A proper farm
After my parents had been at Summerdown for half a dozen years, they decided it was time to move on. (Around 1956?) They had gone there is some trepidation, wondering whether they would be able to cope with farming, and by this time the answer was a triumphant yes. They had learnt all the basics of farming, they knew what they wanted to do, — to concentrate on milk and in particular on the higher priced Jersey milk – and Summerdown was in many ways a rough old farm. For one thing it was far too steep: it was a difficult farm to farm. The house too, though not without its charm, was not in any way a gracious building. Furthermore, they had not made any friends there. It was rather remote from a village: it was too far from Honiton for the town to be a base for friendship. The only village was Farway, a strange sort of village down a very steep hill – if I remember the main road was a one in five slope. The only person they got to know that was an old lady called Mrs Kirwan, who was a strange old biddy. She had many weird and wonderful stories about her ancestry – some of which may possibly have been true. She also had what she claimed to be a Picasso a piece of cardboard with a sort of painting on – I suppose it could be genuine – but almost certainly was not.
But it was time to move on, and they found what they were looking for at Lower Holditch. Lower Holditch was situated 20 miles to the east, on the border of Devon and Dorset. It was in fact in Dorset though Devon was across the stream at the bottom of the garden, and the postal address was Axminster, Devon. It was about 4 miles from both Axminster and Chard.
It was a much better farm, in that it was on the flat. The actual farm was in two parts: there were about 30 acres surrounding the farm, and there were a further 20 acres in an isolated block a couple of hundred yards up the road. In all it came to about 50 acres which is about the size they were looking for, and just about the right size for a one-man band small dairy farm. I don’t remember helping out on the farm so much – I don’t think I was at home as much. Although I remember becoming comparatively proficient at the milking, letting the cows in from the yard to the milking parlour, fastening them in their stalls, washing their udders with a special water with a disinfectant against mastitis, and then putting on the four teats of the milking machine. The lorry for the milk churns came promptly at nine and if you missed it – as we occasionally did — it was a matter of putting the churns in the back of the tractor and taking them to the depot at Chard Junction where they would be taken up to London by train.
The house too was much better: it was described in the sales particulars as a small manor house, which I think was exaggerating a little, but it was still a very gracious house with a wing that had a large sitting room.
And there was village life too. The nearby village of Thorncombe proved to be just the right size and my mother threw herself into the Mothers Union and the Women’s Institute and they went to church every Sunday. I seem to remember getting into a little trouble when I proclaimed that I didn’t believe in God or church – but I still went along occasionally.
Two major families dominated Thorncombe. The biggest was Forde Abbey, a large Cistercian abbey where many of the monastic buildings had survived, and were inhabited by the Roper family, who maintained the splendid gardens which are now open to the public. However we were not really on their level.
Far more approachable were the Eyre family of Sadborow, – a fine neo-classical mansion built 1773-5. There was Cmdr Eyre, the father, who had been in the navy. He like to act the role of absent-minded patrician, but I think underneath he was pretty astute. His wife, the Hon Mrs Joy Eyre kept him in order, but both were extremely charming. They were part of the Eyre family which in the 17th century had owned a large farm in the suburbs of London at St John’s Wood, which they opened up by driving a new road through it called the Finchley Road. They still have the freehold of many of the large blocks of flats that lie along Finchley Road, and I believe to at one time they also had the freehold of Mr Lord’s cricket ground.
They had three offspring. The oldest was Evelyn, an attractive girl of my own age, though not exactly an intellectual. I think my mother would have liked to see her as my girlfriend, but no way: she was unintellectual and we had little in common. The second was Elizabeth who was adopted, and then there was George the youngest son and the brightest, who with his wife Carol still lives at Sadborow. I think he was the same age as Stuart, and I believe Stuart kept in touch with him for some time afterwards.
I remember one particular episode when we were invited over in the summer to a tea party to be held outside around their swimming pool. Evelyn was wearing a very brief bikini and I was very impressed. My mother was scandalised, but her parents didn’t seem to mind or notice at all — I think they were rather pleased that their daughter was being slightly risqué. I fancied her enormously. Later on, when I was living in London during my accountancy, we met up again, because Stuart, via her brother heard that she was living in Earls Court in a basement flat where she held regular parties every Saturday evening. I went along several times and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I thought Evelyn was terribly clever to put on such good parties.
I heard that later she retired back to Dorset and lived in a small cottage on the estate, but sadly she died of cancer when still in her 40s. There was a big electrical cable strung from pylons running over her house and the rumour was that the radiation from this cause cancer. The experts said no, but I do just wonder. In retrospect, despite the fact that we were totally different, she was an interesting part of my growing up days.
I think Lower Holditch was a great success for my parents, as for the first time in their lives, I think my father had found a job he was good at, and my mother had found a social background in which she could flourish. Meanwhile, we, the children were growing up in I think a satisfactory way. Eventually however it became a bit too much. It was hard physical work and it meant getting up every morning to milk the cows: there was no possibility to have the weekends off — didn’t even have Christmas Day off, as the cows still needed to be milked. And so, with their 60s coming up, they decided to retire, give up the farm and moved to Jersey. But that is another story.