Escape to Middle Farm
After nearly ten years of our ‘good life’ in miniature, the initiation was over. It was time to move on
Sam Gray runs a smallholding in Shropshire where she rears British lop pigs, among other things…
Sam has written two books – Mabel’s Surprise and Doing it in Wellies and is passionate about high quality produce and works on a number of projects within the community.
Sam will now also write a quarterly column for OX Country each issue.
I’m not sure if it was Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s dishevelled curly locks or his ‘do as it says on the seed packet’ approach to veg growing that sparked the desire in me to give it all up for wellies, but I am sure that I was not the only one inspired by those early episodes of Escape to River Cottage.
If someone had told me back then that I’d be writing a column about smallholding life, I would have laughed disbelievingly while eyeing up my company car and laptop.
Growing up just north of London with an early career in national accounts, I was in no way prepared for the future that lay ahead.
But now, fifteen years since watching those first influential television series and becoming well practised in the art of shovelling muck, delivering new born piglets, loading animals into stock trailers, rigging up electric fencing, tattooing, tagging, sowing, planting, picking, preserving and much more besides I can now relate to what would have been going on when the cameras weren’t filming.
Escaping to Middle Farm has been a reality check. Becoming a smallholder with rare breed pigs, chickens, veg, fruit and farm kids has taken practice, patience and an inordinate amount of self-motivation. From collecting eggs and pig carcasses to hosting radio shows with local chefs and writing books, the stories and adventures are aplenty.
Herding escaped piglets out of flower beds, massaging oil into giant boars whilst trying to keep the kids out of the lethal sheep-dip only touched on the unexpected but tucked away in the hills this small farm is proof again that this life-style choice really does exist!
Although it may seem a little extreme to ‘jack it all in’ for a life looking after animals and growing your own food I can say with experience that for me, the reality has surpassed the dream.
There is of course a cost… the urge to write about it is overwhelming and so a ‘quarterly column’ is born!
According to my Oxford English Dictionary, a smallholding is ‘an agricultural holding smaller than a farm.’ While that may be true, for me running a smallholding is a reality check – it is about quality of life, living by the seasons, working and connecting with nature, nurturing animals for foods and eggs and, best of all, growing more vegetables than you will ever be capable of eating.
Unless you are born into this lifestyle, becoming a smallholder takes time and practice. It is definitely something you evolve into, almost without realising.
The understanding that you are the custodians of a sizeable plot of land takes several months to come to terms with, then only a few more after that to realise you could do with three times the amount of space. Christmas presents change from classy clothes to boiler suits; expensive wellies become a worthwhile investment as shoes become obsolete.
By the time friends are picking straw out of your hair mid-conversation, you find bailing twine and a pocketknife in every coat pocket, and your ‘once in blue moon’ manicure starts with the filing of your hands, you know!
You know you’ve shovelled enough muck, fed enough animals, witnessed enough births and deaths, fixed enough fences, sown enough seeds, planted enough trees, picked enough fruit, made enough jams, pickles and cordials, nurtured enough veg and learned enough about land management to finally consider yourself worth of the title ‘smallholder’.
If someone had told me a decade ago that I’d be writing a book about life on a smallholding, I would have laughed disbelievingly while eyeing up my company car and laptop. A decade before that, I doubt I even know what one was.
I grew up in a village outside St. Albans in a somewhat quieter Hertfordshire during the 1970s and 1980s, and although I enjoyed an outdoor childhood, it was by no means preparation for keeping chickens and shovelling pig muck.
My ‘education’ in countryside ways started the moment I met my husband. His passion for nature, wildlife and dangerous aerobatic sports had me transfixed from the minute we met.
In the 1-acre garden surrounding our cottage in the middle of a 1500-acre shooting estate he taught me how to shoot for the pot, set rat traps, use a chainsaw, erect wire fencing and skin a rabbit. By the time I was capable of herding escaped cows off the lawn we knew we made an excellent team.
After nearly ten years of our ‘good life’ in miniature, the initiation was over. It was time to move on. Middle Farm was waiting for us whether we were ready or not.
A | AI | Artificial Insemination to farmers and smallholders – interesting job involving semen.
B | Barbed wire | Horrendously sharp metal strand surrounding entire parameter of land. Cause of many scars, expletives and ripped jeans.
C | Cracked | Damaged and unsaleable eggs collected by apologetic children.
D | Drama | An exciting series of births, deaths and escapees.
E | Electricity | Supply of electric current giving shock to animal as a reminder not to wander off. NB: Do not touch with head.
F | Facebook | Social medium that allows you to tell everyone of how wonderful it is to live on a farm.
G | Greenhouse | A must have glass construction filled with compost and wine.
H | Holiday | An extended period of leisure and long distant memory of something you used to do when you had time off.
I | Ice | Frozen water that blocks pipes to drinkers and initiates lugging buckets of the wet stuff to thirsty animals.
J | Job list | Daily reminder of why sickness is not allowed.
K | Knife | Cutting instrument found in every coat pocket alongside bailing twine.
L | Lounge | Long reclining chair for garden use that you never actually get to sit in.
M | Minute | The 60 second period of time allowed for awe and wonder between jobs.
N | Nightlife | Social activities in the countryside usually surrounded by owls, moon and stars.
O | Outdoors | The open air and permanent place of work.
P | Poo | Excrement from chickens, pigs and sheep – excellent nutrition.
Q | Quiche | Baked flan with savoury filling using up cracked eggs collected by apologetic children.
R | Rat traps | Device designed to catch the creatures that nibble through all feed bags.
S | Shovelling | Act of scooping up all poo previously mentioned.
T | Twitter | Social medium where you download all trials of small farming life.
U | Utopia | Imaginary place, society or situation where everything is perfect – the smallholding dream.
V | Vet | Expensive, brave friends who save your animals.
W | Wellies | Irreplaceable rubber footwear worn at all times.
X | X-rated | Pornographic or indecent on heat farm animals.
Y | Year | The time taken by the earth to make one complete orbit around the sun and for all the seasons to be valued and experienced by outdoor living.
Z | ZZZZ | Good night sleep
All Private, good secondary called Kent College, Tunbridge Wells – same school that Prince Edward’s wife Sophie Rhys-Jones went to (of course she’s older than me!)
Left school at 16, Oxford secretarial college for 1 year, moved to Clapham and worked for 2 years in London. Gave it all up to race bikes in France (Nantes) for a French team of professional cyclists. Raced for 2 years while working as an Aupair, also travelled around France and Europe hitch-hiking and experiencing life from a 19 year old perspective!
Since then have been to Prague, India, Langkawi (Asia), Morocco and of course back to France.
What did you read at Uni?
Came back to England at 21 and went back into education – now fluent in French. I did ‘A’ levels and went on to Uni at Wolverhampton doing French and Economics. Won Scholarship to study in France (Grenoble) doing another degree in French Business and Law.
After a couple of years temping and working out what I was going to do I ended up back in the Midlands with a boyfriend at the time. Got a job in Sales working in the paper industry and worked my way up to National Account Manager for SCA, Europe’s largest paper manufacturer, hence the laptop and Mercedes!
Ages of Children?
Maddie (9) Connor (7)