Publication Day Blog: Home on Folly Farm by
When I was nineteen, I spent a year at Agricultural College. I’d done a year’s work on a dairy farm in Cornwall and I was convinced I wanted to go into farming, so I studied for my National Certificate in Agriculture at Bicton in Devon. It was the most gorgeous old Regency house of the kind that the National Trust fill with period furniture, but Bicton House, in my day, was full of students and mud. It was a little bit like a boarding school, only with boys too and animals to be looked after.
I loved it. We studied animal nutrition, tractor maintenance, genetics and soil care and then we headed down onto the farm to learn to shear sheep, rear calves, plough fields and all the general business associated with farming. We also had to study double entry book-keeping, which was when I realised that the world of accountancy and finance was probably not for me and I was better off sticking to the rolling animals about end of the spectrum.
Even back then I wanted to write. I would follow tutors about asking about the history of the house, which had a deer pit in a building that had been turned into chicken housing. I think they all wondered why this strange student in filthy overalls and wellingtons spent so long staring at wall mouldings and panelling. The room where we had our lectures had been a library and still had all the wonderful shelving and fireplaces in situ, with huge windows that looked out over the parkland (which was now full of sheep) and it inspired my imagination. Unfortunately it did not inspire my mathematical ability, and what I remember most about my time there – apart from learning how to roll a sheep to look at its feet – is staring at columns of figures and trying to get my ‘in’ column to reconcile with my ‘out’ column.
Fortunately I know my limitations, and went into writing rather than anything financial, but that time spent at agricultural college has been well worth it, it turns out. It gives me whole fields (if you pardon the pun) of experience to use in fiction. So, when I came to write Home on Folly Farm, I could write not just about bottle feeding cute lambs, but the hard graft of farming. People from cities tend not to realise just how all consuming and stressful is the world of the farmer, it isn’t just sunshine and animals and occasionally driving a tractor very slowly in front of tourists. And, especially up here in Yorkshire, the weather spends a lot of time trying to get in on the act too, and there are few things more miserable than trudging through knee-deep snow to soggy beasts standing in mud.
Yes, I loved farming. But my days of breaking ice on water troughs at five in the morning are, I am glad to say, behind me. I sometimes think fondly back to my days milking Jersey cows as I snuggle under my duvet, glad I don’t have to be up that early ever again. But at least it’s given me plenty of material for books!