As one of the Island’s most respected farmers, and a keen huntsman, there is little Harold George doesn’t know about cattle or horses. But Harold is a little reluctant to describe himself as one of farming’s great survivors, modestly pointing out: “There are still a few more like me out there.”
The fact remains,however, that while so many have buckled under the pressures of such a difficult industry, Harold and his family have managed to buck the trend.
Statistics speak for themselves. At least two dairy farmers go out of business each week in the UK, and 25 years ago there were no fewer than 260 dairy farmers on the Island. Now there are just 17, of which he is one, farming the 300 acres at Coppid Hall Farm, Havenstreet, where he has lived all his life.
Harold’s family originated from Hereford, but moved to Little Duxmore Farm in Rowlands Lane in 1928, staying there for five years before Coppid Hall came up for let, and they moved there with the Fleming Estate. Harold was born in 1942, and as a ‘war baby’ he remembers how he and his family often had to leave the house and head for the air raid shelter in the garden when German planes flew over the Island heading for mainland targets.
He recalls: “I went to school in Havenstreet until I was 11, and then went to what is now Ryde High, but was called Upper Grade in those days on St John’s Hill. I left school at 15, and worked for my father on a fairly large wage of £1.50p and my keep.” When he was 16 he went to the IW Technical College on a day release to study agriculture, including crop husbandry, farm machinery and accountancy. The three-year course saw him emerge with his City and Guilds certificate. He smiled: “Education wise I think I learned more in those three years than I did in the previous 15.”
That set him up for the knowledge of farming on a mixed farm of 30 cows, 30 sows for pig breeding, and 400 chickens, the latter looked after by his mother who sold the eggs at the front gate. They also grew 20 acres of mixed corn which was used as cattle feed in winter. “I took over the farm from my father when I was 28. We arranged a mortgage for me to buy it off my father, and the rest of the family. I have been married twice, and the first time I was on £10 a week and my wife was working at Lloyds Bank and earning more than me,” he said.
So Harold has learned his dairy farming trade to perfection. But perhaps what is a bit more surprising is that he also has quite a good knowledge of goats – or at least one in particular, after being up close and personal for a few hours.
Just before he married his second wife Andrea, even he was not prepared for what lay in store on his stag night – courtesy of some of his closest friends. He explained: “Back in the 1980s one of my favourite sayings was ‘you might as well be handcuffed to a goat’. Then in 1989 I had my stag night before I married Andrea, and two great friends Phil Legge and Mick Sivell said they would organise it for me. There were about 55 of us, and we all met in the bar at Brickfields. Then suddenly about six of them grabbed me and handcuffed me to a goat, with a pair of genuine police handcuffs.”
So the party set off by coach – goat and all – and the first port of call was Daish’s Hotel in Shanklin, where the staff had been well primed. Harold recalls: “As we got to the entrance of the hotel the doorman said ‘I am not going to let that dirty little so and so in – but the goat can come in’! In all I was tethered to that goat from 7 o’clock in the evening until we got home at 1am. I still have a photograph of me dancing out on the dance floor with the goat. “After Daish’s, we moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage on Shanklin seafront, where the guys had organised a few strippers. I have to say they weren’t the prettiest girls I had ever seen, but a few photographs were taken, and when they were later shown around Brickfields, there were nearly a few divorces. Thankfully after the stag night I had one day to recover before the wedding, and Andrea still married me.”
Harold also remembers one social Christmas he spent with close friend and sadly missed Phil Legge. He continued: “Back in the early 1970s Phil had just started being a blacksmith on the Island, and he came to visit me one Christmas Eve to ask me if I fancied a ride out with him on our horses to call in on a few friends. We set off about midday, and visited quite a few farms in the area – having a glass of whisky at every stop. By the third stop I had picked up enough Dutch courage to jump a five-bar iron gate with my horse.
“We continued our journey up through West Ashey and on to Rowlands Farm, making quite a few more ‘whisky stops’ before going to see John Kingswell, who fortunately was not in, otherwise we might have been even worse.” But there were still a few more friends waiting to meet and greet Harold and Phil along the way with a tipple, before they finally made their way back to Havenstreet slightly the worse for wear. Harold recalls: “The next time I saw Phil he told me he did manage to get home, but didn’t put the cover on his horse, left all the tack on the stable floor, and just went indoors and fell asleep.
“And despite having a house full of visitors for Christmas lunch, he made believe he had a touch of flu, stayed in bed all day and finally got round to eating his lunch about 5’oclcok on Christmas Day. I have to say I was nearly the same, but not quite as bad. But looking back it was just one of those fantastic days out, and something you could never repeat.”
Harold was once a member of the 3D Discussion group, mainly farmers who enjoyed a chat and invariably a few good days out. One trip was scheduled for Ireland to visit a few farms, but as Harold recalls: “We got on the coach to visit the farms, but didn’t miss a pub on the way. There were 17 of us, and at every stop the landlord had to pull 17 pints of Murphy’s Ale.”
One souvenir from that trip was a sign standing by a set of temporary traffic lights which read ‘wait for green’. It was picked up by one of the group, smuggled on to the plane home under a coat, and Harold still has it to this day in one of his sheds. Harold, who also recalls riding side-saddle around Brickfields and winning ‘best turned-out’, had another trip to Ireland more recently with race horse breeder Michael Pope.
“He asked me to go to his stud in Ireland, and after arriving in Dublin we drove down the only motorway over there to go to the last race meeting at Tralee racecourse before it was due to close,” he said. “We hadn’t read any newspapers because we had a 120-mile drive, but when we got about two miles from the course we thought it was a bit deserted, and were then told the meeting had been cancelled. So all I got from that trip was a couple of photographs of an empty racecourse.”
When he and wife Andrea are not working on the farm, Harold likes nothing more than to go out hunting, even though that sport has changed almost as dramatically over the years as farming has. He said: “I have hunted since I was 10 years old, and was joint master of the Isle of Wight Hunt for four years from 1989 to 1993. I was sorry to see hunting change as it did. It is not the same trail hunting as doing it properly, and it is not helping the countryside, because there are foxes everywhere.”
Harold recalls his early days of hunting, saying: “When I was 10 I would go on my pushbike to Ryde to Archie Warren’s Riding School, which is now a housing site. A lady who still lives in the village taught me to ride, and I had a pony called Pastime, which cost £20.
“The huntsman was Harry Kennett, and they were at the kennels at Gatcombe where the hunt is now. I have hunted for 56 years, so I know a fair bit of the Isle of Wight countryside.
“When I was 11 I had a pony called Sun Flash. One Christmas Day I rode it from the farm to Shorwell, and left him in Douglas Biles’ stable overnight. The hunt met at Carisbrooke Castle on Boxing Day, and we hunted all day. Then I went back to Gatcombe, and left him there the night, and returned the following morning to hack him from Gatcombe the seven miles back home.”
Harold was also a member of the Pony Club at 10 years of age, saying: “We would go and camp at Hill Farm, Gatcombe, have instructions and have competitions at the end of it. You learned a lot about horses because you had to do everything yourself, but the late Ken Gill also taught me a lot.
“There was no transport for horses in those days, so if the hounds met at Havenstreet at 11.0am, they would leave Gatcombe at 9.0am, hack down through Blackwater and over St George’s Down to here. The horses were very fit, and had to be.” For the last 20 years Harold has been an integral part of the committee that runs the Ashey Scurry and Isle of Wight Grand National. He and friend Barry Elliott build the course every year.
“It takes us a week to build but before that we spend a few evenings planning what we are going to do,” he said. “Next year is the 20th anniversary, so we are going to alter a few things round. There are usually six hedges, but we are thinking of nine or ten. We changed the course five years ago, bringing it back in distance, because we thought some of the horses were not fit enough to get round. He said modestly: I was lucky enough to win the Men’s Open and the IW National one year- back in 1993.” He also trained point-to-point horses in the 1990s and admits “I had a lot of fun. It was on the mainland, and I rode a couple of winners myself.”
He and Andrea were also invited to meet the Queen at a tea party at Buckingham Palace. He smiled; I don’t know who put me forward to go, but it was an enjoyable day. “I also play a bit of table tennis – you have to make time to do these things. I have brilliant staff at the farm, and I couldn’t manage without them.”