By Gillie Threadgold, Skipton
My father’s soulmate was large, very large, strong-bodied with a uge head, intelligent and possessed of wise and gentle eyes. Although my father was six feet tall and very slim it was easy to understand why they were soulmates. Both were ‘sons of the soil’, gentle of manner and happiest outside in the fresh country air.
My father bred Derby himself from a prize winning shire horse he’d owned in his younger years, named Captain, who was a very large and good looking animal.
My father was born in 1902 into a farming family whose relationship with the same land went back almost to the Domesday Book, I believe. Only the surname changed when my paternal grandmother inherited the farm and married another local farmer. Dad could never have been anything else but a farmer. The soil, the animals and the life were part of his psyche, born into his bones and genes, his whole life, his main interest and his contentment. Holidays away were not part of his need, or wan.
A long weekend with his in-laws were enough, or a day on the chapel outing to the nearest seaside town where I would spend all day riding on the donkeys. When I was born in 1941, Captain had long since died and had been replaced by a very feisty female shire called Kitty, a loyal companion and workmate for Derby over very many years. They became an important element in my own life also as I was put on Derby’s wide, accommodating back before I could walk, my father leading them both, usually with one hand caressing Derby’s neck, talking to them as we trundled along the ancient lanes leading to their pasture fields where they could rest at the end of the working day.
I was never put on Kitty’s back as she was’ fly’ and would jump if a bird flew out of the hedge or someone appeared around a corner, or sometimes even the mooing of a cow to acknowledge our passing. Derby was as steady as a rock, dependable, kind and gentle and I adored him and spent many hours grooming him in the stable or sitting in the fields with him while he enjoyed the sweet young grass.
Looking back I remember walking alongside the trio as they ploughed the fields, or carted the crops back to the barns, and we children being allowed to sit on top of the pile of hay as it was carted back to the farm to await the threshing machines. Those days are now long gone and maybe there was an element of danger in doing that, but I don’t remember any of us falling off or hurting ourselves.
I often wonder how many miles and how many hours the trio spent together working the land, my father walking beside them, one hand on Derby’s flank and the other smoking his Woodbine, heads nodding in perfect synchronisation. Content together, comfortable in each other’s company, communicating in their own language, complete understanding and trust on both sides.
I must have been about 15 when Dad rushed into the house early one morning, tears streaming down his face. He sat in his chair with his head in his hands. We waited until he could talk, realising that the news must be bad, very bad indeed for him to be in such a state. It was indeed devastating news, heartbreaking and totally unexpected.
He never had the same spirit or joy again; his shoulders dropped, his eyes sad
He’d gone to the fields after milking to collect the two horses ready to work one of the fields and found Derby lying prone on the grass with Kitty standing beside him, nuzzling his body and gently whinnying. Derby had died overnight, probably from old age as he was now 36 years old, and certainly not from overwork or neglect. There was nothing Dad could do for him now except mourn, phone the vet and arrange for his body to be removed. I recognised that something had died in my father that day. He never had the same spirit or joy again; his shoulders drooped, his eyes sad, his eagerness to be out in the fields evaporated like a puff of smoke.
Kitty, who was three years younger, was inconsolable. Dad spent as much time as possible comforting her, sleeping in her stable some nights, giving her company and love but nothing helped the grieving animal. The horses had been together for 32 years, a long ‘marriage, in horse terms, companion and friends, usually working together and within six weeks Kitty, still a strong and healthy animal, had died of a broken heart.My Father was utterly distraught, his heart broken. It was the end of an era he had loved, understood, and valued. The eventual purchase of a new grey tractor didn’t help. He hated the tractor, travelling the narrow lanes at one speed and whenever he approached a corner or gateway he would shout ‘Aye up, I’m coming’ putting the fear of God into all our hearts.
Sometimes, if I was in the fields or close by when he drove past and nobody else was around I would hear him say “Aye up lad, slow down a bit, we’re nearly done now.” I knew who he was talking to, who was in his mind, his heart and his soul, and would remain there for the rest of his life.