In 1953 my parents went farming. My father had been a metallurgist, a foundreyman, but it was not a career that he would have chosen for himself and I don’t think it really suited him. In any case his health was being worn down by the fumes in the foundry, and so with the help of the legacy from Uncle William, they decided to go farming. Both my parents came from a farming background, and it was something that they very much wanted to do, but it was a big leap of faith, though eventually a very successful one.
Hitherto they had been living in Northampton, but they decided to move to the South west, so eventually they found a farm called Summerdown, near Honiton, in Devon. It was 4 or 5 miles south of Honiton, near the small village of Northleigh. It was a run-down farm when they took it on, about 50 acres, but very steep: it was in a valley, virtually a strip across the valley, with road running along the top of each side of the valley. The farm itself was about half way down the (east??) side, with a long approach road: near the top was a cottage that was occupied by the person who had sold us the farm. By all accounts he was a lazy good-for-nothing who had let the farm, run down. However our property ran down to a stream, then up the other side to the road at the top.
We took it over complete with the livestock – a very miscellaneous collection of cows. The original plan was to do mixed animal husbandry, cows for their milk, hens for their eggs, and pigs for their bacon. We took on a very miscellaneous collection of cows to start off with, but father was determined to convert them to a Jersey Herd. Milk with more than 4% body fat coming from approved herds of either Jersey or Guernsey received a higher price for their milk than the ordinary cows, and they were determined to be high-class farm producing the very best milk. The conversion took time. Every time a cow came on heat we sent for the inseminator who stuck his arm up the cows backside and did artificial insemination. One can choose which bull was wanted for the insemination, and we always chose a pedigree Jersey, and in this way we gradually turned into a Jersey Herd. My father also bought cows at the market in Honiton, and in this way the herd gradually expanded. He kept very accurate records of every milking of each cow, and could watch their progress.
The hens were less of a success. My parents originally envisaged selling their produce over the farm gate or in local markets but they soon discovered the existence of the Milk Marketing Board, which meant that everything both milk and eggs – I am not certain about bacon – had to be sold via the Milk Marketing Board at a fixed price. However the eggs all had to be cleaned and since inevitably a good proportion came in dirty from the henhouses there seem to be an interminable task of cleaning eggs, and when I was at home in the holidays I naturally joined in.
The fields surrounding the house were also in poor condition: only the ones nearest the house had been used for farming and the others had all been abandoned and were reverting to Forest. Indeed it was very interesting from the archaeological point of view to see how a field, once abandoned for a dozen or more years, would soon revert to Forest. My father had quite a job in clearing fields – every year he aimed to clear a couple more – by pulling out the trees with the tractor.
We had a Ferguson tractor which was the latest thing at the time the Ferguson was superior to other tractors in that it had a lifting system at the back so that when ploughing, when one reached the end of the furrow, you simply lifting the plough up and turned round and then put it down for the next furrow. I had wonderful fun on the tractor. I soon learned to drive: it had three low gears which were used for farm work and a fourth much higher gear which could be used on the roads and where you could get up to a speed of 20 or even 30 mph. Of course I was not allowed on the road, but I could go all over the farm. I remember doing some ploughing on the big field on the far side of the farm. The farm sloped down from the farmhouse to the stream and then the other side it sloped up even more steeply to another road on the far side. There was a big field that had reverted to Heath. There were reputed to be snakes in it so we put some pigs to graze in it because pigs are immune to snake poison and like eating snakes and are a good way of clearing land of snakes. I did some ploughing up and down the steep slope: in retrospect it was rather scary because I was always afraid that the tractor would turn over and crush me, but I survived!
The house itself was interesting from the archaeological point of view, for it was a long house, just four or five rooms in a row with no corridor to connect them: you just went from one room to the next. There was a second story where the bedrooms were, and again you had to go from one bedroom to the other.
There was a main staircase, but fortunately there was also a small staircase at the far end between the two end bedrooms, which could thus be accessed from the ground without going through the other bedrooms.
The doors did not have proper door furniture, but instead they had wooden latches which were opened from the other side by pulling on a leather strap. I was only there in my holidays from Rugby, but in retrospect I rather enjoyed it.
There was no electricity – we had to generate our own and there was a generator in adjacent to the cow stalls and every morning one had to start it up. It was a single cylinder diesel, and you had to get the handle and slowly, slowly then faster and faster revolve around the plant and then when it was going fast enough, flip a switch when the diesel enter the cylinder and hopefully it would file and sharpen up to its proper speed driving the generator. There was a system of batteries which did not work very well but it did mean that there was always a somewhat dim light in the house stop everything however was DC and we had to buy all electrical equipment specially to work of the DC power supply. My mother even then was having trouble with her back and so when we were back from school I suppose I must have been 17 or 18 at the time, I was expected to do a lot of the starting up of the generator.
But there was also one luxury – a swimming pool. This was to one side of the garden – in fact it was behind from where the photograph is taken. It was simply a hole which had been dug into the ground very crudely, I suspect by a JCB or something, and had then been lined with cement, so was really like a big bath. The sides were not a right angles to the bottom, but curving, as in a bath. As I remember it, it was just a concrete surface, though it may have been painted a sort of dull white. There was a drain in the bottom from which it could be drained every winter, but there was no chlorination or a filtering system — it was just filled with water and one hoped it didn’t get too dirty. If it did, there was nothing for it but to pull the plug, wait a day for it to empty, and then a couple of days for it to be filled up again with a hose pipe.
I got into the habit of swimming there in the morning sometimes before breakfast. But on those crisp summer mornings it felt wonderfully free to strip off, and plunge into the cold water!
My visit, 2015
I visited Summerdown again in September 2015. It was after the CIA meeting in Wimborne, where we finished early, so I decided to go down to Dorchester to visit the old print works and then on the spur of the moment I decided to go on to Summerdown.
I first went to the other side of the valley and discovered Summerdown, looking absolutely gorgeous in the autumn sunshine and I took some splendid photos. I then went back to the fork in the road and then down the other side of the valley to Summerdown. Feeling very brave I drove down the steep road and found myself in the farmyard. I got out and wandered around wondering whether I could take any photos when the lady in the house came out to investigate. I introduced myself and explained that I had lived there in the 1950s, and she was delighted to see me and took me and showed me all round the house and allow me to take lots of photos.
I gather that her husband was a financier of some sort, and spent most of the week in London, but this was their dream house on which they had lavished a lot of care and attention and money. They had built an extension joining up the main house with the summer house, making it into a rather large property and they had furnished it beautifully. I saw again the main room with a large fireplace and the funny staircase that led behind the fireplace up to the first floor. It was very steep, but that was the way up to my bedroom!
I also saw some of the original door-latches, still there, where there was a hole in the door with a leather string and you had to pull the length of string from the other side to raise the latch.
Outside the swimming pool had been filled in – indeed she was not even aware that there had been a swimming pool — there is just a muddy depression. But there is certainly a magnificent view from the house across the valley and it all looked idyllic. I could see why they had fallen in love with it – if you don’t have to drive a tractor up and down, it is a wonderful home.
She also told me about an excavation that had taken place in the deserted cottages down at the bottom of the valley. This had been conducted by Hazel Riley as part of a ‘Parishscapes community project’ funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, East Devon county council and Natural England to investigate the ‘disappeared houses’ in the parishes of Northleigh and Offwell, and she had carried out an fortnight’s excavation in March 2010. The tithe map of 1840 showed half a dozen cottages down by the stream. We had always known that there were some ruins down there: I assumed there had been some sort of barn and never dreamed that there were actual houses. But the Tithe maps showed half a dozen houses, and the 1861 census provided some names. They excavated part of one cottage which they decided was Lees cottage: there were few finds, but these all suggested that occupation had been in the mid-19th century and it was deserted by 1870.
Sue Woodruff had a copy of the report which she gave to me which I have now had copied and returned the original to her, but it was fascinating to realise that an excavation had been carried out on the farm.
The owners were David and Sue Woodruff at Summerdown farm, Offwell, Honiton, EX14 9SS, telephone (01404) 871476 with an email SueWoodruff@BTInternet.com. She made me warmly welcome and invited me back and said next time we should visit Lower Holditch, where she also knew the owners.
On to the Summerdown excavations
On to Lower Holditch