Britain is obsessed with the past as nostalgia intensifies

No, I can’t believe it’s May the first either. Put another way, one third of another year gone. Or less than three months until the start of harvest.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 4th May 2014, 6:39 am

On the credit side, most cereal and oilseed crops are looking promising. On the other side, price volatility and world political uncertainty affecting markets mean that no one is sure how profitable, or otherwise, harvest will be. And no one knows what the weather will do between now and harvest, or during it. Meantime, I have high hopes for May.

Publicity for the heavy horse event to take place at Milfield this weekend (May 4), expected to attract several thousand visitors, came at about the same time as a photograph of a farmer working with an eight-horse team was used by several national newspapers. Evocative, photogenic, with a few accompanying paragraphs about Robert Sampson being the fifth generation of a farming family to shun modern methods.

Well, good luck with that. No doubt his heavy horses are used for other jobs, but as far as I could see from the photograph eight big horses were pulling a grass harrow and light roller that could have been hauled by the smallest tractor on the market or perhaps a quad bike. The short article alongside went on: “He saves on diesel and road tax and his mighty Percheron draft horses are content to munch grass at the end of a day’s labour.”

Indeed – and hay, and grain, and whatever else horses need to keep up their strength because regardless of size of farm – that is, as farm size increased more horses were needed to plough, sow, harvest and cart – about one third or more of what it produced was needed to feed them. There might be a living, possibly a good one, to be made from heavy horses now from photo opportunities, exhibitions and film work. Not from trying to run a farm.

But, like vintage farm machinery and tractors, heavy horses draw a crowd. It seems that as modern methods and technology become ever more sophisticated, machinery bigger and more complex, actual contact with land, animals and crops more hands-off than hands-on, nostalgia for “the good old days” intensifies.

Ian Hislop dealt with that in a recent three-part TV documentary on the British obsession with the past. The third part dealt with our “fanciful nostalgia for the countryside,” a “green imagined land”, a “green balm for the soul” that he dated from about 1851.

Life for many labourers and the poor in rural Britain through the 19th and much of the 20th century might have been, in the words of the philosopher Hobbes “nasty, brutish and short”, but the better off Victorians founding a plethora of preservation societies for crafts, birds, stately homes and Morris dancing didn’t see it that way. They saw the countryside as a living chocolate box picture – and there’s still a lot of it about.