October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Learning farming at Kirkley Hall

Students and staff in front of the main Hall  1952

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.
By Clive Dalton  Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg.

Studying farming is a daft idea
One thing was for sartain, in the 1950s nee Bellingham lad had ever dreamt of gannin’ te “study” farmin’. The general rule in the North Tyne and Rede valleys was that you only went to woork on farms if ye’d nee brains for owt else, and if Barty Armstrong at Hareshaw pit didn’t want ony mair pitmen.

Wor secondary school teachers in Newcastle knew nowt aboot farmin’ and were horrified at the suggestion of farming as a career. Their clivor pupils went into the bank or took the Civil Service entry exams.

I sartainly didn’t taalk to local farmers about wanting to study farmin’ as it was the daftest thing they’d ivvor hord. Ye didn’t “study” farmin’ – ye’ve gat off yor arse end and got yor hands dorty. Book larnin’ cud only be rubeesh.

My father used to recite the ridicule of the 1920s-1930s around Humshaugh where he stated working on the farms of the Chester’s Estate (where his father was coachman) about a daft Professor Gilchrist from an equally daft place called Armstrong College’s Cockle Park preachin’ ket aboot the merits of basic slag and white clover. This confirmed the stupidity of book larnin’.

Saved by a Methodist
But one man in Bellingham saved me (CD) from eternal muckin’ oot - Mr William John Cairns. He was the headmaster at the Council school, local councillor and strong labour party supporter. He was also a pillar of the Methodist church and this was the link to my salvation – even though I was C of E!

He heard of my interest in farming and suggested that I apply to a “farm school” in County Durham called Houghal. Well, here was progress to discover that at least there were such places as farm schools! But the thowts of havin’ te gan te Durham was a bit off-putting as it was a lang way from Bellingham on the bus.

His other suggestion was that I write to his very good friend and fellow Methodist local preacher, Professor Cecil Pawson at King’s College in Newcastle asking for his advice. This was scary for a Bellingham lad to write to a Professor, but mentioning W.J.Cairn’s name ensured I got a reply.

The entrance to the quadrangle with the Cedar of the Lebanon tree.
Prof Pawson, who in later years we students grew to love was one of nature’s gentlemen, and replied suggesting I apply for entry to the new Northumberland Farm Institute at Kirkley Hall near Ponteland. Now to a North Tyne laddie- that made a lot mair sense to keep away from the foreign land of Coonty Durham.

Kirkley interview
I went to Kirkley for an interview with the Principal, Mr Donald Elsmore who by his accent was from doon sooth and talked funny. He taaalked about “graaarss” and not “grrass” and I could see communication problems arising. I well remember one of our early field classes in Front Park where we learned that there were many different kinds of 'graarss, and the Ryegraars was a good graars'. He was right there but to this day, Aa’ve nivor seen graaars growin’ anywhere in the woorld – it’s alwes been “grrass when Aa lucked”.

I was so thrilled to be offered a place at Kirkley, and I spent a very educational summer pre-Kirkley working for Robert and Angela Allan at Redesmouth farm under the skilled mentorship of Jock Armstrong. They all were very supportive of me 'gannin te Korkley Haall'.

Photo shows me on the farm's David Brown Cropmaster tractor with family friends of the Allens.

References for Kirkley
I got a glowing reference from Robert which I still treasure.


I also got another glowing reference from Jimmy Wood from the small Dove Cottage farm which was rented from Robert Allen and who tried to evict Jimmy on the guise of bad farming, to get the land. Robert lost the case.  I had spent time at Dove Cottage from childhood.  I still treasure this reference.

How to get to Kirkley
But how to get to Korkley Haall from Bellingham? Well, by train of course, first from Bellingham to Redesmouth junction (with my bike in the guard’s van), where the train then became the “Wannie” stopping at Woodburn, Knowesgate, Scotsgap, Middleton, Angerton and Meldon – where I got off within an easy bike ride of Kirkley.

Clearing the parks - Oscar Pearson
They were pioneering days for everyone at Kirkley. Accommodation was in the hall and needed little modification compared to the farm and gardens which needed massive development. Oscar Pearson, the farm bailiff, had a major challenge in getting the farm going, and using the student’s varied and limited talents while trying to teach them some basic farming skills.

Some of the massive oaks in the front parks had to be removed to make space for arable crops. The amazingly deep rig and furrowed pastures in the front park had to be ploughed up and levelled.

Oscar was a great Northumbrian who taalked wor English to us locals, but many of the other tutors like the Barr-Taylors taaalked funny as they wor also from doon sooth. Mr Philpin was a Welshman so I suspect he understood us better than most. But our horticultural lecturer – Mr Grimshaw came from Newcastle but taalked posh so he was very suspect.

Oscar of course had to taaalk posh Northumbrian to get the lads from doon sooth to understand whaat he wanted them te dee each day. He had to dee the same for the Principal and staff when the student job list came oot and included things like – “We’ll be clippin’ the gimmors the morn’s morn, we’ll dose the yowes next week, and the tup’s cowped his creels in the Front Park and needs burying”.

Mr Jackson the blacksmith
Another great Northumbrian, Mr Jackson, was the blacksmith and a part-time engineering tutor. We could only stand in awe of this master craftsman, and what an honour it was when you were allowed to “strike” for him. You learned the skill of syncopation to strike the hot iron on his command. Two taps of his hammer on the anvil after his blow meant “haaad on lad” till you got the nod to continue. What an art that was, as it was based on total trust of your partner. Any error could end up with a nasty accident.

The gardens
The waalled gardens at Kirkley had been sairly neglected and the first year’s students (the year before us) had hacked their way in under the direction of the Head Gardner Bill Morrison and his assistant Wilf Coulson. They used big lads like David Reay from Bardon Mill to lead the charge and David stayed on to guide us in many practical jobs in the gardens and on the farm.

Bill Morrison was another great Northumbrian and respected horticulturist and his colleague Wilf Coulson was a recognised carnation expert. Being sent to the gardens for practical work was not our favourite place. Mr Morrison used to stand by the potting shed door filling his pipe watching to see what rabble he had been allocated that day, before deciding the jobs to dole out.

He could never remember our names but by heck he could remember where you came from if we were Northumbrians - all others coming from that no-man’s land of doon sooth. He always greeted me with “Nuw Bellingham bonny lad- av got a job for ye.” “Is yor fathor a canny gardner?” With that he’d lead you away to do some job he’d saved up like prickin’ oot some seedlings or striking cuttins for Wilf.

The first Friesian cows
We had no farm buildings at the start so we milked our two Friesian cows in the dog kennels near the gardens by hand, the milk going to the Hall for our cornflakes. We had to light an old set pot each milking to get enough het wattor to wesh the utensils.

The cows were Moffat of Peepy bloodlines that became the basis of the herd when the new steading was finished, and a full herd was purchased before the end of our year in June 1952.

The hunt!  Tallyho
Me in the centre.  Oscar Pearson bottom left.
Kirkley Hall was a great experience, and those of us still in contact share many memories. One vivid one was when the local hunt met in the courtyard around the famous Cedar of the Lebanon tree (recently blown down) one autumn morning and Ian Elliot from Hexham and Eric Young from Humshaugh joined them on Charlie the piebald farm Clydesdale. I seem to remember they were not offered a stirrup cup.

I hope that somewhere in the archives of the former Northumberland Education Committee there’s a tribute to the folk who had the vision to set up Kirkley Hall as a Farm Institute, and to the dedicated staff in those early pioneering days who got the show on the road.

Their efforts stimulated many of us to gan further in larnin’ aboot farmin’. They can be very proud of what Kirkley has achieved under their dedicated

The Certificate of Agriculture signed by Mr Lesley Dent, Chairman of Governors, noted local farmer and auctioneer at Tynedale mart in Hexham.  Also signed by Donald Elsmore the Principal.

Miller's Mutual Award for best All-Round Student (theory and practical).  Along with this certificate was a sum of money which I used to buy text books to start my degree course at King's College.

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