Josephine Roberts reminds us that it’s important for us to preserve all aspects of rural history.
It will no longer be autumn, or as you call it fall, by the time you read this, but today as I write I am sitting at my kitchen table, with the log-fuelled Rayburn beside me blasting out heat, cooking a soup, drying clothes, and heating the house and the water, and it looks very autumnal through the window. The wind is billowing around, carrying with it swirling processions of birch and oak leaves, and as is often the case in North Wales, it is raining, but that’s good weather for writing.
As I sit thinking of which exciting examples of farming heritage, which rare and racy tractor, which quirky machine or temperamental engine I should write about this time, I look out of the kitchen window for inspiration. I gaze upon some hardy little Welsh mountain sheep on the hillside opposite. Beyond them is an old stone wall probably dating from the time of the 18th century Land Enclosure Acts. In the foreground of the scene is a yew tree that’s probably been there since the time of the Magna Carta some 800 years ago.
So, it seems that when I actually open my eyes and really look, there is history and heritage all around me, yet I had been thinking of rural heritage as something that we go out and purchase, and not something that might just be all around us, if we only opened our eyes.
We take our heritage very much for granted, and often tend only to value heritage “items” that come with a high price tag, but it is important to preserve all aspects of our rural history, not just the costly, highly collectible examples. But how, for instance, do we ensure that our traditional livestock breeds survive, or that our nation’s dry stone wall field boundaries are preserved?
It’s not easy, and largely we have to rely on the dedication of some wonderful individuals to help preserve these treasures. I recently met some dry stone wall builders who are passionate about repairing old walls, and who are keen to encourage others to carry on this age old trade, to learn the skill, and to pass it on, in the hope that our ancient walls can be preserved for future generations.
I’ve also attended a local show where traditional British breeds of sheep, cattle, poultry and ponies were on display, advertising the merits of these old breeds. I’m also pleased to hear that the current owners of the ancient oak forest up the lane from my home (and once owned by my grandfather) have had a preservation order put on the forest, so that it cannot be destroyed by any future owners. Even our old traditional red telephone box is going to be preserved, which is a relief as without it, I can never give anyone directions to my home, because it is “after the phone box …” These little things are all quite reassuring in a world which, sometimes, appears to have gone quite insane.
Later that day, when the weather cleared, I drove to a boggy piece of wilderness a mile and a half from home in search of some British native livestock to photograph. A neighbour of mine often grazes his Highland cattle on this upland peat bog, and I had often noticed, when riding past on my horse, how amazingly the colours of these animals blend into that of the natural environment, and thought that I should come this way with a camera one day.
The area the animals graze consists of rushes, moss and pools of water surrounded by coarse marsh grasses, dotted with a mix of heathery shrubs, silver birch, mountain ash, holly and hawthorn trees. In other words, it is the sort of place that is usually considered pretty useless from a farming point of view, but is very rich in flora and fauna, and a great place to go bird spotting.
However, it seems that farming does manage to take place in this hostile environment, because thriving here is a small group of Highland cattle belonging to my neighbour Geraint Hughes. The reason Geraint has decided to keep this particular breed is because these low-maintenance animals are the best converter of poor forage into fat that there is. No other cattle breed can tolerate the cold winds and the high rainfall like the Highland can, and no other breed can match the Highland’s ability to thrive on a diet of reeds, shrubs and coarse mountain grasses.
When I finally spotted the well-camouflaged reddish dun cattle, one of them was up to its belly in rushes, grazing happily on the coarse stems and eyeing me from under its fringe, while another was painstakingly plucking holly from a tree, and using its tongue to shove the prickly bunches to the molars at the back of the jaw, and then grinding them up like a slow-motion combine harvester, with a calm contented look on its face.
This is how the cattle spend their day, moving slowly and carefully through the marsh and the trees, taking their time to chew on the tough offerings. Far from placing a strain on the delicate ecosystem of the upland marsh, the cattle actually help preserve the biopersity by eating the tough grasses and rushes that can dominate these landscapes. As I leave to go back to the car, I realize I’ve been charmed by these peaceful creatures, and heartened by the thought that farming is managing to co-exist with nature in this unspoiled wilderness.
As an antidote to all of this sentimentality, I’m going to finish by telling you about a couple of exciting new/old machines that have appeared around here during recent months.
To begin with, my brother Bob has acquired a 1974 Haflinger, which is an odd-looking little off-road vehicle built in Austria by Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Haflingers were a favorite vehicle with the military, with the Swiss and Austrian armies being the main customers, but these quirky little 4 x 4s were also sold to civilians and exported worldwide to some 35 countries.
They were used onboard ships for shunting aircraft, to squeeze along narrow tracks and climb steep Austrian hillsides and as off-road ambulances. They could be adapted to run on railway tracks as municipal emergency services vehicles, they were used to manage snow, and as all-purpose farm or estate vehicles in mountainous regions like Scotland, the North of England and Wales. I believe over in the U.S., a bug-eyed version of the Haflinger was available, so this one pictured might seem slightly different than the examples you have over there.
Bob has enjoyed putting the Haflinger through its paces. He’s got it road-legal so he can pop to the shops in it, and he has enjoyed a spot of off-roading too, with me as a passenger clinging to my seat, because although the lightweight Haflinger is a pretty much “go anywhere” machine, it is rather lacking in the modern safety features that we take so much for granted these days – things like seat belts and roll bars, for instance.
Instead, we have no doors, a metal bar right behind one’s head, and a seat that ends half way up one’s back. What we do have instead is a nice little chain that clips across where the door should be.
Bob reassures me that if these vehicles do roll over, it “isn’t a big problem,” as they are so light that a couple of fit blokes can re-right them. I’ve reached the age where I don’t actually know two fit blokes, and anyway, I wasn’t thinking about recovering the vehicle from a rollover situation, I was thinking more about what state we humans would be in after a roll-over situation.
In any event, we returned from our mountain safari unharmed, and even though the Haflinger is a funny-looking, narrow, lightweight and rather dinky machine, it is an amazing piece of off-road kit. Rather than thrashing its way through wet ground, the Haflinger tiptoes over the top of it, weaves its way between rocks and trees, and purrs steadily up banks and down-drops in second gear.
It really is a versatile little machine, and I apologise now to it for the fact that I laughed out loud when I first saw it. Bob is going to keep the Haflinger, so it will continue to be a regular sight on our local roads, no doubt attracting a lot of smiles and raised eyebrows wherever it goes.
Another nice machine to enter the Roberts family stable is a David Brown Cropmaster bought recently by my nephew Matthew. Matthew has a yard in the local town and is a steel fabricator and all-round mechanic with a passion for old tractors and trucks. He’s always admired the unique shape of these particular tractors, and he tried as a youngster to persuade his father to buy one, but his dad, alas, was a Fordson fanatic, and wouldn’t cross the line over to David Brown tractors.
When Matthew recently had the opportunity to purchase a Cropmaster, he jumped at the chance, even though he knew that the engine was in need of some attention. “It’s suffered some frost damage,” he tells me, “and it has some internal cracks by the looks of it.” Matthew is looking out for a replacement engine, but has considered fitting it with a diesel engine instead of the original petrol engine it came with. David Brown offered a diesel version of the Cropmaster in 1949, so it wouldn’t be wholly inappropriate to fit a diesel engine into the tractor if one could be sourced.
The David Brown Cropmaster, built between 1947 and 1953 in Huddersfield, England, was unlike any other tractor of its era in that it had a double seat. Some say that was to carry an assistant, like a throwback from the horse-drawn days when assistants were often required to operate implements. Others more sweetly think of the double seat as a way of carrying one’s spouse or lover – which led to the tractor being given the nickname “the courting tractor.” The double seat means that the driver’s pedals are all positioned on one side of the gear lever, and the steering wheel too is offset to one side, making it quite an unusual little tractor to drive.
The David Brown Co. has since the 1870s specialised in gear making and gear systems, but in 1936 the company made its first foray into tractor production via a joint venture with Harry Ferguson. The result was the Ferguson Brown tractor, which, due to the relatively low numbers produced, is a very sought-after tractor today.
However, Harry Ferguson and David Brown soon came to a disagreement (Harry Ferguson, whilst undeniably a genius, was also known to be a rather difficult man) so the David Brown Co. went its own way and produced the VAK 1, which was launched in 1939. With the advent of the Cropmaster in 1947, the company established itself as a well-respected tractor producer, known for building durable and reliable tractors.
As for us, well, we don’t have shed space for any more tractors, and I’d prefer not to leave a nice tractor outside as we get a lot of rain here in Wales, but all the same my partner and son managed to squeeze a small one in recently. They bought an old ride-on mower, of the sort that looks a little like a small tractor. It’s a bit of a tatty old thing, it didn’t cost a lot, and it can be used for mowing and small trailer jobs, though with our small, awkward-shape lawn, I’m sure it’s easier to use a walk-along mower … but there we are, boys will be boys, and this pair have clearly managed to find a good excuse to add to the collection, albeit in a small way.
I’m happy to compromise, as a ride-on mower is a whole different thing from a proper tractor. My son dreams of owning a Leyland 154, and although this lovely machine is small, it is still a “proper tractor” and I’m trying to persuade him to be patient, to save up, and to wait until he is a teenager before investing in his own “all singing, all dancing” tractor. If you have too much, too young, then there’s nothing left to look forward to, is there? FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.