Dorset lives – Seventy years of farming
Les Bagwell is probably the longest-serving tenant farmer in Dorset, if not the country. He told his story to Tony Burton-Page.
Published in June ’10
For as long as Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne, Les Bagwell has been farming at Luccombe, a mile or so west of Netherbury. ‘Luccombe’ comes from the Old English words for ‘sheltered valley’. That does not do its location full justice, though: the phrase ‘splendid isolation’ may have originally been used to describe late 19th-century British foreign policy, but it certainly suits Luccombe Farm. Two miles west of Netherbury is the tiny hamlet of North Bowood; turn off the ‘main’ road, go a mile and a half down a deeply rutted track, past immense fields, and there, in a secret valley which is certainly sheltered, is Luccombe Farm.
Les Bagwell was born only five miles south-west of here, at Filcombe Farm, just south of Morecombelake – or ‘two fields above Golden Cap’, as Les prefers to put it. His father (one of eight sons; there were also five daughters) was a dairyman for his own father-in-law; this is a farming pedigree which stretches back for years. It is set to stretch into the future, as one of Les’s three daughters married a farmer.
Les went to school in Marshwood until he was eleven and in Thornicombe until he was thirteen, at which point he left school and went to work with his father. It was 1941 and Britain was at war. By now the family (including Les’s brother and three sisters) had moved on to Pilsdon Barn Farm, and Les worked there for three years before joining Dorset CC to work on the roads (‘12/6d a day,’ remembers Les with a wry laugh).
When the war was over, one of his uncles came over from Canada for a visit. His traveller’s tales filled young Les with the wanderlust and in 1949 he set off for Canada from Southampton on RMS Aquitania on one of her last voyages before being scrapped. It was a six-day journey and the biggest adventure of Les’s life so far. But it was only the start: when he disembarked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, he heard his name over the loudspeaker. Astonished, he reported to the desk, only to find the vicar of Halifax waiting for him. His opposite number from the Marshwood Vale had sent a telegram about the arrival of a much-respected former choirboy.
There followed a 1000-mile train journey to Peterborough, Ontario. Les arrived on the Wednesday and started work as a farmhand the following Monday. It was a ‘demonstration farm’: in other words, one used as a means of spreading best practice to other farmers.
‘The boss said that if I stayed for a year, he’d give me a $50 bonus,’ recalls Les. ‘So I stayed a year, then I took the Greyhound coach from Toronto, through Detroit and Chicago and Minneapolis and Fargo up into Montana to Canada and Fort Macleod, the oldest fort in Canada, where the Mounties are. 2000 miles, that journey was. Another of my father’s brothers met me there and I worked for eight months on a ranch. I used to cut the corn with a binder drawn by two horses – I’d start at six in the morning and work till dark, stitching up sheaves.
‘But while I was out there, Father died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage – he was only fifty. They were still renting the farm at Pilsdon, but with Father being the tenant, they gave Mum twelve months’ notice to get out, so I had to come back and look after her. What she went through! She lost her husband, she lost her home – there was a farm sale and everything was sold, everything.
‘Then in 1952 Luccombe came up for rent. That’s when I came here with Mum and my elder brother and my two younger sisters. They stayed for seven years, until I married Joan in 1959, and we’ve been here ever since. I reckon I’m the longest serving tenant farmer in Britain!
‘There was no electricity when we got here – that didn’t come till 1966 – and the water came from a spring until 1962. We started off with four cows, and of course we had to milk them by hand, like we did in the old days. We had Tilley lamps to light the cowstall. Then I got a milking machine, which ran with a 1½ horse-power Lister engine generator, and we went up to fifteen cows. The most we ever had was 35, which is the most this farm could carry. The first cow I bought cost £37 at Dorchester market; now you hear of cattle going for £2500 – it’s a different world! All the markets have gone – whoever would have thought Sturminster Newton market would ever close? It was the biggest cattle market in Europe!
‘It all changed in 1980 when they started collecting the milk by tanker. Of course, it was too big to come down here, so I had a little 100-gallon one which I used to take up to the next farm. Well, the tanker used to come at half past seven in the morning to pick up the milk so we had to start milking at four o’clock. I gave that up after a year because it was ruining our life! That’s when I began farming sheep and beef, but we just do sheep now. ’
Apart from farming, the other constant in Les’s life has been skittles. He started young – he won a calf in a wartime competition – and is known as ‘the Skittle King’ or ‘the Legend’ for miles around. It could have been very different: he lost the tops of the fingers of his right hand in a baling accident in 1965. ‘What have you done?’ asked his colleague as he ran to him, dripping blood. ‘I’ve messed up my skittle hand, that’s what!’ replied Les. But thanks to the skill of the surgeons at Portland Hospital, most of the fingers were saved. ‘I had to play left-handed for a few months, but it soon came back.’ Indeed it did: he still plays in the Bridport League and is regularly the top scorer.
‘I’m pretty fit for 82 – and I can still show the boys how to play! And I’m still working. Not too hard, though; just enough to keep the dust off my fingers.’