Set your hand to the plough



I have to start this by stating that I’m not a ploughman. Like a lot of livestock farmers I can get nervous if I see the ground, ‘brown side up.’ But every so often a grass ley will been renewing. So every so often we’ll plough. At the age of sixteen I learned to plough on a tractor with no cab, pulling a three furrow plough. My father learned to plough walking behind a horse.

The black and white photo was taken during the war but frankly the technology hadn’t improved much at our level in the following twenty-five years.

Ploughing with horses was hard work. Not only did you have to walk all that distance, you also had to wrestle the plough as you did so. If the plough started biting too deeply, you had to press down and bring the front end up a little to keep it level. If on the other hand, the plough was starting to come out of the ground, you had to lift the back end up to get the point of the plough share back into the ground again. At the same time you’d be shifting your weight on the two handles to make sure that the share went straight, left or right, depending on what you wanted it to do. Whilst the horse might be pulling, you were steering. And at the same time, you’ve got to keep the horse going in the right direction! Luckily the horse probably knew what to do.

This is the advantage a horse has over a tractor. The tractor doesn’t care and hasn’t a clue. But in reality you set the plough up so that your right-hand-side front wheel drops into the bottom of the previous furrow. So gentle pressure on the steering wheel (often from your knee) should keep it there. The rest of the time you’re looking behind you. The old horseman’s technique of using his weight or muscle on the handles has been replaced by frantically twisting wheels and turning handles to make sure the plough keeps running straight and level.

Getting a plough set up properly involves a lot of skill. I know men round here who before they went ploughing would take the tractor and plough and drive down to the beach. There they would spend half an hour ploughing the sand. This had three advantages.

Firstly the sand polished your plough shares and mould boards so that when you ploughed ‘for real’ the soil would run smoothly over them.

Secondly it gave you a chance to get the plough set up properly on a piece of level ground.

And finally the tide would come in and eliminate all evidence of the total bog you made of it whilst you struggled to get everything set up properly.
But once a plough is set up properly for the ground and the tractor, it’s amazing how much easier it makes doing a good job. I remember hearing a chap talk who’d been on a visit to one of the big state run farms in the Soviet Union. There was a party of them and one of them was a ploughman. They watched this Russian ploughing, using a big nine furrow plough. The problem was he was making a mess of it, and didn’t seem to know how to do it. Eventually the ploughman snapped. He walked out in front of the tractor, flagged it down and started setting up the plough. Then he rode with him a couple of times up the field to show him what to do. When he got off the Russian did a couple more runs up and down the field, then he got off and hugged the ploughman, because nobody had ever shown him how to do it properly.

Still ploughing could be awfully cold work. A lot of ploughing was done during February, and you were effectively sitting, relatively motionless, exposed entirely to the elements. At least when you followed the horse you could stamp your feet to keep warm. Somewhere I still have my late father’s ploughing coat. It was a really good, high quality heavy coat which he’d picked up from a van salesmen for a few shillings because it had left the factory with no buttonholes. That didn’t matter, just throw it on over everything else and tie it round the middle with a piece of baler twine and you’re ready for everything February can throw at you. I can see why so many of them would smoke a pipe. It probably gave you a comforting illusion of warmth.

As a side issue, it’s obvious that Christ was a horse ploughman. As he said, “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. The man ploughing with the horse doesn’t look back. All his concentration is on the job happening directly in front of him. The man ploughing by tractor on the other hand, is always looking back, concentrating on what’s happening immediately behind him.

But ploughing isn’t the end of it. Once you’ve got the ground ‘brown side up’ you then have to work up a tilth that a seed can grow in. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when we would hire somebody with a four furrow reversible plough to do the ploughing (Because they were almost infinitely faster) I’d still do the next phase.

First you’d go over the field with a set of disc harrows.

disk-harrow-250x250These slice the ground up and break up the sods. Then you do the field again, but at ninety degrees to the direction you did it first time. Finally we’d do it a third time, at forty-five degrees to the way you did it last. Finally we’d follow that with a set of spike harrows. These would both create a fine tilth and also they’d help level things up a bit.

After that you’d sow the seed and then roll it.

Now you can follow the plough with a combination seed drill and power harrow. Instead of covering the field seven times, you now need do it three times. Plough, power harrow and drill, and roller. The amount of fuel and labour saved is genuinely impressive!


The saving in fuel means that you’re releasing less fossil fuel derived CO2 into the atmosphere, and the amount of labour saved means that somebody else can have a well-paid job where they commute into the city and work in an air-conditioned or centrally headed office where they can worry about climate change.


Never mind, I’ve got something to take your mind of things.

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Not only have we got Gentlemen behaving badly, we see Port Naain by starlight and meet ladies of wit and discernment. There are Philosophical societies, amateur dramatics, the modern woman, revenge, and the advantages of a good education. All human life is here, or at least such of it as Tallis will admit to.

We continue to explore the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. In this invaluable publication Tallis Steelyard discusses the ways in which a writer can bring their work to the attention of the masses and more importantly, sell the book to them. As well as this, we have the importance of getting home under your own steam, music and decorum, brass knuckles for a lady, and of course, a few simple spices.
Surely this is the one essential book that every aspiring novelist should both purchase and study.


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50 thoughts on “Set your hand to the plough

  1. Sue Vincent July 2, 2019 at 1:29 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Sue Vincent's Daily Echo.

    • jwebster2 July 2, 2019 at 1:38 pm Reply

      A mate of mine used to plough long straight furrows
      Unfortunately it was when he was playing golf 😉

      • Sue Vincent July 2, 2019 at 1:42 pm

        Ah. That would probably be my limit too… except I steer clear of anything that involves flying balls… ( except the dog.)

      • jwebster2 July 2, 2019 at 1:53 pm

        I’m sure the dog is happy with that 🙂

      • Sue Vincent July 2, 2019 at 3:25 pm

        Never happy enough…there is always space for more ball-throwing in her life. I just have to get her to accetthatI’m supposed to throw while she fetches… She prefers it the other way these days. 😉

      • jwebster2 July 2, 2019 at 3:33 pm

        She obviously considers that she’s got staff 🙂

      • Sue Vincent July 2, 2019 at 3:55 pm

        She knows she has 😉

      • jwebster2 July 2, 2019 at 8:22 pm

        So long as you know your place you’ll both be happy 🙂

      • Sue Vincent July 2, 2019 at 10:51 pm


  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 2, 2019 at 9:18 pm Reply

    That is some fancy red machine you have going there – I bet it costs a pretty penny. Or do you rent it when needed?

    • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 5:31 am Reply

      Contractors buy them and get a lot of use out of them. So somebody like me just picks up the phone and hires the contractor at so much an acre 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 3, 2019 at 6:12 am

        And you don’t have to worry about anything except paying the ploughman. Sweet.

      • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 6:17 am

        A lot of farm work is done like this. The price of food means you cannot afford to have staff or machinery that you don’t need every day

  3. willowdot21 July 2, 2019 at 10:06 pm Reply

    I have learned a lot from this Jim, I want to plough a furrow now.. as long as I can avoid you bovine ladies of course.💜💜💜

    • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 5:34 am Reply

      I know that there are still places that keep heavy horses and plough with them. They almost all open to the public and if you have a quiet word with them, you never know, you might get a go 🙂

      • willowdot21 July 3, 2019 at 6:09 am

        I would love to watch but the horses would be too big for my liking 💜

      • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 6:16 am

        I suspect google could find you somewhere 🙂

      • willowdot21 July 3, 2019 at 7:41 am

        Yes I think there is a Shire Horse Center near me I shall have to look it up🤭💜

      • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 8:39 am

        I suspect you’d find it fascinating 🙂
        You’ll probably have to go a couple of times because a lot of stuff will be seasonal

      • willowdot21 July 3, 2019 at 10:18 am

        Yes it might be good for the grandchildren too 😃

      • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 11:00 am

        I think it would be a brilliant thing to take them to

      • willowdot21 July 3, 2019 at 11:47 am

        Yes so do I 💜

  4. Widdershins July 3, 2019 at 1:38 am Reply

    Sure beats using a shovel. 😀

    • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 5:35 am Reply

      I’m a great believer in not using a shovel 🙂

  5. jenanita01 July 3, 2019 at 8:42 am Reply

    Never realised before how complicated ploughing a field could be!

    • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 8:54 am Reply

      It gets awfully close to performance art at times 🙂

  6. Stevie Turner July 3, 2019 at 12:58 pm Reply

    Enjoyed this, Jim. I used to do office work for a lime and fertiliser company. The spreaders all had neck problems from constantly looking over their shoulders.

    • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 1:01 pm Reply

      that I can believe
      Mind you we had one old chap round here who kept going pretty well into his seventies because people forgot to tell him he needed to retake his wagon test.
      He had a small ten ton truck he drove to collect the lime and ten tipped it from that into his spreader

      • Stevie Turner July 3, 2019 at 1:03 pm

        The spreaders were all great characters. I had such a laugh in that job!

      • jwebster2 July 3, 2019 at 9:22 pm

        round here the spreaders were all self employed, mainly farm workers who’d set themselves up in their own little business, but they worked really closely with the lime suppliers etc

      • Stevie Turner July 4, 2019 at 8:48 am

        Yes, the spreaders were all self-employed here too. They all used to ring me up and moan if the lime was late being delivered.

      • jwebster2 July 4, 2019 at 8:49 am

        How often did you slip into just saying ‘yes dear’ out of matrimonial habit ? 🙂

      • Stevie Turner July 4, 2019 at 8:50 am

        I used to tell them to bother the haulier, not me. I was only the organiser!

      • jwebster2 July 4, 2019 at 8:52 am

        Best way to do it. They could chew his driver’s ear when he arrived 🙂

      • Stevie Turner July 4, 2019 at 8:53 am

        One of them always did as I remember. He was a miserable old git.

      • jwebster2 July 4, 2019 at 8:59 am

        I suspect sitting on a tractor trying to spread lime in the rain saps the joy from a fellow 🙂

      • Stevie Turner July 4, 2019 at 9:26 am

        It did if this particular bloke was anything to go by. One day the rain was teeming down and the haulier rang to ask if the lorries could get on the field (he wouldn’t speak to the spreader). I rang the spreader and the lugubrious reply was: “Only if he’s got a hovercraft.”

      • jwebster2 July 4, 2019 at 9:47 am

        I love that dry humour you get when too many grumpy men are working together in bad conditions 🙂

      • Stevie Turner July 4, 2019 at 9:53 am

        Me too. I spent most of my time there laughing.

  7. dgkaye July 5, 2019 at 12:02 am Reply

    Fascinating post Jim and I will definitely check out your books. 🙂

    • jwebster2 July 5, 2019 at 5:22 am Reply

      glad you found it interesting, It’s just the world I live in 🙂

      • dgkaye July 5, 2019 at 1:56 pm


      • jwebster2 July 5, 2019 at 4:49 pm


  8. patriciaruthsusan July 8, 2019 at 10:07 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    First, Jim Webster describes plowing in various ways old and new. Next, he has two books on offer. The first is about how some young ladies discuss and handle problems with young men, not always the right way. The second is an adventurous tale plus writing advice.

    • jwebster2 July 8, 2019 at 10:35 am Reply

      And of course everybody will be wise to follow the writing advice. It comes direct from Tallis Steelyard!

  9. Jack Eason July 11, 2019 at 4:58 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Good country article…

    • jwebster2 July 11, 2019 at 5:10 am Reply

      I’m just a good country boy 🙂

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