Hell’s belles, it’s a sight to behold

By Keith Newbery

Published on Friday, March 23, 2012 - 11:15


THIS ISLAND LIFEFARMING in this country has changed beyond all recognition in the past 40 years and those who work the land have been coming up with all manner of ingenious ideas to turn a shilling.

Howard Johnson is no exception. By utilising didactic qualities he scarcely realised he possessed, 'H’ decided to turn Little Upton Farm, Ashey, into a place of learning.

Children were invited there to be enlightened, while he gave them the benefit of his years of experience in husbandry and cultivation.

It was an initiative which also inspired one of my favourite April Fool’s jokes a few years ago — and with the traditional day of japery little more than a week away, it’s time to share it with a wider audience.

Howard and his wife, Alison, were delighted to receive a letter from Cheltenham Ladies College asking whether they would be prepared to host a party of pupils from this august establishment, all of whom were anxious to learn more about the art of farming.

A date was agreed but when it turned out to be April 1, Alison’s suspicions were quite naturally aroused.

"It made me think a bit as well," said Howard, "but the letter looked very formal and it was written on what appeared to be authentic, headed notepaper.

"However, we called the number at the top to make sure it wasn’t a hoax and the posh woman who answered confirmed the appointment.

"She said a coach-load of girls would be arriving and that it was an ideal time as far as they were concerned because the college was being closed for a few days because the local police wanted to use it for exercises or something.

"So Alison and I worked like hell to get the farm up together and it had never looked better.

"I went out and bought a new tie and even had a shave on the big day. At the appointed time we could hear a mini-bus making its way down Gatehouse Lane."

As the vehicle turned into the yard it disgorged not a group of refined young ladies but a bunch of Howard’s raucous farming mates, resplendent in school hats, gym-slips, stockings and suspenders, with most of them wielding hockey sticks.

Among those present were Brian Morris, Ken Payne (taking a break from his role as a prodigious producer of tomatoes) and the late Phil Legg, from Brickfields equestrian centre.

"The b****** had planned it down to the finest detail," said Howard. "It was like the St Trinians outing from hell.

"Apparently, one of them knew somebody at the college, which is how they got hold of the notepaper.

"Then they got the receptionist in on the joke and she was the woman we spoke to when we phoned to make sure the appointment was 'genuine’.

"I don’t know what was worse, putting all that work into making the farm look pristine, or being faced with that lot dressed as schoolgirls.

"It could have been worse, I suppose. At least David Biles wasn’t involved. Seeing him in stockings and suspenders would have been more than flesh and blood could stand …"

A farewell chuckle for Island character, 'Fred word’ and all

I SUSPECT you, like me, have been to plenty of funerals where the character of the deceased has been dutifully outlined but never truly evoked.As a consequence, it meant a life well-lived, which deserved to be recalled with humour and affection, was effectively reduced to a few, droning, disinterested, third-party observations.

The blame for this usually lies at the door of lazy clergy, who all too often seem content to go through the motions, collect their cheques and head for the exit.

So step forward and take a bow the Rev Christopher Etherton, who presided at the farewell to Havenstreet’s master ploughman, shearer supreme and resident anecdotalist, Fred Price.

Armed with a fund of stories from Fred’s children — Dennis, Margaret, Brenda and Brian ('Poodle’ of columns passim) — he expertly recalled and reflected the spirit of the old boy and soon had the congregation chuckling at the memories.

Indeed, he even used a swear-word at one point (a first for St Peter’s, I suspect) but it was only a mild oath and I’m sure the Almighty was prepared to turn a deaf ear in the circumstances.

After all, it was very much a 'Fred word’, as anyone who knew him would have realised straight away.

While we’re on the subject of God’s own acre, I’d like to thank everyone who took the trouble to visit Havenstreet Community Centre recently, armed with photographs and memories for inclusion in the book I plan to write about the village.

It was a marvellous turn out and as a result I am knee-deep in a fascinating collection of photographs, documents and newspaper cuttings.

Now the work begins …

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