A ditch in time


I can just about remember them digging out our beck. It was some time in the very early 1960s. My memories of what it was like before are hazy, I can remember sitting on a trailer being pulled by a tractor and going over one of the bridges. I can remember looking down through one of the holes in the trailer floor and seeing the water below me through one of the holes in the bridge.

I remember being told that there were beck boards, which may have been a version of the ‘internal drainage boards’. These used to look after the beck. Apparently they were the local landowners who were allowed to collect a rate from other landowners and they spent the money on maintenance. Being landowners and knowing how the universe worked, they didn’t spend all the money they collected but they put some into reserves because everybody needs reserves. Then the distant ancestor of the Environmental Agency stepped in. They took over all the functions, plus the cash stashed away, and in our case they made our beck deeper and wider. Looking at the cross section I always supposed it was dug by somebody who had a ‘good war’ digging anti-tank ditches and decided to revisit the glories of his earlier career.

When I was young, like about eight or nine, I can remember going down to the beck, sitting under one of the bridges and looking at the young plaice on the sandy/muddy bed. They were the size of half-a-crown. We even got eels.

Indeed I can remember being with my father as he cleaned some of the field drains out and we watched water running up the drain from the beck. My father commented that, “It’s high tide, stick your finger in the water and lick it.”
The water was salt.

Then for some reason those in authority decided to put a sluice on the seaward end of the beck. I haven’t a clue why, but then ‘The man from Whitehall knows best’ and since when was it the job of the bureaucracy to explain its decisions to the people the decisions would impact on?
Anyway that rather screwed things for the plaice and eels. Not only that but the beck then started getting choked up with vegetation because it didn’t have salt water washing up it regularly.

Somebody who farmed nearer the sea than us used to quietly prop the sluice gate open with a length of old fence post which helped a bit, but then the authorities went into major engineering and put a complicated double sluice on it.

But of course they now had to clean out the beck every year. To be fair in the days of the National Rivers Authority they did. But then the Environment Agency took over. The NRA was largely civil engineering led, the EA wasn’t and discovered that you could stop clearing out becks and rivers and say it was environmental and you were saving the earth as well as being able to spend your budget on more fashionable stuff.
So could they please be properly environmental and blow up the sluices so we go back to the nice self-cleaning beck we had for centuries, and of course we’d get the plaice and the eels back as well.

But one way or another I’ve spent too much time in the beck. We fence it. Cattle and sheep still find a way in, and probably most of them find a way out, but there’s always that one idiot.

If you ever have to get a cow out of a ditch there are basically three points of attachment. One is to put a halter on the animal and pull her head first, very very carefully. Personally this isn’t a technique I could use if I could use any other. But there are times when there is only you and the only thing you can get to is the head.

Then there is the cow lifting hoist frame which clamps to the hips. This is probably the safest for everybody but you really have to have a frame and not everybody does. You can clamp the frame to the animal’s hips and pull carefully. Indeed if you have a tractor with a loader you can fasten the frame to the loader and lift as well as pulling.

Finally there is putting the rope under the animal’s chest immediately behind its front legs. Personally I feel it is probably the easiest on the animal, but be seriously careful. The big danger is that the animal might panic and try and climb on you to get herself unstuck. Lying on the bank and pushing the rope under her, then lying on her to get the rope out the other side is probably best. But in these circumstances you might want somebody holding on to your feet. But then it’s the sort of job you end up doing on your own because your co-worker is a dog and frankly she’s not at her best in these circumstances.

We had a cow stuck in the beck. She didn’t come in for morning milking, I was about sixteen and wasn’t in school because it was exam season, so I went down to look for her whilst my father milked. I found her and we stopped milking and went to pull her out. Getting your tractor, ropes and everything sorted and actually pulling her out isn’t a minute’s job and about an hour later we had a wet muddy cow shivering in the field. So I fixed the fence where she’d gone in and walked her home as my Dad went back home on the tractor to get on with milking.

Next morning, she didn’t turn up again, and I found her about six feet from where I’d found her the previous day. Somebody or something had broken a fence post. This time I’d taken a halter and put it on her and pulled so she was tied to a fence post and couldn’t drown or do anything silly. Then the minute milking was finished we went to pull her out.
An hour later, as I walked her in, I was met by my mother. Apparently I was supposed to be sitting one of my O Level exams that morning and the deputy head master had turned up looking for me because the school hadn’t been able to get us on the phone.
So hastily changing into clothes that weren’t wet and muddy, I got into the teacher’s car and went and did the exam. From memory it might have been maths.


OK so she might not have been at her best with rope work but still


As a reviewer commented “Once in a while a book really gets to you. Jim Webster’s book Sometimes I just Sits and Thinks has done just that to me. Jim is a farmer in the English county of Cumbria. His sense of humour shines throughout each episode. If you come from farming stock as I do, this is the book for you. In my mind’s eye I was out there with Jim and his faithful Border Collies Jess and Sal. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book…”

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10 thoughts on “A ditch in time

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 18, 2020 at 4:17 pm Reply

    Cleaning up the mess if the cow DIDN’T make it would probably have been far worse – but it sounds like a dangerous job if she panicked.

    Do you think, on the whole, it would be better if the government left the becks alone completely?

    • jwebster2 April 18, 2020 at 4:45 pm Reply

      The beck is a ‘main river’
      The NRA and after it the Environment Agency can designate any waterway a main river because it gives them the legal right to step in and clean it out.
      If they didn’t have this power a landower (perhaps a private house owner or a utility) could just allow their section of river to get blocked causing flooding or damage to agricultural land upstream

      Remember our population density, IN England it is 430 people per square mile (California is 251.3)

  2. rugby843 April 18, 2020 at 5:59 pm Reply

    I love reading your farming stories!

    Sent from my iPad


    • jwebster2 April 18, 2020 at 7:04 pm Reply

      some of them are more fun to recount than to experience 🙂

      • rugby843 April 18, 2020 at 7:17 pm


  3. M T McGuire April 18, 2020 at 7:18 pm Reply

    It probably served you better than revising. 🤣🤣🤣



    • jwebster2 April 18, 2020 at 7:53 pm Reply

      Well after that morning I wasn’t going to get excited about anything as stress free as an exam 🙂

  4. Doug Jacquier April 18, 2020 at 10:11 pm Reply

    A familiar tale re the becks. The same thing has occurred here where our Murray River meets the sea in South Australia. Clever clogs over the years have installed dams and weirs to keep out the cleansing sea water, resulting in a massive dredging bill each year and an environmental disaster in the making. And now the latest drought, along with rapacious water theft upstream by growers in NSW and Victoria (to feed their essential foodstuffs like cotton), looks like it might just finish the job altogether. PS – Note my admirable restraint in eschewing any ‘beck and call’, or ‘stick in the mud’ puns. 😉

    • jwebster2 April 19, 2020 at 5:18 am Reply

      A truly heroic effort.
      If the clever clogs were as good at resisting the temptation as you are, we’d not have these problems!

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