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Weald farmers may be continuing to follow a popular tradition with their annual ploughing match, but 300 years ago it wasn't just agricultural improvement but moral improvement that was the objective. Words by Trisha Fermor
While enjoying a 21st-century ploughing match with its hi-tech machinery, it is difficult to believe that 300 years ago the organisers aims were not just to provide a jolly day out.
Far from it. Morals and good living were as high a priority as ploughing
a straight furrow. As long ago as 1842 it was noted that the Staplehurst Agricultural Associations match, held at Chittenden Farm, saw a peaceful campaign for the trial
of the husbandmans skill, the encouragement of rustic virtue and the reward of honest industry.
Indeed, the association then one of hundreds throughout Kent had been set up for the encouragement of servants and agricultural labourers, with good, clean, sober living the target.
At one event, John Osborne told the assembled gathering that the goal of all societies of this kind was agricultural improvement, but in addition the improvement of the condition and moral character of the labourer was also the object. Indeed, one observer noted after another Staplehurst match: Not an ill word was to be heard, nothing like bad language or drinking, and he would like nothing better than to invite a foreigner to see the English labourer as he is.
In those days, not only were there ploughing competitions (with horses), but hop stringing, turn-out of horses and thatching contests, which were also rewarded with prizes.In the 20th century, associations began to amalgamate and in 1947 the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match Association was born following the marriage of the Sandhurst Ploughing Match and the Marden Agricultural Society.Out of this union came not only the popular annual ploughing event with horses increasingly giving way to tractors but also the Marden Fruit Show, which later blossomed into the National Fruit Show now held annually at Detling.
The new associations first match was held at Glassenbury Farm in Cranbrook and over the years has been held at farms all over the Weald, giving competitors the chance to work different land and soil, much of it being predominantly heavy Weald clay
While ploughing is still perhaps the major attraction for competitors, hops do feature, but sadly on a much smaller scale. Because of the decline in hop growing there is now only a drying competition, hop stringing having been abandoned several years ago.
Many older association members remember Frank Bond, a regular competitor, who demonstrated his stringing skills on Larry Graysons Generation Game TV show in the 1970s.
One highlight of the match still thriving is the vintage and veteran tractors and other old machinery used in bygone years.
While the Leviathans of the 21st century may do a faster and better job in comparative comfort, come rain or shine it is the old tractors that draw huge interest from visitors.
The few heavy horses that do still take part add a strong note of nostalgia to the match. Although in the past known for ploughing only an acre a day, these gentle giants, beautifully plated and decked out in horse brasses, offer a tenuous link with an agricultural tradition going back centuries.
Brian Thompson, 80, who owns Brattle Farm Museum in Pinnock Lane, Staplehurst, looks after the WKPMAs own 100-year-old vintage Kent plough which forms part of his huge collection of farming memorabilia. He has farmed there for 60 years and recalls: I bought a Ramsome plough in 1951 for 10 shillings [50p] from the next door farmer and it was used in the 1952 match with someone elses tractor. I did used to take part, but
only with the vintage machinery and I used a Field Marshall tractor and a two-furrow Ransome trailer plough, but I never won anything.
Among the items in the museum are three second place certificates won by Charles Wickham, who was employed by Jack Offen, dated 1909 and 1924. Both names are still well known in Weald farming circles today.
Current chairman, Paddock Wood arable farmer Adam Wise, says: We are proud to be carrying on a farming tradition which goes back hundreds of years. As well as the ploughing and hop competition, we have a truly Thelwellian gymkhana, clay pigeon shooting competition, arena displays, terrier racing and lots of stands with a farming flavour. There is something for the whole family and the match is a great way to enjoy the countryside and its many and varied crafts.
While the WKPMA does offer a grand day out, its main aim is charitable. Each year proceeds of more than 3,000 are donated to such causes as the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute, Angley, Homewood and Oldborough Manor school farms, as well as Kent Air Ambulance. There is also a bursary on offer of a minimum of 1,500 for a youngster who is looking to pursue a career in farming.
This years match will be on Richard Muntons land at Brissenden Farm in Sand Lane on Saturday 18 September. The farm once formed part of Sissinghurst Castle estate, the gardens made famous by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.
With more and more people thinking local, whether it is supporting their nearby farm shop, cutting down on air miles for out-of-season foods, or holidaying at home, the emphasis on enjoyment has also switched locally.
With this back-to-basics feel one wonders if the British tradition of Plough Monday might creep back onto the farming calendar?
It was the day when workers, having celebrated Christmas, returned to their farms on the first Monday after Epiphany if the ground was not too frozen or wet.
For many it was a festive day, which included the Fool Plough Procession with plough boys dressed as mummers who begged for plough money. This was used to buy provisions for a rustic feast and candles for the altar of the ploughmans guild in the church.
The plough was sometimes blessed and perfumed by the clergyman and often pulled through the streets by youths called plough bullocks. While Plough Monday festivities have died out, it is heartening to see that an equally old tradition, the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match, is still as popular as ever and shows no sign of becoming a bygone like so much in farming.
Weald of Kent Ploughing Match
Saturday 18 September 18, 9am
Start Brissenden Farm, Sand Lane, Frittenden, Cranbrook TN17 2BA
Ploughing with modern and vintage tractors and horses, terrier racing, clay pigeon shooting, main arena events, etc. Ample parking. Tickets: 5 adults, concs. 2.50, under-16s free.
For further details
Email firstname.lastname@example.org and visit: kent.greatbritishlife.co.uk for all supporting web links.