Chris Berry meets two farmers who are raising funds for Cancer Research UK through their band The Pub Lads.
Way down yonder down in South Holderness may not have the same ring to it as the song about New Orleans, but two Yorkshire farmers have struck a chord with their own band which not only plays to entertain, but also raises funds for charity along the way.
Charlie Hill, of Laurel Farm, Skeffling, and Andrew Wells, of Westmere Farm, Kilnsea, are part of The Pub Lads, named because the band started life through a weekly jam session at the Coach and Horses pub in Welwick.
Charlie, who farms about 465 hectares (1,150 acres) of wheat, barley and oilseed rape, says “We’re known for making a bit of a noise ourselves.”
Also working as a land agent and livestock auctioneer, he is used to getting in front of an audience with his duties selling cattle, sheep and pigs at Dunswell every Monday.
“One thing I don’t get is stage fright. You learn a lot about how to handle a crowd round the pens and the sale ring. I also had a dabble at selling my own creations a few years ago – bootscrapers out of old plough tines – so now you could say I’ve switched from being an artist to an artiste!
“We play a bit of country, some rock and all kinds of songs, from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to Status Quo and Thin Lizzy.
“We are not playing to earn anything ourselves, our only proviso is we ask each venue for a minimum donation of £100 to Cancer Research UK and to keep our glasses filled.
“My wife Helen has raised £17,000 for the charity so far through a sponsored walk in Nepal in 2013 and other events. We’ve also raised more than £3,600 as The Pub Lads.’
“It’s good to be able to help where funds are needed, but we’ve also found our nights are really popular with everyone in the community. It’s a good feeling seeing people enjoy themselves.”
Rehearsals take place in Charlie’s shed where all the band’s equipment is set out so all they have to do is plug in and play.
It is clear Charlie is in his element when playing bass guitar, but he remains modest about his playing ability.
“I tried learning to play bass when I was at school but gave it up as a bad job.
“About eight years ago a friend popped round with his guitar and it got me back interested.
“This time I stuck with it and it was the fortnightly jam session that brought about where we are today. I was probably the least musical musician there.’
“We started out with just three of us and called ourselves the Welly-Skeff Mountain Trio as we were all from Welwick or Skeffling.
“We became The Pub Lads as a five-member band about four years ago when a local lad, Eric Billany, who had watched us play at the Coach and Horses, said The Pub Lads should be our name since the band was born there.”
The band now plays in the local village pubs and special events where they are invited.
"One of the nicest things is when people ask me to sing some of their favourites I've written"
“We have a loyal following from other farms and villagers. Our Facebook page has 130 members and being seen doing something different to your main occupation sometimes helps break down any barriers because people feel more able to come and have a chat.
“We’ve made loads more friends and this way they see farmers really are likeable human beings.”
The other three guitarists in the band are farmer Andrew Wells, caravan salesman Guy Moxon and Charlie’s cousin, local electrician and solar panel installer Rich Newsome. Backing them all up is retired lifeboat crewman and registered nurse Paul Baker on drums.
“This year we were delighted to play for Great Newsome Brewery’s Beer Festival and at Andrew’s own live music festival, Shed Fest 2016.”
Andrew and wife Sue moved from their farm in Flaxton, York, where they had a pig unit 20 years ago.
Having started with a dairy operation they sold their 60-cow Holstein cross Friesian herd in 2008, concentrating on Andrew’s beef enterprise and Sue’s bed and breakfast accommodation. It is the latter which makes up the greater part of Andrew and Sue’s income today.
“It really did feel like a big day when we sold the cows. I was sad to be the last dairy farmer in this area and to quit milking.
“You kind of have this feeling of failure because of having to stop doing what we came here for, but then I thought ‘don’t be so stupid’, there really was no sense or reason to keep going.
“I’m now happier and more relaxed with the cattle. We have about 60 at any one time and made hay and haylage across the 100 acres, of which 95 are now managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.”
Andrew has also written many comic poems and songs, including his coastal erosion piece ITALS>> Half my farm’s in Holland now. On top of this, he keeps the humour up on the band’s Facebook page, providing witty verses.
“One of the nicest things is when people ask me to sing some of their favourites I’ve written.”
The Pub Lads take a break at harvest when Charlie and his sons Francis, 27, and David, 25, are too busy either gathering in or preparing seedbeds and new crops.
Other band members have commitments elsewhere too, but for Charlie and his boys it really is a time when everything else has to take a back seat as they not only look after their own crops but act as agricultural contractors too.
“It’s all systems go when harvest and establishing the next season’s crops is to be done.
“Like many other farmers, we have our own problems to deal with. These include black-grass work and dealing with the ongoing aftermath of when the Humber burst its banks and flooded quite a lot of our land in 2013.
“It left us with 250 acres which were badly contaminated with salt and much of this land is still dead.
“This year’s harvest has been poor in comparison to last year’s and our oilseed rape did exceptionally poorly but spring barley did well.”
While Charlie is hoping grain prices will improve, he is also happy to be back in his shed.
“We’ve just started rehearsing after a 14-week break. It’s the longest gap we’ve had since we started, so we’re all looking forward to getting back playing again.”
Raising money for Cancer Research UK is at the heart of how the band operates.
“I lost my mother and both my aunts to cancer. Helen lost her dad to this dreadful disease last year and everyone loses someone to it.
“We’re just doing our bit to help. My wonderful wife Helen is planning on another major sponsored walk to raise more funds next year when she takes on the Machu Picchu trek in the Andes mountains of Peru. She’s looking to get her own charity total to more than £20,000.’
Andrew’s love for words and lyrics has been passed on to his son Tom, an award-winning playwright with many West End and BBC credits.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be in the West End,” says Charlie. “Unless we get as far across from here as Hull!
“The Pub Lads are a great bunch and we’re all in it to have, and also to give, a good time.”