Veteran farmer ploughs final furrow

By MICHAEL POLLITTRural affairs editorA remarkable witness to more than 100 years of dramatic changes in Norfolk's farming and the countryside has ploughed his final furrow.


Rural affairs editor

A remarkable witness to more than 100 years of dramatic changes in Norfolk's farming and the countryside has ploughed his final furrow.

The oldest farmer in Britain, Hedley Thurtle, who took part in 97 consecutive harvests, has died aged 102 at his farm at Bodham, between Holt and Sheringham.

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In his lifetime, farming moved from horse and carts, before tractors had been invented, through the depression, food rationing and shortages to Europe's massive grain surpluses in the final years of 20th century.

Mr Thurtle, of Laburnum Farm, took a tenancy on the Sheringham estate in 1936 when it was tough to find the annual rent of 15s (75p) an acre.

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A third generation farmer at Bodham, he was photographed in the harvest field in 1910 aged five years old with his father, Robert. It was in the first few months of the reign of King George V when the family helped the men and horses bring the harvest home for threshing.

A trading relationship dating back more than a century has ended, said Chris Parker, now with grain merchants Adams & Howling. Mr Hedley's father bought seed corn from his family's former business, Herbert Parker Ltd's warehouses near Thorpe Station from the late 1890s.

“We've lost our oldest customer. In those days, they sent seed corn in coomb sacks by rail from Norwich to Sheringham for collection by horse and cart,” said Mr Parker. “He was a real old country gentleman and we did business with him for years,” he added.

Mr Thurtle still helped with harvest by carting grain with a tractor and trailer along the A148 until his daughter, Elizabeth, persuaded him to give up driving just five years ago. “I had a job to stop him driving his veteran tractor but he was always determined to help. When he got a slight back injury, I thought he ought to stop,” she said.

Mr Thurtle, shortly before his 100th birthday in May 2005, told the EDP that his licence still had another two and half years to run.

He was keenly interested in cattle and sold his crops of barley and wheat into his 102nd year. He had never kept many records and ledgers because all the figures were in his head. “He could remember yields and prices going back years and years,” said Elizabeth, who started keeping proper records in the 1970s when Vat was introduced.

Grain merchant Stephen Howlett, of Grainfarmers, said: “He was an amazing customer and I think that we've been dealing with him for more than 40 years.”

He used to sell his barley to Stimpson and partners, at Reepham. “We would have had his malting barley for years and years. His brain was so sharp even two or three years ago. He was a pretty sharp cookie when he used to deal with us,” said Mr Howlett, regional manager, based at Bressingham.

“When someone first dealt with him, it was probably horse and cart and then sacks before bulk transport came in. He didn't have his own forklift and loader, so someone used to have to go and do it for him,” said Mr Howlett.

Mr Thurtle took over the tenancy on the 120-acre farm on Sir Henry Upcher's estate when many farms and fields lay idle and derelict. When he started out, farming was on the floor.

“It was a struggle to make enough to pay the 15s (75p) an acre rent,” he recalled. But gradually farming's fortunes improved and his decision to start a small dairy herd in 1938 brought in a monthly income.

His grandfather, Dennis, who was farm manager at Manor Farm, Calthorpe, moved to Walnut Farm, Bodham, in 1881 and farmed 23 acres of glebe land.

His father, Robert, then took over a 40-acre farm, paying £1,000 in 1908.

Mr Thurtle survived by fattening bullocks sold after eight to 10 weeks at Holt market. When he built up his dairy herd, he introduced Friesians and by the late 1960s was milking about 70 cows. Then the herd was dispersed to be replaced by a 130-cow beef suckler herd.

His first tractor arrived in 1944 - a Standard Fordson which cost £175 - and a year later he married. “I was always a late starter,” he said. He got the opportunity to buy the family farm in the 1950s and enjoyed looking after his garden. Always a private man, he was a keen member of the Blakeney and Sheringham lodge of the Masons and attended his final lodge meeting in his 100th year.

A funeral will take place on Wednesday, September 19 (2pm) at All Saints, Bodham.

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