BASH Farming Heritage Project

Blackawton and Strete

From : Blackawton & Street History Group

It was back in 2009 that the committee of the Blackawton and Strete History Group was debating what new projects the Group might embark upon. Somebody suggested researching the history of local farming, and this seemed to be a pretty good and logical idea.

Hundreds of years of South Devon farming

Farmers have been putting the fertile soil and mild climate of South Devon to good use for hundreds of year. Up to the middle of the last century farming dominated the lives of most of the people who lived in the parishes of Strete and Blackawton.

A very large majority of the population was involved in farming in one way or another. Farms were handed on in the same family from one generation to another. Sons would take over from their fathers, and daughters would often marry into other farming families. And – amazingly to us citizens of the 21st century – the pace of change and development was quite extraordinarily slow. As the 20th century dawned and Queen Victoria died, the farmers of South Devon were running their farms in much the same way as their forebears had done centuries before.

Unprecendented change

But the 20th century turned out to be a hundred years of unprecedented change. The world in the years 1900 and 2000 could have easily been mistaken for two completely different planets.

In urban England the pace of change had already begun to accelerate in the 19th century, but the population of rural areas was, perhaps understandably, slower to adapt to the new technologies and lifestyles that were beginning to emerge.

Seeds of a new world

In fact our research has shown that local farming did not change significantly in the early decades of the 20th century. But the seeds of a new world were already beginning to sprout. The demand for men to fight in the trenches during the first world war drastically reduced the numbers available to work on the land. Farmers had to find ways of running their farms with a lot less labour.

But it was the second world war which was the biggest catalyst for change among farming communities. Again there was a shortage of men, but it was the advancement of mechanisation, spurred on by the war effort, that would change the face of farming for ever.

Evacuation of 1943

Our area of the South Devon AONB was perhaps subjected to war time change more brutally than others because of the evacuation of 1943. Many of the pre-war farming community never returned, and several of the farmers who moved in to the run down farmhouses and overgrown fields were new to the area. This new generation of farmers started with a blank sheet of paper in the late 1940s, and this renaissance was the foundation for a different world.

Fewer farms, more machinery

The South Hams is still an area of extensive farming, but farms now are smaller in number and larger in size. And, most significantly, the number of people working on the land has fallen dramatically, and the number of machines has grown equally dramatically.

The degree of change in the last sixty year has really been quite remarkable. BASH is very conscious that the number of local people whose personal memories stretch back to the war years, and even the pre-war years, is, inevitably, diminishing.

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BASH Farming Heritage Project

Capturing memories

So, a project to research and record the history of some of our farms, and in particular to capture the recollections  of those who have seen and experienced the changes of the last few decades, seemed like a worthwhile and appropriate mission for the Group.

We floated the idea to the members of BASH, and were encouraged by the enthusiasm with which it was received. Nearly twenty people expressed active interest and a willingness to be involved.

From the start, the project was very ‘member driven’. Apart from giving the team a high level brief, and some ideas about possible sources of information, it was BASH members themselves that selected the farms they wished to research, and indeed the style and methods of research they were going to use.

Richly varied research

Perhaps at the outset we imagined that, in spite of this non-prescriptive approach, the discovered and recorded history of each farm would fall into a broadly similar pattern.

Nothing could have been further from the truth! Different members of the team put completely different interpretations on what farming history meant to them. Any original thoughts that all the farms’ histories would be presented in a broadly similar way quickly went out of the window. Some of our farm histories delve back into mediaeval times; others focus entirely on the 20th century. The result is a book which contains a set of richly varied and personal interpretations of what our farming heritage means to individual people.

 We believe that future generations will be pleased that this record has been compiled.

SDF Funding

The BASH Farming Heritage project received financial support from the South Devon AONB Sustainable Development Fund (SDF). SDF grants are delivered by local AONB teams on behalf of Natural England.

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