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Anton Coaker: Travelling downhill offers summer break high spots

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 21, 2014

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Anton Coaker

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We’ve been off on our jollies again. This year, the annual beano of the ‘Lefthand thread Galloway cattle breeders club’ took my tribe to that well known hotspot of hill cattle breeding and upland culture, Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk.

As ever, my obliging wife allowed me to share our week with our consulting historical architect, Mrs Miggins and her delightful daughter Harriet. Between our eclectic professions, interests, curiosities and downright nosiness, I can bring you the following.

The predominantly flat, low lying landscape lies over limestones, chalk and clays, with the upper levels of ‘superficial’ geology having been scratched over by various glacial and ocean actions. As well as the poor ‘Breckland’ heaths there’s a whack of good farmland. It varies from heavy clays, through to what the natives called ‘blowing sand’. This stuff they have tried tilling, especially in the post war years, but found they needed snow ploughs to keep the adjoining roads clear of drifting sand. One farmer we visited enjoys 24ins of annual precipitation. I’ve got cousins farming grain in inland Australia on hardly less than that. It’s only that the region is tacked on the back of a temperate country facing the Atlantic that keeps Suffolk from being seriously arid.

Flints abound, although our combined team have never really got to grips with how they’re formed with the associated chalk. Something to do with silicates and time.

We visited Stone Age flint mines, Saxon villages, and flint faced wool churches. The Dane-geld history is etched everywhere in place names and fair-headed natives, and the wealth of the Elizabethan cloth and woollen industry abounds. Best for me was the abundance of surviving oak framed houses and barns, alongside brick buildings in the local red clay. Surrounding villages were simply stuffed with all this, displaying housing stock running right through into Victorian and Georgian structures. Obviously, a lot of this stuff was covered over in the 20th century, and many recent additions are in the style of the mid ‘Barrattine and Wimpyoid’ period. Nonetheless, upwards of a thousand years of British history lies in plain view almost everywhere.

Amongst the medieval oak framed structures and wool churches the most visible feature for miles around are the hoppers at Bury sugar factory. This converts sugar beet from surrounding arable land, although the low price offered for next year was starting to ring alarm bells. The scale of arable operations generally was a different world. Fields in which the further end could hardly be seen were common, and the boy and I were mightily tickled to overtake a truly monstrous Claas combine barrelling down a dual carriageway on rubber tracks, being delivered brand spankers from the nearby importer.

Livestock farming locally is a bit sparse. A lot of arable operations run, or rent land to, big outdoor pig units. Like the cattle farming, it’s mostly about getting dung back on the ground. I innocently asked if the straw had little value locally, but was quickly disabused. There are power stations burning it now, which has set the price, and stockmen have to pay near as much as I do down in the rainy west.

The Coaker-family-holiday-roadkill tally – now kept on an electronic device I note – went heavy on the fat pigeons and hares which infest the landscape thereabouts.

Our RGCS summer jamboree activities seem to have spilled over into three days now, and were simply sublime again. It was a change to be at such a low altitude, but Cumbrian, Northumbrian and Scottish delegates came together with Exmoor, Dartmoor and other disparate contingents with the enthusiasm we’ve grown accustomed to. The oxygen-rich lowland atmosphere made us disorientated, forcing us to eat and drink even greater volumes to compensate. One or two members seem to be exerting their own gravitational pull later in the tour.

We try to force ourselves to take in farm visits or cultural activities between each blowout meal, but a shortage of cattle farming forced us to tour the National Stud at Newmarket, where they breed a lot of tall skinny horseflesh – a nice change. We also saw some smart Simmentals, a fabulous group of unbelievably quiet Longhorns, and Galloways grazing low marsh country. We got caught in biblical thunderstorms, careering about between farms and hostelries, generally creating traffic chaos in our haphazard motorcade. I blame the secretary… who is that awful man?

I loved it…thanks go to our kind host Jeremy, who the fates rewarded for his patience and generosity with a beautifully marked heifer calf from his favourite cow the day we departed once more for the hills.

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