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Harden’s Gap, Mechanisation & Running the Herd – a Life on the Land, Part 2

When Dennis Hotchin returned from National Service with the RAF Regiment in Germany, Phyllis was working for Commander and Mrs Hamilton at Alfred, Lord Tennyon’s birthplace in Somersby. The Hamiltons employed Dennis as a gardener and hosted the wedding reception when he and Phyllis married at St Margaret’s Church. Dennis stayed there for 18 months until the Commander died.

Squire Adrian heard that Dennis was looking for a new job and got in touch. The Squire didn’t forget people and was very loyal. Two big farmhouses at Harden’s Gap had been converted into two cottages – the Squire had lived there for a period after naval service – and Dennis accepted the new job and the new home. He stayed there for 35 years, and both of his and Phyllis’s children, Neil and Karen, were born there.

Over that 35-year period, modern, mechanised practices changed the nature of Dennis’s work, a story that was played out on farms everywhere. Sheep were phased out in favour of arable crops, particularly corn, so fewer labourers were required. The beef herd was increased to make good use of the estate’s pastures.

The first combine harvesters to be used on the estate were a far cry from their modern successors. For a start, they didn’t have a cab so driving one was a filthy job in more ways than one. As time was money with these expensive machines, the job had to be done to a timetable, no matter how foul the weather. Operators typically used old cornsacks to protect themselves from the elements, and still ended up cold and soaked, or hot and parched, with dust in their eyes and down their necks.

old & new combines

Another vice of early harvesters was that they didn’t funnel corn directly into a trailer. Instead, labourers had to follow the combine and bag the corn as they went, before dragging their yield back to the yard to be split into 16 or 18-stone batches.

Dennis worked as foreman for a spell but didn’t care for that side of the work. By that time, the estate team was small; everyone knew what needed to be done and just did it. When the herdsman retired, Dennis took over his job. For 25 years, Dennis ran the estate’s Lincoln Red beef herd out of Harden’s Gap and Keal Farm. The herd typically produced 120 new calves every year, and Dennis found the breed nice to get on with and easy to calve.

The Squire liked the Lincoln Red breed and was mindful of its long-standing connection with this county. Dennis remembers stepping in to protect the Squire when he looked too closely at a new calf and its unimpressed mother knocked him down. Fortunately, there was nothing wrong with the Squire that the laundry room couldn’t fix.

Having started his agricultural career with a team of 10 manual labourers in the 1950s, Dennis retired in the 1990s from a team of three. In his working life, mechanisation changed an awful lot about British agriculture. The best thing about agricultural work as Dennis knew it was being outside in the fresh air and the Lincolnshire countryside. He put up with good weather, bad weather and hard work, and he’s proud of what he achieved. It kept him fit and he’s still fit.

Dennis has found retirement marvellous and he’s made the most of it by travelling and keeping up his fitness by walking every day. He doesn’t miss the land – he knows the meaning of hard work so he can appreciate the value of having a rest from it.

* Image of 1950s combine harvester courtesy of Evelyn Simak via geography.org.uk / CC

* Image of modern combine harvester courtesy of Martin Pettit via Flickr / CC

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