The (Agri)cultural Olympiad


It’s not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff:
A straight-line dash at half-a-mile per hour.
A test of skill, not speed or human power
Played out on dry ground bristling with rough
And tawny stubble, under autumn skies.
No city raised a stadium so grand
As this, where our long struggle with the land
Is made a gentle game, and neighbour vies
With neighbour for rosettes. When we compete
On level terms for small rewards, we hold
Fast to reality. No one wins gold
Today – and no one truly tastes defeat.
For every man who took the start can say
He went out there and changed the world today.


Been working till all hours the past couple of weeks, but today I took The Guv’nor and rode an easy 15 miles or so to a ploughing match. Spent half an hour watching modern and vintage tractors, plus a couple of horse teams, striving to turn perfect furrows on the sunlit slopes of the South Downs, then trundled home again for lunch. Hard to think of a nicer way to spend a morning, really. And yes, I do know how lucky I am! N.

Work song


I ride along this lonely lane
With eager eyes and ears that strain
To hear those well-loved sounds again:

The diesel’s drone, the seagulls’ cry –
The noises-off that signify
Spring fieldwork’s under way close by.

The John Deere drives four furrows through
The stubborn clay. I wonder who
Would stop to watch the work I do?


This one came to me, more-or-less fully-formed, on Tuesday’s bike ride: three tercets of iambic tetrameter, for those of a prosodical turn of mind. If I might crave your indulgence, it works best read aloud.

The finest, and probably most famous, example of this form is The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson – a masterclass in conciseness (he needed only two tercets!) and deceptively simple language.

The image is an old one (so old I had to scan it from a print…) of my good friend Ebenezer driving a John Deere, with a four-furrow plough, near the village where I used to live. The tractor I actually heard on Tuesday was a Massey-Ferguson smashing up clods with a power-harrow. As well as being far less romantic, it neithers scans nor alliterates nearly so well – plus, it was too far from the road to photograph properly. This is why they invented poetic licence. N.

Breaking new ground

My own furrow

The man with the five-furrow
Reversible rig ploughs twenty acres
Of bristling, thistling stubble
Motley with pigeon, rook and gull,
Releasing soil-scents
Sharp as horse-sweat, apple-fresh.

At the gate, watching,
I must beware,
Not wish myself behind the wheel
Watching the clay pour over silver mouldboards
Behind me, burying a summer
That died before its time:

The jolly ploughman never lived
Except in songs
That few can now recall,

And were I confined
To that big New Holland
Four wheels would soon a prison make.
I must settle to my allotted labour
Till my own ground
Raise my own dust
With such implements as I have,
And hope, one day,
To bring a harvest home.

An unequal match

Another ploughing-match poem…


Inching forward, earthworm-slow,
Eyes front, rigid as a guardsman
He opens up the ground.

From this first furrow all others follow;
With coulter, mouldboard, share and landside
The battle line is drawn.

At once, the Sussex clay
With a night and day of rain in it
Fights back;

Clogs and butters churning tyres
Sets front wheels slickly sliding
Plucks at the plough; leaks, collapses.

But in our annual fixture with the fields
We lead the land three thousand-nil
And this year will not break our streak.

Power on the land

A poem inspired by the many vintage tractors I watched doing their stuff at a local ploughing match yesterday.


I should hate them:
Raucous, oil-burning beasts
That condemned my quiet, beloved horses
To exile and extinction.
Yet my heart warms
To these homely stalwarts, still game
To plough and till the stubborn clay
Three generations on.
So simple I could drive one
In my sleep (and often did)
But with enduring rightness
Wrought in each casting and component
And the motive power of twenty teams
Compressed into a one-ton slab of steel.
After sixty years and more
They turn the earth
Beneath their wheels
And hand a man like me
The means to shape the world.