Country Matters: No cash, just an awful lot of metal

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On Wednesday the most remarkable country auction of the year will take place at Bartletts Farm, Mattingley, south of Reading, where 400 lots of agricultural machinery, spare parts, implements, books and catalogues will come under the hammer. Not only will many individual items be of the highest interest to aficionados of vintage farm equipment; the collection itself represents a supreme manifestation of the way in which human beings can succumb to the hoarding instinct.

Local people had long known that the Absalom family of Stanford Mill amassed machinery as other families collected stamps, pictures or china. Yet not until the last of the Absaloms, Philip, died in July at the age of 83, did the full extent of their passion become apparent. Then executors had to cut their way through a jungle to establish what the grounds of the mill contained, and many trees had to be felled before the bigger objects could be extracted.

The Absaloms were a farming family from Aldershot who worked as agricultural contractors and built farm trailers. Of the most recent generation, none married. Fred died in 1975, and his sister, Molly, in 1986, leaving their brother, Philip, alone for his last six years.

They lived in a pretty Georgian cottage of mellow brick, which they rented from the Duke of Wellington's Stratfield Saye estate, close to a four-storey mill on the bank of the river Loddon. The Absaloms were at the same time collectors and hoarders: fascinated by machinery and deeply knowledgeable about it, they frequented agricultural sales and bought many rare pieces. They were incapable of throwing anything away. In Philip's bedroom, for instance, were found innumerable worn- out clothes, neatly bundled up, and hundreds of shopping bags folded in piles, interleaved with tissue paper.

This mania for retaining possessions explains one of the finest items in the sale: a 1926 Chrysler Six saloon car, with plates on the door sills bearing the legend: 'Designed and Supplied by Malcolm Campbell (London) Ltd'. Although of American origin, the car has right-hand drive, beautiful wooden bodywork and exceptional refinements, such as individual mats on the running boards outside each door. The log-book shows that it belonged to Philip's mother; similarly, a 1937 Vauxhall belonged to his father.

For car fans, the star of the show will be a De Dion Bouton, probably dating from 1904. This saucy little two-seater, painted green and trimmed internally with leather, was already a collector's item when Fred bought it for pounds 42 10s in 1953; it is now thought to be worth between pounds 15,000 and pounds 20,000.

Cars, however, were of relatively little interest to the Absaloms: what they loved was agricultural machinery and implements. The sale will include 13 tractors (the earliest dating from 1913), a threshing-

machine, ploughs, wagons, mangold-cutters, grinders, drills, belt-driven saw-benches, water pumps and stationary diesel or petrol engines by the dozen.

As the family's possessions grew, so more and more accommodation was needed to house them. The mill itself soon filled up, as did various barns and outbuildings. The brothers therefore acquired or built an ever-increasing number of improvised shelters. The De Dion Bouton, for instance, lived in what seems to have been an old railway wagon parked in one corner of the yard.

Over the years the property became ever more densely populated with little pole-barns - shelters with wooden legs driven into the ground, and corrugated-iron roofs just high enough to cover a car or tractor. The house also became choked, not only with instruction manuals, newspapers and old magazines, but also with vital parts such as magnetos and lamps, removed from vehicles for safekeeping indoors.

Outside, perishable components such as tyres and car upholstery naturally deteriorated, even though they were under cover; but the brothers were meticulous about raising vehicles on blocks, turning engines over by hand and keeping gear- wheels greased. Philip, especially, had a phenomenal knowledge of his hoard, and could give a full account of every car, tractor and engine, as well as of all the innumerable spare parts that lay about: he could specify the vehicle or machine to which each spring or rod or bolt had belonged.

Although cautious with strangers, the brothers were by no means reclusive. They frequented sales all their lives, and welcomed visitors who had a genuine interest in their collection. Nevertheless, they were extremely old-fashioned, and lived happily in the kind of conditions that obtained when the oldest of their artefacts were new.

When the Stratfield Saye estate offered to install mains electricity, they declined, preferring to rely on their own ancient generator, which thudded away in a shed outside. Only in recent years did Philip accept mains water - and to this day a long- handled pump stands beside the kitchen sink.

Most of the objects stored outside were too heavy for casual burglars to shift; yet somehow word went around that the house contained a fortune in cash. In fact, Philip never had any money, and lived on his pension, but that did not stop people trying to break in. After several attempts he became so worried that he developed a siege mentality and protected the house with an astonishing variety of home-made security systems.

First, he barricaded the downstairs windows on the inside with grids of metal bars or angle- irons, drilling through 18 inches of brickwork on either side of the openings so that he could put bolts right through the walls. Then he fashioned a sheet of metal to seal off the door leading out of the kitchen, so that even if anyone did break in from the back, he would get no farther. Outside and in, the house was booby-trapped with tripwires, some connected to alarm guns of the kind gamekeepers use to scare poachers, others rigged so that an intruder would inadvertently throw a light switch and start the generator.

No sooner had Philip died, last summer, than burglars attacked the house in earnest, ripping up chair cushions and floorboards in their search for non-existent money. The auctioneers responsible for the sale, Thimbleby & Shorland, had the windows boarded up.

The Absaloms' real wealth lay outside, in the jungly warren of sheds around house and mill. The task of bringing it all into the light of day fell principally to Michael Gregory, a haulage contractor who, with his father, Doug, had known the Absaloms for years. Whereas the brothers had used means familiar to the ancient Egyptians - rollers and levers - to manhandle their heavy engines into place, everything without wheels came out on a fork-lift truck.

With its furniture removed, its windows boarded, its gutters leaking and its last occupant gone, the mill house is now a sorry sight. But the Absalom collection, lined up for the sale at a farm a few miles down the road, fills one with wonder at the sheer power of the instinct that drove the two old boys - as if they themselves were one of their beloved engines, and their obsession an inexhaustible supply of fuel.