Monday, 17 January 2022

Why I care about farming like my great grandfather

AS the Henley Show celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend, it owes its longevity to the dozens of

AS the Henley Show celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend, it owes its longevity to the dozens of volunteers who have kept it running smoothly.

But one family has been involved since day one.

Richard Ovey, owner of the Hernes estate in Badgemore, founded the first show in 1891 and served as president for its first eight years.

More than a century later and three generations on, his great-grandson, also called Richard, is continuing the tradition.

Mr Ovey, who still lives at the estate with his wife Gillian, has served as president twice and will make it a third time at this year’s show.

He says the first show was a very different occasion from the current incarnation.

“We think of the Victorian era as a time of prosperity,” says Mr Ovey. “Yes, there were the railways, steel and coal and the land was owned by large landowners but the actual farming was done by small families.

“In about 1890 my great grandfather was living in Badgemore but had this farm next door and could see it was struggling.

“He got together with William Anker Simmons of Simmons & Sons and they agreed to set up an agricultural association to advise and improve what was going on in farms.

“The first event was a ploughing match and connected with this was a rick-building contest and cottage gardens. If you didn’t build a rick correctly the rain got in and you lost corn. If you didn’t plough properly you couldn’t grow good crops.

“It wasn’t that much of a show back then but the association was for the betterment of agriculture in the area.”

As well as teaching local farmers how to better manage their farms, the show and agricultural association also forged an invaluable network where farmers could trade livestock and equipment.

The show was staged at Hernes for the first nine years and expanded in 1898 after Mr Ovey held a public meeting to discuss broadening the association’s events.

After he stepped down as president, the show was passed around local landowners, who would give their land to stage the event. The show has since travelled around the area, including 19 years on land off Marlow Road and another 15 at Mill End Farm. It moved to the current site off Dairy Lane, near Hambleden, in 1998.

Mr Ovey says: “Nationwide, this sort of association was springing up all over the place.

“There was the ploughing match and later they brought in things like stock breeding for better horses, cows, sheep and pigs. Perhaps you had cows and a bull but the guy next door had a better bull and your bull seemed better to him. It was people getting together and talking.

Mr Ovey’s grandfather, Richard Lockhart Ovey, followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming president of the show twice.

His son, also called Richard in a family tradition but shortened to Dick, was due to take over before he died of polio in August 1947.

Mr Ovey first became involved after the Second World War, when he had three acres of land growing crops such as wheat and barley. In the Sixties he began to show cattle at the event.

He has also worked on the agricultural side of the show and has seen it change from an educational event for farmers to one which draws in a wider audience of visitors wanting to learn about the countryside. Mr Ovey says: “It was educational until the beginning of this century. The advent of the reliable tractor was one of the biggest changes. It made it what you would recognise as the show today, as people were able to travel from further afield.”

Despite a shared interest in the show, Mr Ovey and his wife actually met at St Nicholas’s Church in Rotherfield Greys and the South Chiltern Choral Society. The first time they attended the show together was after they had married in 1965 and they showed their cattle.

Mrs Ovey’s experience of the show goes back 60 years. She first got involved when she was 15 and received an offer to help secretary Denis Ford.

She says: “Denis lived quite close to my parents and asked if I would like to help in the secretary’s tent. That was my first experience of the show and I used to go and help every year with Denis.

“I was mad on horses and I was put in charge of handing out all the numbers. That’s all I saw of the show because the secretary works their socks off and never gets to see the show in the way the visitors do. They’re the kingpin that holds it all together and if there’s a crisis they have to sort it out. In the end they do the hard graft and everyone else gets to see the show.”

To mark the effort of the secretaries through the years, the association has compiled a list of people who have held the role, alongside the usual list of presidents. Mrs Ovey says: “If it wasn’t for the secretary you wouldn’t have a show running as smoothly as it does now.

We were exceptionally lucky to have Simmons as an anchorman for so many years. There have also been people like Barbara Seymour, Lucie Henwood, Carolyn Molyneux, Pamela Gross, Catherine Saker, Desme Smith and now Jo Taylor.”

Mr Ovey says the show’s evolution mirrors the changes in the farming world as a whole.

He says: “When we first got married there were seven farms in Rotherfield Greys all doing proper farming. Now we are down to two. That’s quite a change.

“The cost of farm equipment is vast and unless you have plenty of acres you are lost. We have all sorts of rules and regulations now, everything has to have a licence to go to the show.”

Mrs Ovey adds: “The show is an education to the general public so they understand that when they drive past a field those things with udders are cows and the fluffy things are sheep. It teaches people where things come from and what they look like.

“In the days when the show started in this little village you had so many more people working on the land. In those days Hernes estate, Greys Court and Greys Green could all muster cricket XIs. That’s how different the countryside is since the show started 125 years ago.

“If you want to be self-sufficient in farming now you need 2,000 arable acres or a really good dairy herd or sheep. It needs to be so big that you can turn over enough money.”

The theme of this year’s show is good husbandry, including the practical skills of growing crops, raising and breeding livestock and even picking up litter while in the countryside.

Mr Ovey says the show has an enduring appeal as it presents a nostalgic view of the traditional English countryside.

He says: “The appeal of the show is also the mix we have got. This year we are going to have a machines through the ages exhibition. You can look at the old and new tractors, buy a lawnmower, go to the craft tent and educational tent and look at cattle.

“It’s nostalgic. It’s the countryside in a microcosm as you think it should be.”

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