Ploughing the competition

Richard D North follows the field from horse to tractor
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There is something so lyrical and moving about the business of ploughing - the sod-polished plough cleaving the fructifying earth - that it's good to note that there was a fine, worldly reason for the formation of the Trumpet Ploughing Match in 1944.

According to Douglas Probert, retiring president of the Trumpet and District Agricultural Society (the Trumpet is a famous pub and crossroads outside Ledbury in Herefordshire): "The war was in full swing. Petrol was rationed, so you couldn't go anywhere for a social occasion. But you were entitled to go to a ploughing match - that was all right. You could legitimately go to that sort of thing". There was also the natural fierce competitiveness of young people - even those involved in what looks a quiet and not obviously sporty business such as farming.

The oddest thing about the modern ploughing match, such as the Trumpet's held last Thursday or the National Championships which will be held today and tomorrow, is that they look now just as they must have done during and after the war. There is, of course, the same array of tents, and the buildings of the host farm may well not have changed much. The matter of old macs, and serviceable tweeds and wellies is more or less an unchanging one. But what no one could have predicted is that horses have made a comeback for competition purposes

Stan Hill, now 76, has ploughed at nearly every Trumpet match, and won quite a few (he took a third in 1944, but had progressed to a first in 1952). He doesn't plough now, but judges others instead, as he did on Thursday. He was one of the pioneers of a way of getting a living in the country which is now very common for the young of farming families: after the war he bought the best tractor he could afford and put himself to work as a contractor. He had begun on horses, of course. "I worked with them until about 1938. I had worked with them since I was eight, and by the time I was 14, I could do any work with horses," he says.

Mr Hill always enjoyed his tractors, and thinks he's had a brilliantly interesting life. "Mowing, reaping, ploughing, planting, wood cutting - that was my year, always varied." And the work getting faster and faster. As tractors finally outnumbered horses in the Fifties, they also got bigger: in 1944, a decent tractor was 25 horsepower, in 1984 it was 80 horsepower, and nowadays giants of 120 horsepower are common.

Mr Probert points out that that a 12-acre field behind his house at Shucknall near Ledbury is now "ploughed, worked and planted by a tractor in a day; a Standard Fordson tractor would take four days just to plough it, and you'd want good going for that." The Fordson itself was twice as fast at least as a team of horses. No wonder Dolly and Boxer were off to the knacker's. No wonder, either, as Stan Hill reminds us, that he and his sort could only feed a beleagured nation with the help of plenty of mechanisation.

Sometime in the late Seventies, many of the older ploughmen realised they were missing the old ways, and began the current vogue for vintage ploughing. It has lured back to the tractor seat some men long used to bossing others from the wheel of a four-by-four.

Ploughing championships

This weekend: 46th National Ploughing Championship, Swinefleet, near Goole, Yorkshire (on the A161 between Goole and Crowle); pounds 4 per person per day; pounds 1 for OAPs and children. 19 October: Liskeard, Cornwall; East Grinstead, W Sussex; Tetbury, Gloucestershire. 19-20 October: Alnwick, Northumberland. 20 October: Brigg, Lincolnshire; Dumfries; Chesterfield, Derbyshire; 26 October: Deeping St Nicholas, Peterborough; Alton, Hampshire. 2 Novembe: Wakefield, W Yorkshire. 3 November: Wetherby, N Yorkshire; 9 November: Rotherham, S Yorkshire; 30 November: Montrose, Aberdeenshire. For More details contact The Society of Ploughmen, 01302 852469