Recording life on the smallholdings of mid Wales
Peak/Copa at the Royal Welsh Spring Festival: 20 & 21 May 2017
I don’t like to plan too much.
I’m trying to put back the natural wilderness.
Oak birch hazel thorn mountain ash ash.
A farm opening its arms wide to change,
as the same birds circle there, above,
singing their song.
And everybody on the farm looks up.
Peak pitched up the Horsebox Studio at the Royal Welsh Spring Festival in Builth Wells, where we presented a mini museum of tools from agricultural life of the 19th and 20th centuries. The objects were selected from the personal collection of historian, author and dry stonewaller, Stuart Fry. Over 230 people visited the Horsebox and we invited farmers and smallholders to talk with us to find out more about their experiences and memories of working on the land.
You can listen to recordings from the conversations here: soundcloud.com
We were delighted to be joined by Welsh poet Jonathon Edwards (Winner of the Costa Poetry Prize 2014) who created a new poem for each person in response to their conversations.
You can read Jonathan’s poems here:
And now a group of boys there on a bridge,
this summer of scything and leisure hours,
green, green leaves and lambing,
Summers don’t seem to be summers anymore.
It’s a life. It’s a life that’s gone now.
A short article from Jonathon reflecting on the weekend
It was an enormous privilege to work with visitors to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society Spring Festival. As I don’t come from a farming background at all, it was fascinating to hear the great variety of experiences which farming generates. The people we interviewed ranged from a woman in her twenties who’d taken to farming despite her fiancé’s lack of enthusiasm, delivering lambs with her engagement ring on, through to people who’d been in farming for sixty years, who’d seen all sorts of changes and talked with pride of passing their experiences on to the new generation.
One farmer we spoke to discussed his childhood in the 1950s, when he skipped school to work on the farm. In a family of butchers, my father had the same experience, skipping school to cart a delivery bike all over the valleys through his teens, so I was really interested in that connection, and the impact of a family business on education and opportunities. As a writer, I was also really struck by the care and delicacy of some of the processes farmers go through in their work. For example, one man discussed how part of his job at the moment involves seeding hedges, and to do so the seed needs to be removed from the berry and the poisonous pith around it. Having tried food blenders and all sorts of different apparatus, the conclusion has been that completing the process by hand is the only option, and that sort of daily process in some ways sums up the passion, patience and tenderness that the people I spoke to bring to their daily lives. Another farmer had developed from scratch a 13,000-tree wood on a piece of land he’d purchased. He spoke of going into his wood, the world he’d made, and spending hours there, the birds, the trees, how it felt protective. In that making of worlds to walk round in, that single-minded passion, there was much as a writer I could relate to.
It’s an enormous responsibility to take the experiences someone has been generous enough to share with you and form them into a piece of writing, to honour the art as well as the person. My favourite part of the weekend was seeing people’s reactions when I read the poems to them, when their lives and stories were given back to them. The gifts I received in return included five Welsh cakes, one pint, one handshake, one hug, nine smiles, one spontaneous round of applause and one offer of a bed if I ever happened to be passing through Cwmdu. Knowing how I might react if anyone ever wrote a poem about me, I’d been practising for weeks my read-and-duck method to avoid any punches, but it was never needed. Because of the quick turnaround, with each piece being written in half an hour or an hour to get to the next person in the queue, these are nascent, infant poems, first drafts, saplings, the sort of sketches my mother might make with a pencil before taking them home and getting the oils or the watercolours out. The material the farmers were kind enough to share with us was incredible, and my hope is that, with apologies for this obvious comparison, like one farmer’s berry or another’s forest, in the coming weeks and months, I can get rid of the places where the poems aren’t up to the job, can make them better, make them bloom and grow.
– Jonathon Edwards
Images, Film and Sound Recordings by Sion Marshall Waters
With thanks to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society and everyone who stopped by the Horsebox Studio to share their story.