The experience of living through ten decades of farming, family and friendship is rare and special. Emily Scaife meets two ladies turning 101 side by side.
"I am so pleased to know you are celebrating your one hundredth birthday. I send my congratulations and best wishes to you on such a special occasion.”
Not many of us will receive a telegram bearing these words from Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics estimate that only 0.02 per cent of the UK’s population will ever reach this particularly impressive milestone.
So being given the opportunity to meet not one, but two women who both have framed telegrams from the Queen hanging in their bedrooms is very special and rare.
Naomi Vowles and Peggy Frost live at Beaufort House, Somerset, a residential care home for people from farming backgrounds owned and run by the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI).
The two friends first met when they were nine years old at a party and now they are celebrating their 101st birthdays together.
It would be impossible not to ask what they have witnessed over the past century, what their favourite memories are and what are their secrets to living a long and proactive life.
Peggy grew up on a dairy farm in Compton Bishop near Axbridge, Naomi on a mixed farm bordering the Wiltshire Downs.
“It was so lovely growing up on a farm,” recalls Peggy. “We had such a happy life. We seldom went away, perhaps only to the beach once a year during the summer, but that was it.”
Naomi agrees freedom and space were the best bits about her childhood. And both would have been at a premium, as Peggy and Naomi both had 10 siblings each.
"It was so lovely growing up on a farm. We had such a happy life" Peggy Frost
“My parents died when I was nine,” says Naomi, “So I was looked after by my older siblings.”
But the ramifications of the First World War would mean the siblings would end up scattered around the globe, as they left in search of employment which was unavailable at home.
“My brothers went to South Africa, Brazil and Australia to get jobs,” says Naomi. “They would sometimes come back to have a look at us, but they didn’t think much of Britain I’m afraid.”
Although they were too young to remember the First World War, the Second World War was not so easy to escape or ignore.
“Farmers were exempt from fighting in the war,” Naomi says. “They needed the farmers because ships were being used for other things – there was no other way for us to get food.”
Both would marry farmers during the course of the war. “We really thought Hitler was coming,” Naomi says. “So we got a special license to marry.”
Naomi was the first to walk down the aisle on July 6, 1940, and Peggy followed two years later on September 22, 1942, wearing a blue dress and feeling very lucky to have a white wedding cake.
Up until that point Naomi had been helping to run her uncle’s dairy and Peggy had worked in the food office, before becoming a Land Girl for six months, but following their marriages both moved to their husbands’ farms.
“A radar station was built a quarter of a mile away from our house. All through the war it was bombed, hole after hole, but it wasn’t hit once,” Naomi says.
But those bombs inevitably landed elsewhere. “One cracked the farmhouse through the middle,” she remembers. “I was terrified, and hid in the hall cupboard, taking the dog and the baby with me.
“We saw a lot of activity because of the radar station and our proximity to Bristol,” she explains. “At one stage the planes would fly across every night and you could tell how heavy they were from the noise they made.
“They would bomb Bristol, the force of which would shake our back door and, then they’d come back making a different noise because they were lighter.
“One calf was killed by a bomb and one day, because the planes made the cattle nervous, they charged a gate and my husband had to release one that got stuck.”
Peggy reveals her brother, Frank, was in the ‘secret army’ that was expected to protect the country in the event of an invasion. “The caves at Compton Bishop were supposedly stacked full of arms,” she says. “They weren’t allowed to talk about it until 50 years after the war ended, though, so it was very hush hush and we never knew where they were going.”
Naomi: “I was five in 1921 and I remember a very hot summer. Then we had a string of bad summers, but they seem to be turning again now.”
Peggy: “I remember there being more snow in the past.”
The Second World War:
Naomi: “You couldn’t move a step and petrol was in short supply. Doctors and farmers got extra, but you still couldn’t go anywhere. Farmers were very lucky in the way of food - they could shoot a pigeon or a rabbit - but farming itself must have been very hard.”
Peggy: “We had evacuees from Bristol in our house and my husband was in the Home Guard. On Mendip ‘another
Naomi: “During the First World War farmers were needed and they were very well off, but it then went downhill in the ’20s. Farmers then were really hard up - the same way some are now.”
Worst farming memory?:
Naomi: “Foot and mouth was terrible - the outbreak before the Second World War was horrible.”
Horses on farms:
Naomi: “A lot of horses were sent to France during the First World War. My father was notified that two of his cart horses would be needed. He had two really special ones, so he hid them and bought two others to take their place.”
Peggy: “An enormous number of mules were brought to our farm and soldiers came to look after them. I remember my father had to get rid of all his cattle to make room for them.”
Following the war, the pair busied themselves with their farms and raising their children. South Hill Farm and its 202 hectares (500 acres) kept Naomi and her husband occupied until 1968; Peggy and her husband farmed at Compton House Farm until 1971, when they made the decision to sell.
“Once we’d left the farm and were wondering what to do, I read about Beaufort House and the block of flats they were building,” Naomi says. “I wrote to them and eventually got a letter back saying they’d finished building so we could go and choose one. I picked one upstairs because I thought if I went shopping I wouldn’t have to close the windows.”
Following the death of her husband, Naomi moved into the Victorian house itself, where she has lived for 21 years. “This has been a very happy house for me,” she says.
Peggy, on the other hand, lived on her own until March 2016. “I had put my name down ages ago, then I had a fall and Beaufort happened to ring the next day to say there was space,” she says.
"Farmers were exempt from fighting the war. There was no other way for us to get food" Naomi Vowles
The Somerset farming community is so tightly knit that both women found distant relatives already living at Beaufort House .
Naomi turned 101 on August 1 and Peggy will follow on September 30. Which really only leaves one question: what their secret is to living a long and happy life?
“I haven’t got a secret,” Naomi insists, despite suggestions that she might want to thank ‘drinking, smoking and chocolate’.
“I’ve done exactly what I liked, eaten what I liked, had no money most of my marriage and I’ve worked very hard,” she concludes.
And as for Peggy? “Just being good,” she smiles.
As well as supporting people from the farming community in times of financial difficulty, RABI owns and runs two residential homes – Beaufort House and Manson House in Bury St Edmunds.
Manson House dates back to the 16th century and is a Grade II listed building, with 23 apartments and 31 rooms.
Beaufort is situated in Burnham-on-Sea, a short walk from the seafront. It has 33 en-suite rooms and 12 flats in the adjoining Beaufort Court for those who wish to live more independently.
Last year, Beaufort received an ‘outstanding’ rating from the Care Quality Commission, who were impressed by the ‘open, friendly and welcoming’ atmosphere and how residents’ wellbeing and happiness was prioritised.
Malcolm Thomas, RABI chairman, says: “Beaufort House was rated ‘outstanding’ by the CQC and with less than 1% of care homes receiving this overall rating. It’s something we should be extremely proud of.