a mobile phone as they go, and that is considered okay. But driving an old tractor, when you don’t have to, well that’s just daft.

To purchase your own copy of Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel, contact Diamond Farm Book Publishers at info@diamondfarm.com; by phone at 1-800-481-1353 (Monday-Friday 8-5 EST).
You can also contact Old Pond Publishing at
info@oldpond.com, or order online at https://www.oldpond.com/acatalog/gwen.html.