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the students 50 years on


By David Taylor

It was a golden year – 31 students corralled in a lovely old hall to study general agriculture for nine intensive months. Most of us were teenagers. Some, just out of school, were sons and daughters of farmers. Others, like me, were townies fresh from a year of farm work and intent on careers in the countryside.

All of us were young farmers with a future. UK agriculture was burgeoning. Full employment and youthful optimism were replacing post-war austerity. Parlour milking was superseding the cowshed. Buddy Holly was drowning out the big bands. And here we were in the far North of England at Kirkley Hall Farm Institute, Northumberland, where staff numbers were so generous we had almost one-to-one tuition.

More than half a century on, through the vicissitudes of agriculture, what became of those eager students – eight girls and 23 boys? How did that tight regime of farm work, lectures and communal living influence our lives? Were ambitions realised? Who became farmers, farmers’ wives, managers or farm workers? Indeed, how many remained in the industry? Who quit - and why? And what did they do?

Well now we know. In July 2009, over a memorable weekend I organised, 25 of the class of 1957/58 gathered for a reunion at Kirkley Hall – our first get-together in 51 years. Guest of honour was the sole surviving member of the teaching staff, Alan Higginson, hail and hearty at 77 and still farming in Scotland.

We’ve been lucky. Just three of us have died - Jenny Robson née Dodds in 2003, Margaret Coxon née Snook in 2008 and Mike Fidell just a few months after the reunion. Of the rest, three live overseas and couldn’t attend. Another, nearer home, had other plans

So how did we all turn out? Not too badly. By and large, we made a good fist of the past half century. We’ve been a practical and self-reliant bunch. Yes, there’ve been frustrations and disappointments, but great successes and solid achievement. To a man and to a woman, we’ve worked our passage – and without doubt our time at Kirkley served us well.

As student-of-the-year and ex Royal Marine Chris Pickering put it: “When we left Kirkley, the question was, what will you do? At the reunion it was, what have you done?” In Chris’s case, it was rags-to-riches. With neither capital nor land, he built a thriving farming enterprise at Field House, Acklington, through sheer hard work, a little luck and a lot of acumen. Today he’s investing in eastern European agriculture.

Bill Park at Morpeth and Tony Oates at Belford were born into farming families. Both developed and expanded their inheritance to become Northumbrian potato barons. At Warkworth, another farmer’s son, John Howie, cleverly switched from agriculture to property development when, as so many discovered, “farming ceased to be a way of life”.

Farmer’s wife Anne Walton ran a brilliant farm shop, renowned through the county and beyond, at Roseden, near Wooler. Tommy Hogg farm-managed prestigious Snipe House, Alnwick, for all of 48 years. Stuart Skelly, one of two future butchers in our year, kept the family business thriving on the high street at Berwick.

More than half of us are still in Northumberland, albeit retired – farmers like Eileen Robson and John Pye and workers such as Peter Bolton, Sydney Farrow and Ronnie Elliott. Others have left for careers in allied fields – a farm advisor, a brewery executive, a farm college lecturer, an agricultural engineer and a horse-and-dog trainer.

Two inherited farms outside the county – Bernard Callow on the Isle of Man and Jock Richards in Wales. Jock had itchy feet and twice swashbuckled his way around the world. He went cattle and sheep ranching, slash-and-burn wheat farming and mineral mining in the Australian Outback. Among myriad adventures, he taxied in Sydney, crewed in a yacht across the Pacific and was jailed as a spy in Afghanistan.

We had a couple of political heroes – Csaba Balassa and Csaba Süle, Hungarian refugees who escaped across the Iron Curtain in the Budapest uprising of 1956. The Csabas were so short of money at Kirkley they poached game at night. Balassa was a superb footballer and played professionally for Carlisle United before marrying a Swede and moving to her native country to build Scania trucks. Süle returned to Hungary for a career with the post office.

For the rest, our careers embraced teaching, truck-driving, village shopkeeping, press officer, airline administrator, matron, housing officer – and in my case the media.

From Kirkley I did five years in journalism at the Northumberland Gazette, Whitley Bay Guardian, Farming Express and The Journal. Then, capitalising on my Kirkley training, I joined Tyne Tees TV in 1964, producing Farming Outlook for seven years. Moving to ITV network production at Yorkshire TV, I discovered Magnus Pike. What a break! We launched the long-running pop science series Don’t Just Sit There with Pike, David Bellamy and Miriam Stoppard and regularly clocked up audiences of nine million.

In the 80s, as the BBC/ITV duopoly was broken, I switched to independent production, setting up York Films, producing science programmes for the international market. An indie is rather like a farmer – you are on your own and business is what you make it. For more than 25 years I’ve ridden the roller-coaster, chasing around the world on series and documentaries. It’s gruelling but there are rewards, like picking up an Emmy for a space blockbuster I made for Discovery Channel USA: 3 Minutes To Impact.

Now I’m hatching another film: 30 Young Farmers 50 Years On. It’s the story of our year at Kirkley and the lives we’ve carved out since - how a group of bright-eyed students, living and learning together as an extended family, took off from Kirkley in July, 1958, like a clutch of rockets on 31 trajectories.

Watch this space.