Christmas on the Farm

Christmas is the one time in the year when I can settle into life on our Wiltshire farm for a week or two. The Soil Association offices shut down, like so many organisations these days, between Christmas and New Year, and so the travel and even the emails pause for a while. I can walk the farm for hours each day, up over the Ridgeway onto the downland south of Bishopstone.

We are right on the edge of the county; indeed, the farm boundary is also the county boundary. My father came here in 1950, when he took the tenancy of Eastbrook…the farm is owned by the Church of England…and so I grew up here. I love this landscape, both the downs, and the heavier ground below the village, with its dairy pastures, hedges, chalk streams and woodland. Tim’s a bit more of a newcomer; his folk hail from Yorkshire (after 22 years here, he’s just about got used to there not being any first class cricket played in this county!)

Mind you, we couldn’t really have chosen a more difficult way of life if Christmas is meant to be time off, reflection and a bit of family indulgence. We’ve got about 3000 mouths to feed, and that’s every meal time, not just Christmas Day itself. The organic pigs, beef, sheep or dairy cows won’t be getting any turkey of course, but they will all need their usual winter routine of milking, feeding and bedding and it takes quite a crew to get this done. The farm team start even earlier than usual so that they can get back to their human families. I’ll wander on my usual route march of the farm and its inhabitants with Dog in tow, and hope to get a chance to say ‘happy Christmas and thank you’ to those on duty too. 

And Tim will wander off to the pub, like most men of course, but probably on this occasion to make sure that our 25 or so hotel guests have a breakfast to remember. And to see if any of them fancies a quick, probably wet and wintry, farm tour before their own indulgences begin. As organic farmers, food producers, publicans and sort-of-sassy new hoteliers, our roles seem to be to make sure everyone else, human and animal, enjoys themselves! To be honest, if they are happy, we are.

Getting my act together for the private part of this celebration is a bit hit and miss, I have to admit. I am actually and officially the world’s worst Christmas present wrapper, according to Tim. I’m pretty good at the present buying, basically what I would like and then late on Christmas Eve deciding what’s suitable for whom….if indeed, I’m prepared to give it away at all. But the wrapping—well, there’s a selection of used wrapping paper, possibly birthday themed, possibly something else not suitable, that accumulates behind the desk in my office. I tend to get the sellotape into a bit of a mess, as well, and folding those neat triangles at the end of a parcel has always been beyond me. Tim roars in from the pub (where he has been working, he tells me) at about midnight on Christmas Eve, and laughs at my efforts scattered all over the floor. It’s the thought that counts, I remind him. When we gather as family, later on Christmas Day, everyone looks at the pile of presents and say almost as one ‘I bet that’s from Helen, look at that old paper! It’s got little footballs on it, hasn’t it?’

There’s lots of us, on a normal Christmas Day—three sisters, up to seven children and various husband type creatures. Food ought not be a problem for this gang, should it? We’re producing organic pork, bacon, sausages, hams at Eastbrook, and prime cuts of organic beef and lamb too, plus our own eggs and milk; we’re about to produce our first crops of fruits and nuts—none this year, too soon—and our neighbour grows amazing organic greens and roots. We always find a luscious organic turkey, sometimes home grown.

Somehow, this mix of lovely Wiltshire ingredients and enthusiastic people comes together into a simple feast and hilarious family festival. Tim is generally at this stage happy to be on the receiving end of any hospitality. I think he told me last year that he’d served 1000 people in the ten days before Christmas, and he’s probably got another 100 at the Royal Oak on Boxing Day. ‘What can they possibly want to eat the day after Christmas?’ is his regular lament. You’d be surprised—our appetites return faster than you ever think possible, and a menu of ribs, steaks, big fresh salads, and smoked fish will be guzzled within 24 hours of you thinking you might never need to eat again.

The RidgewayAh yes, Christmas Day still. When my appallingly wrapped presents have been opened, and nephews and nieces have queried quietly why their eccentric aunt has offered them a heavy text book on ‘The History of The Ridgeway’ or something on Wiltshire’s White Horses, alongside a squash racquet or some high-viz cycling gloves (I assume everyone has a bike?), it’s time to get completely alone with my handsome man, as I still occasionally think of him. That’s when the excitement begins! Telly on, possibly some old Cold Feet we’ve recorded, and within minutes at least one of us is asleep. Before we start feeding the 5000 again the next day. Still, we must enjoy it.

Written by Helen Browning for Wiltshire Life.