A Passion for the Past

Josephine Roberts examines the human fascination with yesteryear and her own passion for the past

| December 2012

  • Father With Standard Fordson
    My late father plowing with the Standard Fordson and trailer plow. Having used the Fordson as a young man, my father had no particular fondness for the tractor. I, on the other hand, am hugely sentimental about “the old days” and would love to own the actual tractor that Dad drove. However, times were hard and food on the table was what was important and so, at some stage before I came along, the tractor was sold for scrap. 
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Parents With Standard Fordson
    My parents in the very early 1950s on a Standard Fordson tractor, the first tractor to come to my grandfather’s hill farm here in North Wales. My grandfather refused to use it, preferring his faithful horses.
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Grandfather With Plough Horses
    My grandfather, William Roberts, pausing his ploughing to stamp down a rising furrow. 
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Grandfather With Horse-Drawn Plough
    My grandfather standing at the handles of his horse-drawn plough. When mechanization finally came to North Wales, the old plough was left in a hedgerow. A half century later, my brother Dafydd restored it and learned to use it. 
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Farm Notebook
    Pages from my grandfather's farm notebook dating to about 1911. In it he has drawn various sheep earmarks used by farmers and shepherds. Every farm had its own mark and each one in this part of North Wales was included in this booklet. Intermingled with the sketches are hand-written snippets of Welsh poetry.
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Yorkshire Wolds Wagon
    Norman Frost frequently works on carts that are at elast 150 years old. This cart is a Yorkshire Wolds wagon dating to 1804. A similar cart can be seen in John Constable's famous painting The "Hay Wain" dating to 1821.
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Welsh Wagon
    Norman with the remains of a Welsh wagon. Each region had its own style of cart. A Yorkshire wagon, for instance, differed slightly from a Welsh wagon. Knowledge of such regional differences is fading, Norman says, as many people don't see value in restoring relics such as these. Norman has vowed to restore as many as possible.
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Slaughterman's Wagon
    The slaughterman's wagon after restoration. Note the low-slung floor that allowed easy winching of deadstock and easy access for livestock.
    Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts

  • Father With Standard Fordson
  • Parents With Standard Fordson
  • Grandfather With Plough Horses
  • Grandfather With Horse-Drawn Plough
  • Farm Notebook
  • Yorkshire Wolds Wagon
  • Welsh Wagon
  • Slaughterman's Wagon

In the details at the end of my articles in Farm Collector I’m described as “having a passion for all things vintage” – and that’s certainly true – but what’s behind such a fascination, I wonder? Why do so many of us have this fondness for old objects? “Vintage” is everywhere: clothes, cars and kitchenware. It seems that “vintage” and her wealthier older brother “antique” are big business these days, with many people prepared to pay a premium to get their hands on their own little slice of the past.

Aside from their monetary value, relics often have a special quality, as though they had absorbed the essence of past owners. A very old pair of opera glasses hangs by my fireplace. I bought them at a sale for the price of a bottle of beer. I’ve no idea who they belonged to back in the day, but when I handle them I’m aware that I’m holding something from another era, a time so different that it seems almost fairy tale-like. These glasses are a little remnant from a past time, never to be again. They may be all that remains of a person who lived, loved and was lost back in that strange place of mystery and romance that we call “the past.”

The good old days were no bed of roses

“The past”: What a place that is! Each individual’s knowledge, experience and beliefs about the past are different. I tend to think that the past was somehow a better place. To counterbalance that, I frequently have to remind myself that the good old days of 150 years ago weren’t all a bed of roses, especially if you happened to be female. I recall telling my father that I wished I’d lived in the era before the motorcar was invented. I envisaged happy horses pulling handsome carts and trotting merrily around some unspoilt rural idyll.

My father tried to put me straight. He told me of his youth on a remote hill farm in the mountains, when he’d see the horse from the village bringing coal up the steep little lane that went on for more than a mile. The little horse was sweating and puffing and lathered in foam, hardly able to stand by the time it reached the farm. “It would have broken your heart,” he told me, knowing that I, as a young horse fanatic, would have hated to see the cruelty that without doubt existed in a time when horses were just transport, and not everyone who kept them did their best by them.



He told a far worse story about a young girl on a hill farm in the snow. She was kicked in the belly by a cow and slowly bled to death by the fire in front of her family, as there was no way to get her down the hillside to a doctor in the blizzard. Grinding poverty, lack of medical expertise, high rates of infant mortality and poor life expectancy made “the past” a hard place for a lot of people.

Rose-colored glasses?

Read any Thomas Hardy novel and you will see that the 1880s were scary times for poor folk. Hunger, cold, death and disease were never far away, and a woman’s best hope was to marry someone who wasn’t too cruel. Yet when I read of pastoral settings in Hardy’s The Woodlanders, it seems as though that is how life should be. Hardy describes a time when people lived simply, making use of the resources around them, and pulled together for the greater good. He describes the scenes factually, but to my eyes the picture painted is one of haunting beauty. Surely there can be no doubt that the past certainly looked better even if it really wasn’t.