Breadline Britain: Free-range poverty at the hill farm

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The Independent Online
AS THE rain turns her dung-strewn farmyard into brown slush, Rachel Symcock stops shovelling and smiles. "Sometimes I wonder if I took a wrong turn at the careers office," she says, her wind-blown complexion riddled with raindrops.

She points to the unfinished stone farmhouse. "I started building it two years ago," she says, "but the builder went off when someone else offered him more money. I wanted to finish it last summer but with what's happening to the industry at the moment I don't have any cash." A sheep wanders through the doorless entrance.

Ms Symcock, 34 and single, farms sheep and beef cattle in the Peak District and still lives, as she has done for the past 10 years, in a leaky caravan at the back of the farmyard. There is no electricity or hot water; a gas- fired heater provides some warmth, but she lives 1,300 feet up in the Pennines, and it is not enough. "In winter, the fire can be going all night but there'll still be frost on the insides of the windows," she says.

The farmyard has been cleared of muck, and we sit inside the caravan, sipping tea. The tiny kitchen table is abutted on one side by the end of a bathtub, jutting out from the bathroom; the sofa is cold and wet but marginally warmer than the gale ruffling the coats of the sheepdogs tethered outside.

In the current farming crisis it is the likes of Ms Symcock who have suffered most, as, unlike wealthier, established landowners, they have no valuable land, farmhouses, savings or excess stock to fall back on. With her kitchen window opening out on a spectacular view of mountains and dales, she is far removed from our images of the poor as dwellers of sink estates inside urban "food deserts"; yet many of her problems are the same. Last year the value of her stock halved; she earned only about pounds 6,000, and without the pounds 8,000 in government subsidies she spent on building barns and a sheep pen, she would have gone bankrupt. The owner of the neighbouring farm committed suicide last week.

She is still paying off the mortgage on her farm and bank loans she took out to buy sheep and cattle when she started off in 1988. If her plight becomes any worse, she might find herself slipping into negative equity. "I did get stressed about it at first, but there's nothing I can do," she says, "and there's no point getting depressed because then you don't feel like doing your work and you make things worse. So I just don't think about it."

As for the house, she says she is determined to finish it next year. "This caravan's very old now," she says, pointing out a leak in the roof, "but I'm not getting a new one because I'm moving into the house. I am!"

Early the next morning, John Naylor, an auctioneer's valuer, arrives. Ms Symcock has spent the early hours rounding up this year's lambs, now strapping adolescents, from the three fields adjacent to the caravan. Mr Naylor feels their haunches and tails for meat, and marks those he approves with a red stripe. "They'll be fetching around pounds 19 on average," Mr Naylor tells her.

Three years ago, before the BSE and scrapie scares, they were worth twice the price. "Even before the Russian collapse in August they were worth pounds 28," says Ms Symcock. "Looks like the house will have to wait."

After he leaves, Ms Symcock straps on a backpack consisting of a large bottle filled with red liquid, and ploughs into the pen, parting frightened lambs like a giant wool duvet. "Gotta worm 'em now," she says, grasping each one in turn by the mouth and squirting liquid inside. Some spit it out with a noise that sounds like a polite maitre d' coughing to get your attention.

It's hard to think of a tougher job than Ms Symcock's. Once she finishes worming the lambs and ushering them through the complex pen system (which she built with her own hands), she feeds cows in two barns and pigs in another, repairing their troughs, and cleans out the sea of manure and water that engulfs the farmyard.

She does this every day, from dawn to dusk, and hasn't had a holiday, a weekend or a day off since September 1994. "There's always something needs doing," she says, sipping her fourth cup of tea of the day. "Oops. The sheepies will be wanting out of their pen. They've been there long enough. Scuse me." She stomps out into the rain and manure-slush.

Ms Symcock's living conditions and entire existence have more in common with parts of the developing world than with modern, post-industrial Britain, and yet she also suffers the same isolation as those besieged on concrete estates; the nearest pub or shop is three miles away, and she has lived alone all her adult life.

And yet, Ms Symcock is happy. You find the first clue as to why as soon as you head up the driveway from the B-road that snakes its way towards the High Peaks.

If anyone approaches the caravan, the alarm is set off by her six geese, who stride around grumpily in a straight line and honk louder than any Chubb system.

"I got them five years ago to fatten them up for Christmas," she says, "but one of them started laying, and you can't kill something when it's laying. Now they're part of the furniture. They wander around doing their own thing."

It's the same for the three goats who live next to the caravan, and the wandering pigs, and the guinea fowl. On top of the only cupboard in the kitchenette is a bottle that looks like children's cough-syrup. "Tribrissen. Piglet Suspension. Piglet Antibiotic," the label reads.

Ms Symcock says she wanted to be a farmer ever since she was a child; her father and grandfather were farmers in the same area, and her parents still live in a house on a hilltop across the valley. "I just set out on my own, I wanted independence," she says.

For all her toughness, she has a sparkling sense of humour and the absurd; she's an attractive woman, but will she ever get married and have children? "I haven't found a man tough enough!" she laughs. "I can just about survive on my own here," she sweeps her hand around the caravan, "but it's no place for children. The farm is mine, though, and I may be poor, but I'm happy."

She, at least among Britain's poor, is well-fed; when her cattle or lambs go to the slaughterhouse, she takes ribs, T-bones and chops for herself - though, without electricity, there's no fridge to preserve them.