Farming the Marshes (1938 – 2018)

Location : Langley Norfolk

Richard comes from a family of farmers. He tells us about his life working on his farm on the marshes at Langley.

I was born at Lower Farm, Carleton St Peter in 1938.  I had one older and two younger sisters. My father started farming at Low Farm Ashby where he kept pigs and cattle, but took Lower Farm Carleton in about 1932. There he had a small dairy herd and then built up a general mixed farm growing sugar beet, cereals, and also kept a few pigs. His father, my grandfather, had also been a farmer and he was born at Hill Farm Ashby St Mary. He was one of four brothers and five sisters and all four brothers were into farming. I don’t know how many generations our farming goes back. If you look in Ashby St Mary churchyard there’s some very very interesting tombstones. I think these are of my great great grandfather and my great great grandmother. One was feeding the turkeys and one was feeding the geese – they used to walk geese from Ashby to London – also walk the turkeys for Christmas to London. So that’s all commemorated on those tombstones in Ashby St Mary.

That would have been in the late 1800’s! Most of my family have always been in this sort of small localised area but my, well apparently my grandmother came from Lyng out on the Fakenham Road. That’s where my grandmother came from. My oldest sister she still farms at Aldeby. My second sister farms at Burgh St Peter with her husband, and the youngest sister Liz Allen farms at Hempnall.

Childhood growing up on the farm

I can remember getting the cows up with the dogs. I just kept a few ducks which we would get some eggs from, and after the war that was the start of my own thing. Having these few ducks, well I soon had about forty or fifty ducks, laying ducks at that, and was getting eggs and selling them to the local packing station at Loddon. I must be about seven or eight then.

I started school at Claxton and when I was nine I went on to Norwich High School. I’d been there about a year when this moved to Langley Park and became Langley Senior School. I only went to school to play sport I say! I played rugby and cricket, and I hated running but I was always in the school team. When I grew up I first of all started playing hockey but didn’t really take to that too well, not playing on Saturdays. I played rugby for Norwich City College in my early twenties and up to the time I got married. That was a bit of a sad story really because when I took Manor Farm Langley in spring 1964. I was on two sticks because I’d done the ligaments in me ankle in a scrum and that was my rugby days over. I never did go to City College or yet to Easton or nothing like that. My father had a bit of a down turn in his health and I had to come back onto the farm when I was fifteen.

Life on Father’s farm with the cows

So I worked on the farm and did all sorts of things. I remember carting sugar beet tops for the cows and cutting kale. When I first left school a lot of the work was involved with cows. You see, my father, he’d then taken on Hall Farm Carleton St Peter in 1946 and I was very involved with that. We were cutting kale by hand and then loading it on the trailers ready for the cows for the weekends, and that all had to be thrown out on the meadows. We went out and fed it to them at nights, but also daytimes.  In winter we used to hate the job really as sometimes that was so cold and wet.

I never did take too much to the tractor work. I was never a great plougher, but Father was fortunate as he always had a good ploughman. A lot of the time I was involved with the cattle side. We had a dairy herd then. We started off hand milking with a bucket there. But Father was fortunate enough to get a bucket plant put in so we would milk the Gascoyne way. I expect many people have seen the slogan up somewhere – ‘I milk the Gascoyne way’.

At that time Father had a milk round, so that took quite a bit of our time as well. I first remember doing the milk round with 10 gallon churns and a two gallon can, and measuring it out with either a half pint, pint, or a two pint measure. That was unpasteurised milk to start with, but when the Milk Marketing Board come in and started bottling that all turned over to bottles. We turned over to the herring-bone parlour in, that would be the late 1940’s. At one time we ran two herds of cows. This was because when TB testing came in the herd at Lower Farm was tested and they had some kind of reactors. So my father he then took his wisdom and he started a completely new herd at Hall Farm, Carleton St Peter. He used the old bucket parlour there along with a pipeline and airline and we’d carry buckets into and out of the dairy. We ran these two herds for about two years so as to build the Hall Farm herd up and keep the other one. You had to keep everything separate, different trailers to feed different cows and cattle. We started off with about 20-odd heifers. Then after my father sold the old herd away completely he expanded the new herd until the time it gradually went up and up and up in cow numbers. He extended the parlour and we eventually got up to over two hundred cows! They were all Holsteins, no Friesians. We did go into Holstein later on when the Holstein became more popular.

The hens at Manor Farm

I had a small chicken flock when I moved in here to Manor Farm in 1964. Mr Wright who was here before me, well he had to get rid of his cows after the flooding. After the marshes all got flooded he converted the cow houses and the stables and went into a few chickens. I think he started in 1962. We converted them to sheds for a laying flock and laying broiler breeds when we first came. We had 2,000 hens at that time. I kept it going for it must have been 15 years. We then got so that they weren’t viable really. The hen houses were getting old and bigger units were coming in. I got out of chickens and invested in the cows.

Adding to the acreage

Now we have about 980 acres. We bought Manor Farm Langley in 1964 when I got married. We came to live here, so that brought the acreage up then to 500 acres. Since then we’ve bought parts of Ashby Hall, land at Bergh Apton, Claxton Beech Farm, more land at Thurlton, some marshes at Thurlton and we also bought parts of Poplar Farm Langley. So that’s gradually brought it up to about 980 acres. Round about 300 acres of it is marshland. There’s some marshes at Lower Hall Farms. And Manor Farm here has marshes. At Thurlton there’s a 36 acre block of marshes. We bought more marshes in the late ‘80’s and so that gradually brought the marshes up. In the early part of the time they were very reasonable. The marshes have got dearer now but haven’t had to purchase any more because we’ve got enough grassland really, too much really.

Observing the wildlife on the marshes

I suppose the good features of the marshes are that they are part of the Yare Valley which is picturesque. And that is a haven for birds. We’ve got lots birds here. Ducks and swans. We do get a lot of migratory swans come in the early spring. We have been up to a 100, 120 at times. Swans are not to my liking all the while because they do do so much damage and they always seem to pick out the new reed seed grass which is young and tender. lovers, oyster catchers, wigeon, they’re all down here. I have seen kingfisher over there as well as heron and marsh harriers. Being opposite the Buckenham Fen and the authority there [RSPB] this is a very preserved area for wildlife. We do get several marsh harriers over this side. They tell me there’s been mink here but no I never see them. Or an otter. They tell me that there is an odd otter floats up the river. We’ve caught a mink but I think we’ve now hopefully exterminated them.

I remember coypu! I’d gone down to the marsh to count the cattle at night and morning and jumping over a gate saw that there was a female coypu. I think she had about eight young and they all scattered everywhere and that frightened the life out of me! Before I came to Manor Farm the previous tenant who was here with his son had a tennis court in front of the house. A big coypu got in this tennis court and that caused all sorts of fun ‘cos nobody had seen them then. With the Coypu Society they were gradually caught and have hopefully now been controlled. I still think perhaps there’s an odd one about but never mind that there. You need two to breed don’t you!

Working the marshes

I suppose the marshland revolution came in about 1965 really when various farmers through this valley here all cropped their marshes. The gentleman who was in Manor Farm before me had a big flood in ‘61 or ’62, and this marsh here was completely flooded. He had to do away with his dairy herd because of salt water that killed off all the grass. After a couple of years he started to plough marshes. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged this, oh yes. I think there was various bits of grant going at that time. There were several other people down this valley farming marshes. Reggie Loades was a good friend of mine and he was a really good pioneer in marsh farming. And then the Huttons did some, and Hardley Hall they did some. Caston’s did some also.

We actually underdrained our marshes. Plastic piping went in and at that early time we started with trenchless drainage. I can remember going and having a look at this machine which was laser controlled, that put in the trenches. The whole job was done a laser that was absolutely controlled to get everything level and get the pitch correct. Contractors came in to do that from Leicestershire. I remember one of the marshes was very wet and we did get a bit bogged in. But that was all sorted out and the job saved. I first saw that machine going at Laurie Bannister’s just outside Beccles where he did a big scheme on the Beccles Marshes. All done in very peaty ground, but where you could get clay that was a better thing. After we’d started draining the marshland they did get a bit of shrinkage, and that went on for a few years. We grew sugar beet and and wheat maize on them marshes. For a few years they were very difficult to farm because there was so much weed in the peat and the soil. That was the start of getting Bethanol come in and when you could band spray and all that. I suppose this cropping went on for about 10–15 years.

We do still crop some of our marshes but what’s happened is that because we’ve had so much shrinkage the peat or the alluvial part of it is now exposed to clay. And the clay is either wet or very dry. So you can understand that if it gets wet that’s wet, and if that gets dry that’s dry and it makes it very difficult to get a seed to germinate. There is still marsh farming done down there by Mr Caston and Mr Haggard at Hardley Hall, but when Mr Loades and his sons sold the farm all his marshes were then put back to grass. As for the arable side of our farm today, it has changed considerably for us especially the size of the machinery. We’re still growing a good range of crops here, sugar beet, vining peas, maize for the beef cattle. Enough wheat and malting barley. This is very good malting barley land really and our main sort of crop on upland now is malting barley either winter or spring malting barley.

Most of that goes to the ABC group as we call it which is through Crisp’s of Fakenham at Great Ryburgh. We either deliver it to Great Ryburgh or to the maltings at Ditchingham. Or some even go to down as far as Mistley in Essex. But we do have a contract to supply all our malting barley to Crisp’s. You can either sell it straight away, or grow it and hold it and fix a price when you sell it, or put it into the maltings and they’ll fix a price later. So we’ve got a few variations really but that is one of our main crops.

The boats on the rivers

I can remember very well seeing the big seagoing boats coming up to Norwich. There’d very often be boats coming up carrying coal. I think steel sometimes, and corn as well as fertiliser. It all went into Norwich. And then there was the barges that were on the river what used to cart the sugar beet. Some of our land is near Cantley and I have grown sugar beet within about five or six hundred yards of the Cantley factory. But we had to go all the way round by Norwich to get rid of it. We didn’t go over the Reedham Ferry, it wouldn’t take us. I can remember wherries. Mr Nat Bircham and his wherries especially. As I say, the original person who had this farm, their beet always went by wherry. They used to load them into the wherry. They built a stage and a staithe and had a four end loader, and loaded them into the wherry. Before that they were all hand loaded into the wherries. That would have been in the ‘50’s.

From my young time right up ‘til I suppose when they put the first part of the Norwich southern bypass in I saw cargo boats. The last of the cargo boats might have been in the ‘80’s. We always have had a lorry so we used to do some contract work there for a firm, delivering fertiliser out of boats at Norwich. That would all come in in bags. And there used to be several boats go up to Cantley factory till about ten years ago. They would bring fuel up for the Cantley factory. They were big boats but you knew the river was deep enough for ‘em and at that time they kept it mudded out, silted out then and it kept everything going. I wouldn’t say it was an event to see a boat go up because we got used to seeing several of them go up. We never could use Reedham Ferry much for our farming because of the Chet although I’ve occasionally used it for myself.

The cows at Manor Farm

Well naturally enough every farm serving this valley had cows. But gradually they’ve all disappeared. I can remember when down this road, from Carleton St Peter through to Langley and then on into Hardley with perhaps Chedgrave also, there was 14 different dairy herds. That’s gradually dwindled till I was the only one left. And I was the only one left between Loddon and Norwich on this side of the A146. My dairy herd went in 2015. We’d had problems before then though. When BSE came in that hit us hard because we had several cows we had to get to rid of with BSE. We bought cows and did build the numbers up, but we lost I suppose about 60 or 70 cows to BSE. And bein’s we lost that amount that meant you also lost your followers on. And then in 2015 one of the staff decided to leave and I then got fed up with cows.

I’d been in cows all my life and involved with cows all my life, dairy stock and I’d had a lot of interesting times with cows. We toured America looking at the Holstein cows, and we went to Wisconsin and the breeding units they were in. Little cows. They were all tied or in very large units but were very high milk-yielding cows. And then for an extreme we flew from Chicago back down to San Francisco and then toured from San Francisco to Los Angeles looking at more cows. We went through Napa Valley looking at wine, seeing some of the lovely wines down there. The extremes we saw with the cows there in units of up to 4,000 cows and 6,000 cows was quite extraordinary. Our milk would go away in an articulated lorry but they had their husbandry products come in in an artic load. We went with a party which was organised by Genus and we was all dairy farmers and their wives. That would have been round about the year 2000, and it was a very interesting tour.

Milk prices were very unpredictable as well.  But we had our good times with the dairy when the Milk Marketing Board was de-regulated. We went into a free market for a time ‘til the supermarkets controlled all the buyers but we did have a very good three or four years when the milk prices were good. And at that time I revamped my parlour and computerised it in about 2000. Did the full works to it virtually although it was still only a 16-unit, eight each side dairy parlour, so you could milk sixteen cows at a time but the thing gradually then got squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. That was when the Milk Marketing Board   disappeared in about 2004 or 2005. At one time we got up to I think about 220 cows. We never milked down on the marshes. Then it became more and more difficult getting the cows to the grass with the amount of traffic on the roads. You had to have two people take them out all the while, one in front and one behind because there was just getting so much traffic, and bein’s we had all this grass in the valley down there we had to get the cows to it. And that meant that they had to walk up to three quarters of a mile each way a day to get to the grass. Eventually I got fed up and said enough is enough hand the cows went suddenly.

The Marsh and its environment

We entered the Environmental Sensitive Area Scheme when that first came out in 1987 and we could live with it. That was I think a good scheme because it protected the environment of the marshes. It didn’t make it so that couldn’t make full use of your marshes should I say. We had several acres in the ESA on which you had to control fertiliser, and you had to control how you did your winter work like cutting foot drains and that sort of thing. That weren’t a silly scheme. But the time had come really when the drainage was done with electrical pumps. After they had put the electrical pumps, before my time, the drainage was so much better on the marshes that gradually the levels of the marshes lowered altogether. I was Chairman of the Lower Yare Second Internal Drainage Board for several years and that involved running the three pumps on marshes at Claxton and Langley, Monks and also the Hardley pump. This pumped all the Hardley marsh level and we were pumping something like getting close on 2800 to 3000 acres. We had a board. There was eight members I think which were from the different parts of the area here along the marshes. There was Major Allhusen and I took over as Chairman from Major Allhusen. Also Mr Loades, Mr Riches and the Mr Haggards. And Mr Caston. About eight years ago the Government decided that they wanted to do away with all the little drainage boards. So we then merged this drainage board with what is now known as the Lower Yare and Lothingland Drainage Board. That covers right from Rockland boat dyke here in Rockland St Mary down near Rockland Broad, and goes right down to the back of Yarmouth. All of Haddiscoe Marshes, the Thurlton Marshes, and then across to the Barnby, and Lothing where Lothing Lake is. It comes out near Southwold and then also joins a stretch of marshes all the way down to Diss, down the Waveney Valley. So we’re all now come under one board. There is farmer involvement but also the District Councils have got a big say because of that land especially at back of Great Yarmouth. South Norfolk have a big say ‘cos we take a lot of water from building sites. It seems to be working successfully but it don’t seem to be quite the hands-on effect which we had when we were a small board.

We’re still responsible for the cleaning out of our own ditches and dykes which service the pumps, what we call the mill dykes and some of the subsidiary dykes. But that’s all we still control and you have to clean them out to keep the water flows going. There is a pump on our farm, but I don’t run it. There’s three pumps on this level but people, they’ve now gone to all submersible pumps which are electric pumps under the water. I know that this one at Monks shifts about 30 tonnes of water a minute and the Hardley pump shifts 40 tonnes. The Claxton pump is about 30 tonnes a minute. There would be complete flooding without the pumps what with the settlement we’ve had with the raising of the sea tides that the river here is higher than that used to be. 

Outfall from Monks pump Langley (Internal drainage board) 2007 with view of Cantley Sugar Beet Factory

The Marsh floods

Of course there was the big flood of ’53. Claxton was completely flooded and Hardley was completely flooded but this one, this river here, this section here at Langley was spared that time. But since then we have had three floods. When the others haven’t been flooded at all we’ve been flooded! Once when the Langley Dyke burst – I think it was the day Norwich City were playing football at Sheffield United in the great cup run. Couldn’t go because we woke up and found the marshes were completely flooded. One of my earliest memories was in the 1953 floods, filling sandbags. At Langley there was gangs of us schoolboys came up to Rockland to fill sandbags to fill the breaches.

We have been flooded three times since, twice fairly seriously when the riverbank broke. The Langley Dyke broke down here in 1966, or it may have been ‘64. That pushed the whole bend of the river out down in front of our house here. I remember we were drilling oats on the marsh and we got an inkling that this water was coming. So we took sandbags over and lay them there to stop the water coming out. But thank goodness we withdrew ‘cos that was coming over too quick. Within a little while the whole bank pushed out and pushed the river right well out of the bank right out onto the marsh. It took several weeks to mend the breach and again that was salt water what came through. And that took us about four years to get rid of the salt off the marshes. We couldn’t get no financial help nor insurance neither. That was a very sad loss and that took time to get the marshes straight again.

That did have a big effect on the wildlife I’m sure. ‘Cos of the salt water that came through and all the fish that were killed that was a bit of a sorry sight to see. The fish which were in the dykes were floating about. We couldn’t put the cattle on them marshes because that was too salty really for a time. There was no grass there for the first two years completely. Gradually we reseeded a lot of the marshes and got them got them going again. That was one of the worst points I think in my farming career really to see those marshes completely flooded like that. All you could see was top of the gate posts out of the water. No properties were flooded because they were just high enough to be away from them floods.  About four or five years ago they completely re-topped the River Yare. Done a very very good job to it you know, made us feel a lot safer here. It took about 20 or 30 feet wide of marsh and was put on top of the river banks, and since that touch wood we haven’t had any problems. We’re in a high level scheme now which finishes October 31st. We’ve got six-metre margins round the marshes we crop, which is also done to help with the spraying. You know with the ‘lairaps’ and keeping spray away from the dykes. At the present time we haven’t signed up to a new scheme but I think we’ve got ‘til the end of July to make up our mind if we want to. Natural England keep saying they want people to go in the scheme but unfortunately they’re not making it very easy for people with a lot of grassland.

Flooding at Langley 2007

The life of a marsh farmer today

We do let some of our marshes to fellow local graziers mainly for the suckler cows. One block of marshes we let to a dairy herd, and another block is let for suckler beef. And we do use a lot of the marshes ourselves. We’ve built up our herds to nearly 400 although I think 380 was the top number we had when buying calves. We bring them up, fatten them up and sell them. A lot of our Friesian calves, the Holstein Friesians well they go down to Shropshire and I think then may go to London. And go into a slaughterhouse there which I know supplies a lot of meat to McDonalds, so anybody buying a burger can know they have good beef should I say! We kept all our young stock when the dairy herd went in 2015 but sold in-calf cows at that time. One of the farmers from Nottinghamshire bought I think about 15 or 20 of our heifers when they were sold at our dairy. They went to Beeston Castle down in Cheshire. Wright Manleys were the auctioneers. Of course we’d been a pedigree herd for several years. And so the cows that went there for dispersal were desirable. And all that milk from my original herd goes into making cheese, the Colston Bassett Stilton Cheese. So anyone who eats Colston Basset Stilton Cheese eating a bit of my heritage. And from my heifers should I say! But unfortunately now we haven’t got any more so I can’t supply him with any more. We’re all on all beef now and we’ve moved over to a lot of the continental school method style slaughterhouses. To one near at Eye in Suffolk and the beef goes mainly into local butchers’ shops.

And so to the next generation

My son came into partnership with me in about the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s when he got to 24. My wife took over from her mother and my son will take over also. But we’re still three partners in the farm. My son’s got a son who’s today trying to keep the rooks off the winter barley. He’s now finished doing his GCSE’s and he is now going to go to Easton, hopefully in September for a two year course. My daughter, well she’s got two little boys, and they’re not so interested in the farm. But they’re very keen now on chickens. They’ve been hatching some pheasant eggs and some chicken eggs.

Langley Flood 2007. Richard with his grandson.

I’ve always been quite interested in horseracing a bit. I’ve been a member at Fakenham for several years. I have got shares in two racehorses which are run on the flat. I’ve got ‘Caribbean Spring’ and another in partnership with three more people. We’ve had two seconds, two firsts and it’s been a bit a bit of fun recently. That’s a horse which has been trained in Newmarket. To get a winner, no matter at what level is a big achievement. Because they do tell me there’s only about 12 or 13 per cent of any race horses what are reared ever get to win a race!

This year I’ve decided to pack up watching football. I got very bored last year with type of game they were playing. played across the field football, and I think they should put the goalposts now down the touchlines and not on the ends of the pitch! I’ve had a season ticket at Norwich City for must be getting on for 50 years I suppose. And I’ve had two ambitions. I always did say I wanted to play cricket ‘til I was sixty, and shoot ‘til I was eighty. I did play cricket until I was sixty, and I’ve decided to give up shooting this year because my legs haven’t been too good. I shot last year and I shall be eighty just before the season starts. I achieved both so I think I’ll call it a day and let everybody else have some fun!

Richard Basey-Fisher 2018

Richard Basey-Fisher (b. 1938) talking to WISEArchive on 26th June 2018 at Manor Farm Langley, near Loddon, Norfolk

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