Today we finally caught up with Neil Catchpole, someone who knows an enormous amount about the River and the Valley and in fact has spent nearly his whole life here. He was born in Marks Tey and moved to Wormingford when he was 12 and every year would do bob-a-job, visiting Paul and Christine Nash at Bottengoms Farm. They were both interesting characters, and Neil said that he cleaned what he thought were the same pair of shoes every year, as they showed no signs of wear but were just covered in dust. He has fond memories of Christine who would pick up his mother and take her to the WI but as she didn't ever reverse her car she would drive a long route round the village. Neil recalls that John was not run-of-the-mill and that he would think long and hard before he spoke. Through the Nash's he got to know Ronald Blythe, a gentle and generous man who over the years has made very little changes to Bottengoms, continuing the tradition there.
He reminisced about farming life in the valley, remembering his father buying a wagon and two tumbrels from John Stuck who lived at Coppins Farm in Alphamstone after finding them abandoned in a barn. They had been left there since the 1940's, along with the harnesses and were bought and eventually restored by his father. These early experiences of farming people and equipment, and this way of life have stayed with him and led him to save a shepherds hut from a building which he now aims to renovate.
Neil's father, Peter Catchpole, had been manager of the Marks Tey brickworks and he talked about brick workers being seasonal workers who would make kilns on farm sites and make enough bricks for the year. He recommends The Brickmaker's Tale by Peter Minter (of Bulmer Brick and Tile Co.) as a good read if you're interested in this subject.
Neil has worked with the countryside all of his life, specialising in tree work and forestry as a contractor but has also worked as a Landscape and Biodiversity Officer at the AONB and now works part time at Clare Country Park. He started work on the land in 1969 and remembers conservation organisations starting in the 1970, one in particular called 'Plant A Tree In 1973', which supported publications such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. He feels that nowadays people have spent too long away from the landscape, mobility and cars take them elsewhere, and that the whole pattern of rural employment has changed. In the past there would be 4 – 6 workers on a farm, but now one man, with occasional contractors can run 1000 acres. There are no Saturday jobs for young people and the employment rules are too tight which means no one takes any risks.
There have also been a lot of changes in farming since the 1970's with the grubbing up of hedgerows, the increase in the size of tractors and the dying out of the use of horses and steam threshing. As well as for ploughing, farms often had a yard horse for odd jobs. Perhaps one of the biggest things though has been the otters going and returning. The last meet of the Eastern Counties Otter Hounds was in the 1970. There was a large increase in spraying crops with insecticides but the tide turned in the 1980's and 90's with the tighter control of sprays. Also at that time the Otter Trust began to reintroduce otters that they had bred and he has now seen otters at Wormingford, often at dawn or dusk. The otter's habitat has also improved as they have also stopped the dredging of the river and approach things differently in management of the waterways for wildlife.
More recently Neil has helped with the pollarding and repollarding at Flatford and Stratford St.Mary and also in controlling non-native invasive species such as Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed, but perhaps his favourite work is that with Barn Owls. For this he has a disturbance licence and can ring and monitor the owls and over the years he's noticed a significant increase in the owl population locally.
Neil counts himself as an enthusiast but his knowledge runs deep and he is very connected to way of life that has existed in the valley for generations. He has photographs of six generations of his family (see photograph) and you can feel that this is very important to him. The oral tradition and the passing down of stories is a big inspiration to him and has led to him writing character sketches such as the Gamekeepers Tale and singing folk songs at harvest suppers and at events. He also passes on his knowledge through running courses on the river and the countryside at the Field Study Centre in Flatford. We're definitely going to invite him to perform at one of the event on the River Stour Festival next year so we look forward to that a lot.