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WOODSTON: The biography of an English farm book review

WOODSTON: The biography of an English farm book review
10 Aug
by John Lewis-Stempel • Doubleday

Woodston Farm, on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire/Shropshire border sounds about as good as farms come today. Typically English, surviving in a ‘small pool of its own tranquillity’, it is family-owned, traditionally operated, part arable, part livestock, worked with respect for nature in mind. 

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Woodston tells the story of this patch of land, from the earliest days of prehistory to modern times, following its fortunes and those of its farmers. We watch as the red soil of Woodston rises from the ocean, dodges ice ages and eventually settles into the land we know today. With the arrival of Neolithic people, the once-forested earth is ‘tamed’,  clearings and classic English hedges are constructed. Then it’s on to the Romans, described here as ‘surprisingly modern’. Living in grand villas, they paved the way for the English country gentleman. So too did they understand the importance of manure and imported a new species of sheep, responsible for the fleece on which the Tudor cloth industry was based. 

But it was the Anglo-Saxons, who arrived in mass invasions from the fifth century onwards, who really cemented the English landscape, fixing boundaries of fields, woods and parishes that endure today. ‘The paths the Saxons wore into the ground between home and field are our public footpaths,’ writes John Lewis-Stempel. At around this time came the heavy plough, ‘as influential in its era as the Benz internal combustion engine or the NASA space rocket’. The plough, at that time pulled by eight oxen, allowed for a new way of working the soil and led to a boom in cereal cultivation. Lewis-Stempel has an obvious fondness for the Anglo-Saxons, whose touch on the soil and on the English language remain with us (they get an easier ride than England’s other invaders despite their predilection for save labour). Not so for the invading Normans whose feudal system was ‘exploitation, exploitation, exploitation’.

And on it goes, through the Medieval period and then onto the Tudor and Stuart era of abundant and profitable wool. The oxen pulling the plough change to horses and eventually wool looses favour, with hops on the ascendancy. Finally comes the 18th-century Agricultural Revolution, a time of increased efficiency and fertility. Eventually it’s the turn of heavy machines to transform farming once and for all. 

In essence then, this is the story of English farming, told through one farm. It is also a celebration of the hardy and adaptable farmers who have crafted the land. Farmer and nature writer Lewis-Stempel has no time for those who argue that the farmed landscape is unnatural, that we should instead aim to return to the ‘wildwood’ of yesteryear by intensively planting trees. Ever since the arrival of people, he argues, England has been farmed and as a result, many of our bird species thrive only on open land. The Anglo-Saxon era, he says, was a time of birds, an abundance directly caused by the opening up of the wood to farming. ‘Thanks to them, we have the kestrel, the people’s falcon.’ 

Of course, today, many of these species do not thrive on farmed land. Farm birds are facing catastrophic decline. Intensive agriculture has made the countryside a very different place from the one farmed by Lewis-Stempel’s grandfather. The author acknowledges this to a certain extent, and while in some early passages it may seem as if he is determined to stick up for farms no matter what, it’s not actually the case. The nostalgia here is for the old ways, not the new, and, as he finally admits: ‘I hold attitudes one would expect from a shrub-drinking hipster outta East London rather than a fifty-something farmer from the west of England...’ Describing a Damascene moment (he realises he has managed to work his way through a whole field without ever touching it, fully shielded in the air-conditioned cab of a tractor) he writes: ‘I decided to fully embrace the future – which was my grandfather’s era, the past. Organic. Treading lightly on the soil. Understanding, appreciating, that Nature and the farmer should be a union.’ Just don’t talk about planting any trees.

Running through this story more than anything is a sense of consistency; the notion that time operates differently down on the farm. Despite changes to equipment, farms have always operated according to the age-old seasonal calendar – the work, the culture, the family and village ties trickle down through generations. ‘Life in the countryside despite the machine and capitalist patterns of employment, remained stubbornly careful and slow.’

Lewis-Stempel emphases this by including passages from works of literature, poetry and other descriptions of farming life, drawing parallels between the centuries. Embedded in this history are snippets of the nature writing he is known for. It makes for a curious but not unenjoyable mix of agricultural history and nature.

You can’t read as much about rewilding as we do now and not remain aware throughout that this is one man’s history and one man’s view of the English landscape – and that man is a farmer. And yet Lewis-Stempel is not the person he at first appears. In his celebration of the older ways he echoes what many environmentalists call for today. He celebrates the English landscape as it should be – abundant, fertile, profitable and beautiful. 

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