Ploughing matches are hardcore spring time events in Wales
When I say I have a fascination for all things vintage, I think you can include fine red wines in that category, too. After a productive day there really is nothing better than sitting down and enjoying the smooth, rich taste of a nice bottle of Bordeaux. The best place to have this moment of indulgence is out at the back of our house, beside the babbling brook, whilst the evening sun slips down behind the hills, leaving just the silhouettes of the birch trees and the sounds of wood pigeons in the distance ...
Anyway, one moment it was like that, and then I am waking up with a thumping headache, recalling with horror that I’ve agreed to go to a ploughing match at the crack of dawn with my brother Bob. Even at this unearthly hour the sun is piercing, and luckily I have the foresight to grab a pair of sunglasses before slipping quietly out of the door, trying to leave without waking the sleeping children and their dad. Because I live up a very steep and winding lane, and because my brother will be hauling a trailer, we have arranged to meet at a convenient crossroads, further down my lane.
As I lean against a wall waiting for my brother to turn up, I ask myself if I’m doing the right thing by spending my precious Saturday at a ploughing match. You see, ploughing matches are strictly hardcore: It’s all about ploughing and that’s pretty much it. This is great if the event happens to take place on a nice warm day, but since the ploughing season takes place in the spring and autumn, the sun is by no means guaranteed.
We’re headed to the most western point of the Llyn Peninsula, at the end of a little strip of land in North Wales that points out across the Irish Sea. Aberdaron, the little village where the match is to be held, is closer to Ireland than it is to England, and on a clear day you can see the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland in the distance, some 40 to 50 miles away across the Irish Sea. The Llyn Peninsula is a beautiful area, with rolling fields, sandy beaches and wild craggy cliffs. But on the wrong day it can be a cold and desolate spot, as there is very little shelter from sea winds in this the very tip of northwest Wales.
Early last winter Bob bought a Bristol crawler. Like most of us do when we buy something we don’t need, he tried to convince himself that it would be “a useful machine,” but deep down he knew, and we knew, that it was really a big boy’s toy. Having said that, he has done some work grading tracks with it, so it has earned him a bit of money. Last winter we had a lot of snow, and Bob enjoyed a spot of snow ploughing with the crawler, but when the real ploughing season started, he removed the blade to see how the crawler would work in a ploughing match.
This particular crawler – a Bristol PD Angledozer – is a bulldozer with no hydraulics on the rear to attach a plough to. Therefore the only sort of plough that Bob can use is a trailer plough, which means that for ploughing match purposes Bob is in the “Pre-1966 Vintage Trailer Plough Class.” In this class both the plough and the tractor must pre-date 1966, which is fine as the crawler dates to 1962-’63.
Bob came around the corner driving his Mercedes Unimog with the plough on the back and the crawler on a trailer behind, and into the left hand side of the Unimog I jump. Of course in Britain we drive on the left, so our vehicles are right-hand drive, but the Unimog is German, so it is a left-hand drive machine, which makes oncoming drivers on a small lane think that the passenger is actually the driver. When the passenger happens to be a 3-year-old boy, people are open-mouthed. You can almost see them thinking, “My word, there’s a tiny kid in charge of that huge machine – and he’s not even looking where he’s going!”
The Unimog is high up and it allows you to peer over hedges and generally have a good nosy into people’s gardens as you pass. But it is rather a noisy and lurching thing, because after all it is a tractor. It might look like a truck, but it is classed for registration purposes as a tractor. It has hydraulics, power take-off, and more gears than you can shake a stick at and although it is not quite as manoeuvrable as a tractor, it can do pretty much everything that a tractor can do. In many ways it is more convenient than a tractor as it has space on the back to carry a small load, and it has a Hiab (a piece of lifting equipment), which means Bob is able to carry his trailer plough right on the back of the Unimog itself.
At the ploughing match I sit in the cab having a cup of coffee from my flask whilst Bob unloads. “Ah, the beauty of being just a spectator,” I say to myself as I put my feet up on the dashboard. Lazy, I know, but he’s got the unloading and loading of tractors off to a fine art and he doesn’t particularly seem to want or need my assistance.
This match is held in a part of the world where earth banks are commonplace as farm boundaries. Usually there is a fence or a hedge along the top of these banks. The idea is that in a windswept place, the banks offer shelter to crops and livestock. Traditionally the banks were made by hand, but frequently these days they are repaired (or even built from scratch) by farmers with their diggers.
This match is one of the few places where bank repair competitions are held. There is a class for those who repair a bank by hand (using stone) and another for those repairing a turf bank by mechanical means. Today fencing competitions will also be held to see who can erect the tidiest, tightest and straightest fence in a given time.
Competitors start ploughing after they have registered at about 9:30 a.m. The “opening” of the ploughing plot is tricky – it must be straight of course, and if you get this wrong it can mess things up for the rest of the day. The judges inspect the opening of the plot, and the first six furrows have been ploughed on either side of the opening. This initial section is referred to as the “crown.”
When the plot is complete the judges look again at the finished work, and points are awarded for furrows that are uniform, level and straight. Points are also awarded for firm, well packed furrows and general neatness. Some soil lends itself to neat ploughing better than others, and whilst in a competition everyone is pretty much in the same situation as far as conditions go, there is a small chance that you could be unlucky and find yourself in a plot that is more uneven, or stonier perhaps, than what it should be. Generally though, every effort is made to hold ploughing competitions in large flat fields, where everyone should, in theory, be given the same sort of plot.
As a spectator at a ploughing match, one tends to wander from competitor to competitor, watching what each is doing and chatting with passersby. Today there’s a thin wind, but the sky is bright and blue and the ground is so dry that it would have been possible to tour the field in a pair of open-toed stiletto heels (not that I did). An extremely dry spring meant that the ground was rock hard.
One of the first competitors I watched was a local lad of just 13 called Euron. He had just started ploughing in competitions. The age at which one can legally drive a tractor on a public road is 16, but at 13 one is legally allowed to plough in a designated area (away from the public). I’ve heard it said that you know you are getting old when the policemen look young, but what about ploughmen? I certainly felt I was getting old when I looked at young Euron. He looked like a young boy, but there he was getting to grips with a ploughing competition.
At one point his dad (also a competitor, but in a different class) came to see how he was getting on and offered Euron some advice. The dry ground made it difficult for smaller tractors to get their ploughs in the ground, and once they did, it was just as hard to pull the plough through the ground. It is quite impossible to get a nice, straight, even furrow if you have to back up for a second run, or if you have to lurch about with your tractor trying to gain traction. In conditions like this ploughing shallow is probably the only answer. Weighed-down ploughs help the plough sink but make it harder for the tractor to pull. Some competitors tried letting a bit of air out of the tyres in order to gain grip, which seemed to help a bit.
Bob has asked me to take some photographs of him ploughing with the crawler, so I reckon by now that he will have done a few furrows and I make my way to the far end of the next field to where I think his plot is. The crawler is parked beside the plot, with the engine off, and the bit of ploughing that has been done looks like it might have been done by a drunk. What went wrong, I wonder?
First, the trailer plough didn’t want to go into the ground. It wasn’t heavy enough to penetrate this rock-hard ground, so it kept coming out of the ground and moving to one side. Then Bob made the mistake of continuing to plough before the judge had inspected the crown. Because the judge needed him to stop, he attempted to get out of the position he was in by making a small shunt, and of course you can’t effectively back up with a trailer plough, and the shunt resulted in a broken hydraulic pipe. So that was the end of that. Bob took it in good humour, as he was there for the fun of it, rather than to win any prizes.
Generally, around here, crawlers would only have been used for ploughing on steep hillsides or extremely rough ground – the sort of terrain where ordinary tractors of a similar size would struggle. During World War II, farmers were forced to plough every available acre in order to feed our hungry nation. For farmers in places like North Wales with limited access to flat fertile fields, it became necessary to plough land long considered unsuitable for cultivation. I have met men now in their 80s whose job it once was to plough these steep hillsides with crawlers. The emphasis was on getting the job done rather than producing perfect furrows. With a heavy duty plough, just about any terrain could be cultivated.
Another of my brothers competed in the horse ploughing competition. Readers might recall an article I wrote about Dafydd and his Comtois horses (Farm Collector, March 2009). They were here today, looking chunkier than ever. They coped well with the conditions, but Dafydd had his work cut out trying to keep the plough in the hard ground.
To save strain on the horses and harnesses, the competitors were ploughing shallow, especially Gordon McKay from Doncaster who was ploughing with a pair of Fiord ponies, who were at the very most just 14 hands in height. Most ploughing horses seen in the U.K. are Shires, Clydesdales or other draught horses of French or Belgian origin. Gordon’s pair was quite different, as they are Norwegian Fiord ponies.
Fiord ponies are only about 13 to 14.2 hands in height, but for their size they are immensely strong. In Norway they are thought of as draught animals. Fiord ponies are always a golden dun colour, and they have distinctive primitive markings in the form of a full length dark dorsal stripe right along the mane and down into the tail. These hardy little multi-purpose ponies, one of the world’s oldest breeds, were first domesticated more than 4,000 years ago.
It is usually about 5 p.m. before the judges have all of the results. By then some contestants have loaded up and left. In any case it is easy to find out results later. Every arable region of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland has ploughing matches, some of which are qualifying events for the National Championships.
Held at different venues each year, the National Championships feature an expanding range of classes for all manner of tractors and ploughs from vintage to modern, and of course the much loved horse-drawn ploughing classes. Steam ploughing and horticultural equipment can also be seen at work in these larger matches, and events like the British Nationals are also host to a lot more trade stands. This year’s British Championships will be held in Taunton, Somerset, England, Oct. 8-9. So, if any ploughing enthusiasts out there are planning to visit the U.K. at that time you might like to call in at Taunton, which is incidentally a county famous for its fantastic cider. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a review of Josephine Robert’s new book, Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel, see Between the Bookends.
For an exclusive excerpt from Gwen and the Art of Tractor Travel, go to www.FarmCollector.com/Gwen-Excerpt.