The blurry black and white TV news and the big broadsheet newspapers were reporting students from Prague to Paris to Peking protesting on the streets. Half a century ago. However Stephen, born and raised in the London suburbs, and no more radical than the average undergraduate of that time, did not protest too much, though Flower Power had a little to do with his ending up with an odd disjointed degree, half Philosophy and half Agricultural Sciences. Stephen did not either “turn on” or “drop out” and was not exactly exiled to “serve the people”. Across the world other young people ended up in much more surprising or worse places than he did, but Stephen did perhaps self-exile himself, to work as a farm labourer on a government experimental farm in the Welsh mountains, where the times were a-changing, though rather slowly (and after a while it was clear that not much was really changing in Prague, Paris or Peking either).
Stephen had convinced himself that his degree might lead to some kind of career, and was pleased to start it at this hands-on scientific establishment of Cwmyorwerth, as a farm labourer. He regarded it as work experience; the farm Director possibly saw it as giving the place a fraction more academic credibility, if even one of the labourers was a graduate. The pay was £14.80 a week; but Stephen and his young wife also got a modern three-bedroomed house, firewood, the occasional leg of lamb and milk direct from Morfydd the cow, who was named whimsically after Morfydd, daughter of Urien and twin sister of Owain, who loved Cynon son of Clydo, as is thought to have featured in an oral strand of the Welsh Arthurian poetry, unfortunately lost before it could be properly recorded and peer-reviewed following the modern revival of the Eisteddford (initiated by Iolo Morganwg at Primrose Hill in London in 1792).
The other human staff at Cwmyorwerth in those days were all male, almost all Welsh and could be divided into the scientific officers and the agricultural other ranks. Nominally, the science staff were in charge. Stephen usually worked with Dai. A soft-spoken, slightly weather-beaten character, Dai lived in a 1950s council house a few miles away, quite like the one belonging to the farm which Stephen and his wife had. Dai’s ambitions were not high, and he was only glad that, having been conscripted into the Royal Engineers as a teenager at the end of the War and trained for fighting in the Pacific, it all had ended before they embarked. But he still had a way with barbed wire, and was skilled at digging, sheltering from explosions and wriggling through confined spaces.
On Stephen’s first working day at Cwmyorwerth, possibly as some kind of initiation, he found himself shovelling bullshit with Dai. After a while Dai politely explained that you had to go at it, not by digging down vertically, but horizontally, as that’s the way the strata were laid down, in this case by Pompidou, the huge, pale Charolais bull, who spent much of his time ruminating in that dark fortress-like bull-pen, like the labyrinth of the Minotaur, that half-breed offspring of a snow-white bull. The rest of the time Pompidou would be more energetic, out in the fields with the cows. Nobody ever dreamed that he could escape from the pen, though gradually the layers of bullshit and straw were building up, and he was quietly getting nearer and nearer to the top of the rails.
About once a week at lunch-time, as the half dozen assorted agricultural workers (but not the science staff) sat around in their tea-room with thermos flasks and sandwich boxes, Arwel, the silver-haired, and you might say silver-tongued, shepherd would be seated at the head of the table and tell a long story in Welsh (once a role for which men had been specially employed in the Mines). Every-one else was silent. Stephen hardly understood a word of it, but enjoyed the rhythms of the mid-Wales dialect, supposedly a very pure and powerful Welsh descended from the Bible Welsh which the local lead miners had once adopted through studying the Good Book for themselves.
And regularly, another kind of story was told, or rather printed, on something not far removed from blotting paper, which was crucial to ensure that the Ministry would continue supporting the farm. These Reports were in English, and not just any English, but modern prefabricated Scientific English and emanated from the modern prefabricated farm office (Yr Office), mostly written by the one English Scientific Officer, James, who was lodged in the Office much like Pompidou in his bullpen. James was accepted as necessary by the Welsh staff, indeed was secretly rather more accepted than the one member of staff who came from North, rather than mid-, Wales and whose accent and even whose pair of sheepdogs were considered slightly suspect and unnatural. The scientific prose in which James reliably turned out the Reports was never questioned. He usually managed to conclude that results were so far very encouraging, but that the research would need to go on for a good long time. As regards Pompidou, for example, he wrote in this vein:
OBJECT To collect biometric and economic data comparing Welsh Black and Charolais X Welsh Black cattle under upland conditions in a high rainfall area.
METHOD Cows were divided into two lots of twenty-five, balanced as evenly as possible for age, pedigree, conformation, calving dates and previous breeding performance….etc.
RECORDS Individual records of the performance of both the “pure” and crossbred calves were kept and their weights recorded at birth, weaning and at an intermediate date to show live-weight gain over the suckling period….etc
RESULTS Mean Calf Weight (1 November)
Welsh Black Male 426.9 Welsh Black Female 406.0
Charolais X Male 466.5 Charolais X Female 414.7
At first Pompidou was unaware that there was another bull on the farm: the (comparatively) bach or little Welsh Black, Will, for the two were generally kept well apart. They were well-matched: Will might be smaller, but he had his long, curved horns. Then one day he and some of the cows were unwisely walked past Pompidou’s pen. And then the giant Charolais wanted to get out. Out and at them; and up he surged, over the rails, like a tank crossing an obstacle in the Great War. The stated aim of there being the two bulls was to compare them objectively as sires, not to pit them against each other in gladiatorial combat, but this was far more exciting. It passed into the local folk history and gave Arwel a wonderful tale to tell for many a year afterwards, though it may never have been written down, and now risks being lost or distorted like the story of Morfydd and Cynon.
As time went by, Stephen gradually became familiar with the upland areas of Cwmyorwerth: not quite Wordsworthian hills “inland far… apparelled in celestial light”, but rather soggy undulating square miles of green, beneath a wide blue sky where, like R S Thomas at Maesyronnen you might almost hear the epiphanic “wild, sweet singing of Rhiannon’s birds”. At least, when it wasn’t raining. Visiting botanists had tried to survey the varying plant associations of Molinia, Poa and Agrostis but, as James had to admit in his Reports: “The lack of identifiable points over such large areas made it difficult to define on the map the exact spot where each species occurred.”
Alun the cowman, who was something of a comedian, would sometimes strike a John Wayne pose up there and then drawl quietly: “I don’t like it. It’s too quiet”. Occasionally there were signs that the Forestry Commission tribe had been mending their fences on the frontier, but Stephen never saw them. At times he and Dai would do the same; Stephen would usually hold the stakes while Dai whacked them into the muddy ground. Stephen was now a stakeholder, even if not a scientist.
Posts and telegraph poles provided another long-running source of data and raison d’etre for the farm, in that experimental plots of them were said to have been planted on the mountain land to assess their hardiness. James’ Reports of this work, while perhaps not quite up to the exacting standards of Holzforschung, the International Journal of the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Technology of Wood, were masterpieces of strategy and very nearly Celtic guile which promised to provide employment for a generation to come:
Comparing two types of preservatives: (a) creosote and (b) Tanalith U on (1) Scots pine and (2) birch posts; or split oak posts untreated, at an exposed site at an altitude of 1,700 feet. The posts were erected in a plot 30 by 32 feet in groups of four replicated four times. Each year the posts are tested by applying a 50lb pull to the top of each post. It is unlikely that any useful results will emerge for at least 15 years and it may be necessary to continue assessments for another 15 or 20 years before valid conclusions can be drawn concerning the relative merits of the species or preservatives.
In his years at the farm, Stephen never actually saw these experimental posts, which seemed to exist in a mist-shrouded scientific twilight and were not mentioned in reports after a few years had passed. But perhaps they are still there somewhere.
There were undoubtedly two thousand sheep and half a dozen sheepdogs. The Reports had titles like “Post Lambing Management of Wether Lambs on Improved Mountain Grazing” (Object: To apply different systems of management of ewes and wether lambs on improved hill grazing in order to reduce the time taken by the lambs to reach ‘finished’ condition.) Here too James usually managed to keep the Results interesting but provisional.
There were days in mid summer which began with a thick morning mist when the thistles which persistently interrupted the hillier fields had to be scythed by hand, using techniques millennia old. Sheep would drift in and out of view. The atmosphere was almost submarine. On other days hay had to be pitchforked, again using implements which had not changed for centuries; “a tumbling heavy summer task” and Stephen found like Emyr Humphreys in Unloading Hay that:
This inexperienced and soft hand of mine will harden
So I hope, in lifting each loose load with each tight grasp
I take upon this polished pole. This hay is not
so light and cloudy as perhaps it looks…
A century ago (1916), Thomas Hardy believed agricultural traditions would:
“… go onward the same,
though dynasties pass”
(In Time of The Breaking of Nations); on the other hand, just a few years later Edmund Blunden (in Forefathers) took the view that rural life would never be the same again:
“There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.”
The truth is probably somewhere in between, though perhaps at Cymyorwerth things have actually “gone onward the same” more than you might think.
After their family had left home Stephen and his wife were on holiday in mid Wales and revisited Cwmyorwerth. Pompidou’s old bull-pen was still there and the men’s tea-room, but the Office and James had gone. There was a new office, and a new language. Cwmyorwerth now makes a living as a “vibrant Upland Research Platform”, part of a unique Innovation and Diffusion Campus which is developing science-driven evidence-based interdisciplinary policies and value-added outputs that utilise current advances to place high specification products in the supply chain of the agri-food sector. The authors of the minutes of a recent official meeting felt it necessary to stress that: “while Cwmyorwerth has many farm-like characteristics, it should ultimately be considered a research facility.” … which might be taken as trying to deny while what actually happens there has many research-like characteristics, as before, the place is essentially still a Welsh hill farm.
Morfydd, Pompidou and Will, Dai, Alun and Arwel are long departed. Words like stakeholder, benchmark, footprint, greenhouse, catalyst and bullshit have taken on their new metaphorical meanings and, though a few of them are available in academic libraries here and there, who now reads those Annual Reports which James so carefully wrote? The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (1955-2002) itself has become the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and “Improving” or “reclaiming” the hill land no longer means waging chemical war on it with tractors and even helicopters to suppress “indigenous grasses” and “wild herbage”. Now it’s all about fostering “biodiversity havens” and “green tourism” — which is probably much cheaper and easier in any case.
And it must leave considerably more time to get on with some proper story-telling.