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Hill farming history: 'You were working from hand to-mouth and if you lost a cow, you couldn’t really replace it'

Peter Lomas started to farm in 1950 at just 15 years old, and now he and his family are part of HILL, a project which documents stories of one Derbyshire hill. Emily Ashworth finds out more.

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A history in hill farming

If there was ever anyone destined to be a farmer, it was Peter Lomas. The 84-year-old hill farmer from Derbyshire lives and breathes it, and his love for this way of life seeps from every word, every memory.

 

Over a cup of tea and a slice of cake, Peter can certainly tell a tale or two, and even tears up when talking about the time his family first moved in to Griffe Walk Farm, Brassington, walking in to see a roaring fire left by the previous tenants. He says to be able to tell all his stories a few days should just about cover it.

 

And as he was born in 1935 and moved to the family’s tenanted farm in 1952, over the years Peter has seen, done and lived through it all. The oldest of seven children, his dad was a farm labourer and they lived on a small holding, always on the lookout for a farm to run.

 

Peter says: “I was farming mad, I didn’t care about anything else. I was desperate to be a farmer.

 

“We had a small holding and milked four cows, and we always had a few pigs because in the war you could kill pigs for your own use.

 

“That bacon, I can still taste it. It wasn’t like the stuff you get now.”


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Finding a farm

 

As a family they went to see a little farm near Matlock, but found it was too small to make a living from. A chance calling at a local pub gave them the details of a local landowner who had a bigger farm to rent. The landlord came to see the family’s small holding and decided to give them a chance.

 

“I remember he said to Dad, ‘well I’m going to set you a farm. I’m pleased with what I’ve seen but if you fail, don’t come crying to me’,” says Peter.

 

And so, they began their tenancy in March 1952. It was a challenge to get the farm going, running it alongside his brothers Geoff, Derek and Ken. And at one time, with cashflow problems and the harsh weather conditions Peter was milking about five herds besides theirs to make the farm viable. TB was also a huge concern for the family.

 

“We had one heifer calf, she was red and white, and every morning I would run to her box to make sure she was still alive. She made a lovely cow,” he says.

 

“You were working from handto-mouth and if you lost a cow, you couldn’t really replace it.” Peter would not have chosen any other life, and his son, Ian, now runs the farm across 283 hectares (700 acres), grown from the original 65ha (160 acres) the Lomas’ started with. Peter started out with Suffolks, but he ‘never got on with them very well.’

 

He says: “Dad loved his Suffolks. People might not believe this but there was no proper sheep feed in those days, and you had to feed them dairy feed.

 

“We only had about 40 of these ewes but they did look a picture, they had udders like cows when they were about to lamb. Because of the feed, though, they were in pain when the lambs suckled. I was sick of them.

 

“Eventually I moved to Masham’s – I love them, but Ian was nearly about to take over at that point and I went to Bakewell market with 50 of these lambs.

 

“They had lovely loins on them, but I only got £25 a piece when others were getting £50.”

Change

 

Ian now runs about 700 Llyn ewes which get sold through Bakewell market, and 130 milking cows, with all milk going to First Milk. From horses to machinery, to the expansion of the livestock numbers, changes have been made at Griffe Walk farm but handing the business over to Ian was not an issue for Peter.

 

“There was no trouble with me and Ian, I just gave it to him,” says Peter.

 

The biggest workload on the farm is repairing limestone walls and buildings, says Peter, all of which were built up by him and his family over time. And it is this knowledge and way of life that brought the Lomas family to the attention of Kate Bellis, photographer and creative director of HILL, a project based on the working upland community in Derbyshire.

 

And more specifically, the area Peter and his family farm. Kate, who lives near the Lomas farm, hopes to preserve the story engrained into this particular hillside, and more so, in people like Peter.

 

Kate says: “Peter is as steady as the Derbyshire rock itself and he deserves to be celebrated. “This hill is not just beautiful scenery, it’s a proper working hill.”

 

The project began in 2016 and ended up as an exhibition in Peckham, London, attracting thousands of visitors, who were also able to get hands-on and help build a limestone wall.

 

The focus was on bringing communities together, and to share the history of hill farming to an urban society which ‘does not always understand it.’

 

The culmination of Kate’s work was a successful touring exhibition, now seen by over 10,000 people and the HILL book, documenting her photographs and stories. But she is interested to see what the future holds for upland farmers, especially as Brexit looms.

 

She says: “It will be interesting to hear from the people making the policies. “I hope they listen to this amazing knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation, who have a really strong connection to the land. It’s always been hard to make a living from.”

 

Peter recalls that when his family moved in, locals said they would only last a year, but working as a family has seen the Lomas’ grow and thrive regardless of challenges for over 70 years.

 

“The success we’ve enjoyed has only been made possible by working as a close-knit unit,” says Peter.

 

And Ian certainly wishes to carry that legacy on. He says: “I’d personally like to think that the future of hill farming on the whole looks ‘good’ if people in authority listen to farmers rather than dictating to them and enforcing ways that they know little or nothing about. “

 

 

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