Last Days at Truelove Farm

Below is a chapter from the book Wild Goose & Riddon: The Dartmoor Photographs of Chris Chapman in which the story of Truelove Farm appears.


On Farming

Some of my earliest memories of childhood are steeped in farming. Back in my native Lancashire two brothers on my mother's side and a great aunt and uncle farmed side by side. A school holiday with them was the great escape. At Castle House Farm I could lie in bed and stare down into the farmyard, busy with chickens and guinea fowl and gaze across at a huge stone barn with its big steps leading up to the granary. Auntie Minnie had a thatched dovecote in the garden, but the pigeons preferred the barn with its rich pickings and nooks and crannies, perfect for nesting and raising their young. I took tea in an enamelled caddy down to the twins as they worked in the fields. When I stared back at the house it did look like a castle, standing up on a huge mound surrounded by trees, with the farm rubbish tip falling away on one side. Amongst the tins and bottles a wealth of ancient clutter lay hidden in its depths. There was always something hatching and once we had a duckling that lived in the kitchen. It followed me everywhere. When it began to fail Uncle Joe put it in the bottom of the Rayburn to try and revive it.

On the neighbouring farm I played with my cousins. One day Uncle Terence staged an impromptu rodeo on a giant sow, and we all screamed with delight, sitting safe and high on a five bar gate, as she dragged him round the farm yard and the dust flew. At night we shot rats in the chicken houses, and Uncle Bernard paid us sixpence a tail for our trouble.

They say you should never go back. Many years later I took a trip to Lancashire and stayed with my grandmother. I borrowed a bicycle though she warned me not to go down and look. I reached the place where the farms once stood and found that my childhood memories had been swept away. Castle House and Houghton House were now two housing estates. If you have ever read George Orwell's Coming Up for Air you will know how it felt. I think it was this experience that attracted me to the story of Truelove Farm. History and continuity are strong foundations in the countryside. In 1998 I wrote the following for an article in a national newspaper, at a time when farming was in its worst crisis for decades:

Last Days at Truelove Farm

Truelove Farm lies in a gentle hollow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor, but it could be anywhere in the country, for everywhere the story is the same. The days of the small family farm are numbered.

The house was built in granite to a traditional sturdy style sometime in the 16th century. Mullion windows, huge chimney breasts and a scattering of useful stone barns all add to its charm. The Dennis family had farmed here for five generations. This summer all that was to change.

Until recently the farm was worked by Betty Dennis's sons, Clifton, 62 and Edward, 54. Both brothers are bachelors, and have always lived at Truelove. When Betty's husband died in 1994, the brothers lost their kingpin. They could just about manage the farmwork, but there were added strains - among them Clifton's high blood pressure, Betty's age (90), and mountains of confusing paperwork - that forced the decision to put the farm, with its 138 acres, up for sale. I heard about it through a neighbour and wrote to the Dennises to ask whether I could visit and take photographs. I have been photographing rural life for 25 years, and I knew this story could speak volumes about the current crisis in farming. We got on famously, so I offered to spend a number of days working on the farm, helping where I could in the preparations for the sale.

To begin with, the Dennises daily life continued as if nothing would change. Sheep were moved from one field to the next, cows were milked, vegetables dug and chickens fed. For hours at a time the brothers would go their separate ways. Clifton was boss and each day gave Edward his orders. "Mother thinks he's up to farmwork, but he's not".

Edward had been poorly as a baby and was not strong. Some days he could be found docking weeds in the fields, or tending the vegetable garden, while Clifton mended hedge banks or walked amongst the cows checking all was well. By late afternoon the family came together. High tea was a delicious affair with a predominance of clotted cream, scalded every day by Edward, and there was a noticeable flavour to the tea itself, produced by the farm spring water. "I shall miss the water" said Betty.

Religiously each day, at five to six, Betty would bring the wireless into the kitchen, and we all listened intently to the weather forecast. Nobody spoke until the end .The kitchen Aga was riddled and filled with coal and Edward wound the clock. Later, Clifton would watch television, though Edward and Betty never did. Instead they read, or listened to the wireless.

Then one day the pressure was on. A buyer from Cornwall, a farmer they said, had offered nearly the full asking price but wanted them out by the beginning of August. Frantic, they found a bungalow in the nearby village and contracts were signed. "Its strange" said Clifton, "he's never been to see how the generator works or where the spring comes in, but I expect he will in time".

We spent a day catching the sheep, drenching them for worms, dagging their rumps and checking feet. On another day we moved the farm woodpile to the bungalow. When the auctioneer came to sort the stock into lots the brothers were well organised. Sheep are easy to sort, you look at their teeth and eye their demeanour. A fine herd of pure South Devon cattle should have been straightforward, but paperwork and passports were a nightmare, and Clifton was driven indoors on the point of tears. "The government's got it all wrong. This place will be the death of me".

As each day passed every saleable item on the farm was catalogued. Odd posts, rolls of barbed wire, hinges and corrugated iron, each lot was given a number. A farm is no scrapyard and everything has a use. On the day of the sale the sheep, tractors and modern implements, along with beautiful granite troughs and vintage machinery, were moved to a field well away from the house. The cows were sold separately at market. Edward stood like a sentry at the top of the lane, making sure nobody went down and disturbed Mother. The day was sunny and things sold well. People waste money on the most peculiar things, but when you are selling you don't intervene. The biggest surprise was the David Brown tractor. It fetched a staggering £2800. They had bought it new for under a thousand in 1968. Its mint condition said a lot about the way the Dennises ran the farm.

At dawn on the final day the farmyard took on a ghostly air. At 8 a.m. an army of removal men entered the house and with swift efficiency stripped each room of its contents. The family congregated in the kitchen, drinking tea, until it too was emptied. There was a strange sense of theatre and in reality it all felt rather sad. My hopes were that they would soon settle in their new home. They had at least sold the farm as a whole and could take comfort that it would continue as a working farm. "We couldn't go on as we were", said Betty. "We're well out of it."

No doubt if we could talk to our ancestors, they would tell us that the current crisis in farming is nothing new. Prices have slipped before, recessions have brought lean times. When farming is your way of life the spirit is resourceful.

But this time the crisis appears insurmountable: BSE, and subsequent food scares, have pushed many farms close to the wall, and now CAP reforms, an apathetic government, and overproduction in the industry has led many to feel that the future in farming lies in the hands of the few. Big business survives but in Clifton's words "The small are crushed".

There is a final twist to this story. The day after Clifton handed over the keys Truelove Farm was back on the market with a different agent, its barns advertised as ripe for conversion subject to planning permission, and with just twelve acres. The ‘farmer from Cornwall' did not exist, and it seems the farm had been bought solely to strip it of its land. On September 8th, at public auction, the property sold again to a developer. The Dennises were upset but could do nothing.

When I visited the bungalow some weeks later there were a number of surprises. Betty had been very ill but had now bounced back. "The doctor said it was the shock of the move". She had not been able to keep warm so the brothers had purchased an Aga for the kitchen. The farmhouse table had not been sold and if you let your eyes blur you would think you were back at Truelove.

Betty enthused about the high ceilings and the wonderful views. With a modern bungalow there is no need to tuck in out of the weather. Edward was positively beaming and it seemed a great weight had been taken off his shoulders. He has started reading his father's collection of books. Outside the kitchen window the chickens roamed half the garden, fenced in now in their new suburban setting. Clifton seemed the least settled. He has taken a paper round in the village and spends each day going for long walks.

1998 was nominated as The Year of Photography and James Ravilious and I were asked to put on a show at Exeter City Museum. James exhibited some of his wonderful pictures of people and landscapes of North Devon and I showed the story of Truelove Farm. The reaction to both of these exhibitions was overwhelming, but after viewing the photographs of Last Days at Truelove Farm, people were moved to fill the comments book with heartfelt emotion, acknowledging a sense of loss at something they found easy to identify with.

It takes me straight back to my childhood. Things I'd forgotten! How unexpected to shed a tear at 46!'

‘I played in the yard as a child and was chased by sheep! I spent many happy hours at the kitchen table of Truelove farm with the family. A sad ending to part of my family history'.

‘Very evocative. My father was a herdsman for many years and the sounds, smells and memories came flooding back. I cannot imagine how the Dennises will fare in their new bungalow'.

Although I understand why people wrote the above, I actually saw the story in a different light. For the Dennis family, selling up was the right decision. Their personal circumstances forced them into retirement, but they expected the natural cycle to be a new occupier continuing to farm. What I find interesting is the way market forces and our perception of the countryside has challenged that expectation. The Dennises were of a generation that saw the land as paramount and central to their very existence. When you purchased a farm, you were buying it for the land, because this is what would turn you a profit and provide you with a living. The farmhouse was incidental. Now it is the reverse. The motor car and an improved road network have made every corner of England accessible and a house in the country has become a valuable commodity. The price put on an attractive farmhouse has little to do with its economic viability as an agricultural unit.

When Clannaborough Farm in the parish of Throwleigh came on the market I was able to witness first hand the changing circumstances on the small family farm. Clannaborough was in the unusual position of being held in trust, and successive generations of the Endacott family had farmed there as tenants. When Tom and Pat Endacott decided to retire, the farmhouse was rented for a number of years and the land tenanted out to a neighbouring farm. Eventually the trust was dissolved and the owners tested the water.

I was a parish councillor at the time and one day we were given notice of a site meeting up at the farm to discuss plans for its proposed development. The owners were keen to sell the farmhouse, split the land and convert the range of barns into housing. The holding occupies an idyllic position. Tucked into the edge of the moor it faces south and commands distant views across the in-country of north east Dartmoor. Not surprisingly the meeting attracted a number of interested parties. As well as the full compliment of councillors, there were representatives from the National Park, a local estate agent, and the owner's appointed architect.

We listened to the estate agent first. He asserted that as a farm, Clannaborough had no future. Its 122 acres were a mixture of arable and marginal land and he advised that a farmer would be hard pressed to run it as a viable unit. In his opinion the only way forward was to break the holding up. Next came the architect. He described how a new driveway could be built to give access to the barns, and how with sympathetic design the units could be made to blend in with their surroundings. This comment ruffled the feathers of the park representative responsible for historic buildings, and he in turn pleaded convincingly for the holding to remain as one, pointing to its fine vernacular features and their historical context. It was certainly a dilemma. The problem of how to resolve the sweeping changes to these farms when they came on the market was being repeated across the moor and indeed across Devon, and even when they didn't come up for sale, old buildings were becoming redundant as farming practice modernised.

Suddenly Dunning Morris, our council chairman and a retired farmer, turned and spoke to the assembly. "I'm not sure about converting these barns. We did this on our farm in North Devon and we turned the shippon into holiday cottages. But it didn't work. Every time I went in there I expected to see a calf come out from behind the wallpaper!"

There was a respectful hush as his message sank in. With one simple sentence Dunning had managed to express what most of us feel: a farm is never the same once the barns are converted. Fortunately Clannaborough escaped development this time, and its new owners, although not farmers, have proved to be sympathetic guardians of its charm. However there is always the prospect of change in the future, and although it is an uncomfortable thought, we have to acknowledge there is little chance of such places ever being farmed again. Like it or not rural England, in a post-industrial backlash, is now set upon a path of urbanisation, challenging the countryside and all its traditions.

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All text and images copyright © Chris Chapman 2016       web design by Alan Winn / 2D