Jack Hargeaves: the ultimate rural authority: Keith Elliott joins television's voice of the countryside on a search for real cider

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The Independent Online
TWO glasses of amber-coloured liquid, poured from an unlabelled green bottle, appeared as I walked into the bar with Jack Hargreaves. The other customers hushed. The old countryman sipped his offering, pondered, and said: 'Not as sweet as the other one.'

What better authority to ask about home-made cider than the man who for almost 30 years was the voice of the countryside? From 1959 until 1981, his networked programme Out of Town, which started as Gone Fishing, covered everything from making a split-cane rod to rethatching a roof. This was followed by three years of The Old Country on Channel 4. And a whole generation of children grew up on How? - another Hargreaves idea that ran for 13 years.

But Jack Hargreaves is no crypto-countryman. He grew up on a Yorkshire farm and had to milk the cows every day before school. He knows the difference between a Welsh cob and a Fell cob; how to lay a hedge, tickle a trout, train a springer spaniel and fix a steam engine. When asked by a farmer if he knew anything about farming, Hargreaves replied: 'I'll race you at castrating lambs.'

He didn't just know his subject: he looked the part too. Millions saw him as an amiable old pipe-smoking buffer in battered trilby, a photogenic yokel with a talent for explaining complex subjects in a simple way. But he was actually one of the most influential journalists of his generation, and an executive of Southern Television. During the 1950s he was editor of Lilliput and Picture Post, and he played a key part in launching Angling Times, now the world's largest weekly fishing publication.

About a third of his programmes were on fishing. He leased a prime stretch of Berkshire's river Kennet for 12 years, and often used it in Out of Town. 'I got to know it so well that I could catch big fish to order, I thought I was the most marvellous fisherman in the world, and everyone in the film crew thought so too. But when people said, 'Come and fish our waters,' I quickly realised that I was only a marvellous fishermen on two miles of the Kennet]'

Hargreaves was the first person to produce programmes on fishing and country matters for the public. 'We had an extraordinary audience, from brigadiers to gypsies. I used to get lots of letters from old ladies. I think one of the secrets was that we never became elitist. One day we went to the Hampshire Avon and fished as I did as a child. I cut an 8ft hazel stick and a willow branch, bound them with insulating tape, cut a float from a reed, dug up some worms and caught five species.'

Hargreaves could have gone on. He had become a cult figure and the programmes were still attracting big audiences. But they were an immense amount of work. He kept his vow to retire at 70.

Three decades of country bygones sent in by readers were given to the New Forest Museum, amid the new wave of interest in rural life. Hargreaves could probably have made a tidy sum selling them. But money and possessions matter little to him. Now 81, he lives modestly in a little Dorset cottage with just a few curios. But, though his eyes and voice are a little weaker, his stride is still strong, his handshake firm, his memory sharp.

'This is probably the first fibreglass rod ever made in this country. (A wonderful story on how he got it, but there is no room to tell it.) And here I'm renovating a pony trap. You can tell it was a midwife's cart. The rent-collector's cart would have had far smaller lamps because he would be home before it got dark.' A day with Hargreaves is like a private showing of Out of Town: The Movie.

'I have had an extraordinary life and I've been very lucky. I suppose my epitaph will read: 'He did what he wanted to do.' But I wouldn't want to do Out of Town now. The country is now full of people who come down at weekends and complain about cowpats on the roads.' As if to illustrate his point, a farmer is shovelling tractor mud off the road outside.

Hargreaves still fishes a bit, writes a bit, works a bit. He owns the copyright for Out of Town (he paid pounds 1 for 450 films) and excerpts have just been re-released on video.* And he's still got life in perspective. His present project is to compile, very slowly, a list of pubs that serve real cider - hence our tasting session. Not so many years ago, Hargreaves used to make his own. But that's another story.

*Telstar Video, tel 081-741 5584.