Shropshire-based producer and award-winning columnist Roger Evans reminisces about train journeys to London and ‘feggy’ fields.
There was a time in my life when I used to take the train to London quite often. Many of my fellow passengers would busy themselves with their laptops, pretending to be doing important work. This often involved watching a film. But farmers are not like that.
I used to watch the fields roll by. I soon got to know every field we passed, what was in it and what it was used for. Then, for the return journey, I would try to sit on the other side of the carriage so I could scrutinise the fields on the other side of the tracks.
The first thing that struck me was the appalling conditions, particularly in the winter, that some horses and ponies were – and probably still are – kept in. They would get fed a round bale of hay – no circular feeder – just a round bale of hay plonked down in the mud.
And when you made the same journey two or three weeks later you’d see the same bale of hay and the biggest, or the most aggressive, horse or pony would be lying on top of the bale. The others in the fi eld would be standing in the mud, at a safe distance, not daring to get any nearer. As a farmer, you would never be allowed to keep animals in these conditions. But if you are not a farmer it is apparently OK. This is just one more example of the double standards by which we are judged.
There was one farm I didn’t notice at first, but by the autumn it really stood out. I’m not sure where it was, somewhere in the South Midlands. It had obviously been a big farm with a substantial house and a lot of buildings. I didn’t notice it until the fields went what I call ‘feggy’. The grass had not been cut and neither had it been grazed. It had gone brown as the grass had died back. The farm was a little way back from the railway but you could easily pick out which fields belong to it because they were all brown. This demanded closer scrutiny and I could soon tell that the house and buildings were unused. After three years of passing between home and London along the same route, I noted the fields were still ‘feggy’ but there were also briars and thorn bushes dotted about. I never thought I would see a farm that wasn’t actually farmed in this country, and I expect there was an interesting story to tell about why this one was abandoned.
I don’t know what eventually happened to it because I don’t go on the train to London any more. But I have met farmers, who live in what I know as the Home Counties, who farm land owned by people with money. These wealthy people have bought big farm houses and don’t want the land that goes with them, so they let the land, rent free, as long as it’s kept tidy and the hedges are cut.
You wouldn’t get that around here. At the first sign you weren’t using a piece of land you’d get someone on the yard asking if they could just put a few sheep or heifers on it. All that has changed now – the value of land will be in its ability to grow trees or store carbon.