Monthly Archives: April 2019

Living in the Past?


You know what it’s like when you’re trying to sleep in a strange bed? Somehow, unless you’re very lucky or just very tired, you rarely sleep properly. Also if you’ve been eating unusual food at unusual times then that doesn’t help either.

But we went to a wedding, and it was a long way from home, so we stayed two nights in a B&B. This is doubtless a sensible idea and it certainly took a lot of stress out of the whole occasion. Not only that but it was a nice B&B, the bed was comfortable, the breakfast was good, and the lady in charge friendly and helpful. You couldn’t really ask for more.
But at some point during the night I heard this sort of metallic screaming. I knew immediately what it was. Because I knew what it was, it didn’t really wake me up, it just shifted my dreams back five decades.

Now a long time ago, and we’re talking about 1965, my grandfather farmed here. Back then, dairy cows were tied up by the neck in shippons (byres or cow houses) over winter. I can remember it all as a small boy. Each day they’d be milked first thing in a morning. Then they’d be mucked out by somebody with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. Back then it wasn’t me but I’ve done my share in later years. Then they’d be given their food. Obviously they got something when they were being milked but now they got their hay and perhaps a few chopped up turnips. Finally somebody would spread some wood shavings where they would lie down, and they’d be left in peace until about 4pm when it was time to milk them again. Again there’d be the same routine, milking, mucking out, feeding and sprinkling some bedding.

Now my grandfather always used wood shavings. He had some sort of agreement with a wood yard in town, and a couple of times a year he’d send my father and a couple of others who worked for him with two tractors, trailers and an awful lot of old sugar beet pulp sacks, to collect the wood shavings. As a small child I was taken with them, probably to get me out of the way at home. The wood yard was a fascinating place for a young boy. Huge stacks of wood, sorted by side and species, big heavy saws and the big planing machines, plus men occasionally finishing things off with hand tools.

We would clean out the entire yard, sweeping up and bagging up all the shavings, tying the sacks up and stacking them onto the trailers. The sugar beet pulp sacks were big, far taller than I was, and when full it took two men to throw them up onto the trailer. As the smallest person there, my job was to go under the machines (switched off while we were cleaning round them) and sweep out with a small brush.

But whilst they switched off when we were cleaning round a machine, the yard was still working and I would stand and watch the men at work. The big saws were impressive but I was really taken with the planing machines. The chap would set the machine up, push a piece of rough timber through and it would come out virtually polished. These were big heavy pieces of kit, I suspect it took five or six men to get them into place and then they were never moved. But the really impressive part of them was the noise. There was this hard, high pitched whine when they were switched on, and then as the timber was pushed through the noise increased immensely and you got this loud metallic shriek.

And that was the noise that almost woke me in the B&B. Somewhere, in seemed to be in the middle of the night, somebody was using a heavy industrial timber planing machine, and I almost woke. But instead of waking, old memories were dragged out and my dreams took a different path. The past can be strange like that.

Next morning, when I had my shower, I discovered where the planing machine was. It was the shower! To be fair it wasn’t a bad shower. OK there wasn’t a vast pressure of water, but the temperature was good. But the noise, whilst not deafening and not painful, was certainly several orders of magnitude louder than any shower had any right to produce!

But it did get me thinking. Our pasts, and the past generally, is closer than we think, and sometimes it refuses to stay in the past and gets mixed in with the present.


What do I know, ask an expert. Available from Amazon in paperback and ebook at 

And available everywhere else at

As a reviewer commented, “Another gentle and entertaining read about the pros and cons of Farming, ably assisted by Sal the collie dog and Billy the feral farm cat.
As always, I’m amazed Farmers make enough money to keep their farms and families going, given the ‘guidance’ given by the ‘experts’ in government and the Civil Service…”

Copping up not copping out


Every so often we have to widen a gateway. Actually it’s a ‘rolling process’ that has been underway on this farm for nearly a century. I can remember my father telling me that before I was born, he’d had to go round and widen all the gateways. Basically they were all only about five feet wide. This was just about enough for a horse to pull a cart through. With tractors they had to widen them again because a tractor turns differently to a horse and you need more room, even if the tractor is pulling the same implement. So they widened all the gates so they were all at least seven feet wide.

But tractors got bigger. Now if you were turning into a field from a main road, a gateway seven feet wide was perhaps still possible. But here we have to work in narrow lanes, so the gateways had to be made wider again. This time we took them up to ten feet. Job done, we’ll never have machinery wider than that.

And of course time marches on, tractors have to do more work and need more power. But also, to ensure they do less damage to the soil, they need wider tyres. Also with four wheel drive, they need a lot bigger wheels on the front. Ten feet wide was barely adequate. Not only that but by this time I was largely working on my own. So when moving cattle I wanted a situation where I could move them along the lanes with just me and a dog.

So a lot of the gates were widened again. But this time they were made so that they were wide enough so that when the gate was opened, it came out across the lane and blocked it off. This mean that I didn’t need anybody standing there to turn cows. To be honest, the system worked really well. I would open the gate, shout to attract the cow’s attention, and Jess would run into the field, get behind them and would fetch them out. I’d walk down the lane ahead of the herd so I was in place to turn them into the yard at home and Jess could calmly walk them down the lane. If I could have trained her to shut the gate after us, the job would have been as near perfect as possible.

But anyway, this spring we had to widen a gate that had somehow missed being done. We hadn’t needed to do it before but now, with the bigger machines contactors use, something had to be done. So we did it. We had two big steel gate stoups recycled from a previous job, so when somebody was passing with a digger, he widened the gateway and dug in the two new gate stoups

The problem is that it left a gap between the hedge and the gate stoup. Now what you have to remember is around here, a hedge sits on top of a bank. Now the bank isn’t just a simple bank of soil. They’d be eroded away in no time. The bank, or dike cop, is armoured, or cladded, with stone. So I decided I’d fill the gap properly by copping it up.

First get your stone. Because in years to come the stone will be invisible, any rough old stuff will do. Then dig out a bit of a trench at the bottom of the dike cop. Put some nice big stones in to act as a foundation.


Fill up behind them and around them with loose soil and then level the whole thing up with a layer of turf to bind it. Then put your next layer of stone on.


Fill up behind that with lose soil, top off with turf and you’re ready for your next layer of stone. When it’s high enough, just cap it off with a layer of turf.

Finally lay the nearest hedgerow trees across it, leave for five years and it’ll look as if it’s been there for ever.


And if you want to meet the lady who I could never train to shut gates behind us,

As a reviewer commented “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

Any fool can cut a tree down, how many try to stick it back up again?


Earlier this year it got windy, seriously windy. So windy that a big old Sycamore tree in a neighbour’s garden was blown over into our field.

There was nothing in the field at the time, and the tree managed to block the potential gap it had created, so there wasn’t a livestock issue. Anyway our neighbour was a bit apologetic, but what were they supposed to have done, dashed out in the middle of the night and fitted guy ropes?
Anyway I said it wasn’t a problem, as I’d just cut it up for firewood.

A week or so after the gales the weather improved and I made a start on the tree. I treated myself to a new blade for the chainsaw and made a start. I started with the branches, just cutting off the lighter stuff and then working my way down the branches cutting them off in six to nine inch lengths, just a nice length for the fire in the living room. Basically I would just work until the chainsaw ran out of petrol. Then I’d load up what I’d got and take it home and stack it to dry out ready for next winter. I haven’t time to just give a couple of days to the job, but doing it like this means I do eventually get the job done.

When you’re working like this, you initially make a mark. People look at what you’ve done and it really looks as if you’re cracking on. The problem is, when cutting up a tree from the ‘outside’, there’s a ‘lot of empty space’. The branches seem to take up a lot of room but they don’t use much wood whilst they’re doing it.

Then you get to the thick stuff and suddenly the chainsaw is having to work and after half an hour’s cutting there isn’t really a lot to show for it. Another problem is that as the tree fell, it drove some of its branches a couple of feet into the ground. I’ve logged the bits I can get at, but I’m going to have to pull the rest of the branch out with a tractor!

Anyway after a short dry spell it got wet again. Frankly I didn’t fancy cutting up the tree in the rain and wind. Not only that but I dislike using a chainsaw in conditions where things are a bit slippery underfoot. But now the weather has improved again and we’ve got a pleasant settled spell. So this time I had a look at the trunk. Especially the bit closer to the roots. I came to the conclusion I’d logged so many of the branches that when the trunk was cut, the rest of the tree would just stay there rather than rolling. So having sharpened the blade again I made a start on cutting the trunk three or four feet from the original ground level.
Surprisingly it went quite well. I cut a couple of big wedges out of the top side and then worked my way down the sides. One issue was that the tree is thicker than my chainsaw blade is long. So I did one side then had to walk round to the other side to have a go at that. Slowly and a little cautiously I cut down the remaining side. Finally I was through. The trunk didn’t move a full half inch, and not only that, thanks to the way I’d cut it, it didn’t trap the blade.

Somewhat chuffed by this I had somebody fetch the tractor with a fore-end loader on it.  We popped that under the bit of trunk still attached to the roots, and lifted it gently. Slowly it allowed us to right it, and then it dropped back into place. We nudged it a bit with the loader just to make sure it was properly settled. New shoots have been coming up from around the trunk in the last few years anyway and who knows, the trunk itself might put out a few shoots as well. Either way, the tree is back in place. Spring is here, it’s producing buds, and hopefully is going to be a feature for another century or so.


Fills the gap beautifully doesn’t it?


Anyway, if you’re interested, I’ve a new novella out


As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard entertains the reader with more snippets about Port Naain and it’s diverse characters. Including, but not limited to, a Dead man who rows boats, a demon bearing flowers and an organ playing butcher…”