Catch their sound:
A long-drawn snarl
From beyond the woods.

I track them
Across glistening fields
Bouldered with cows;

Through a gate
Kinked by years of heavy carelessness,
Over a stile in the wayward hedge,

A hundred yards up a concrete road;
Another gate, bent like an old coat-hanger,
And over the brow.

There: the big machines
Peeling dark swaths from the shocked hillside;
Gaudy jewels on pale skin.

As another turncoat June
Hurls wind and rain like insults
The breathless work goes on:

The famished clamps gape like fledglings
And so the trailers fly
To feed them

While I stand here,
Powerless to help,
Taking a first cut of my own.


Silage-making is under way at last in our corner of Sussex. Better late than never. N.

The road taken

If I’d only gone straight on after Tanyard Green
I’d have made it home much sooner
But I never would have seen

That John Deere and silage trailer running flat-out on the road
To the hungry forage harvester for one more load.

If I’d turned to the left when I chose to go right
I’d have dodged that one-in-seven
But I would have missed the sight

Of a big New Holland crawling with the throttle thrown wide
As it hauled a power harrow up a steep hillside.

If I’d thought to take the shortcut, not the long way round,
I’d have saved myself some miles
But instead I caught the sound

Of three magpies’ loud alarums in an oak, while down below
The dog-fox paused, then vanished in the deep hedgerow.

Yes, it’s easy to regret the many roads I never took –
All those straighter, smoother highways –
But I must not overlook

All the unexpected magic that’s waylaid me on this track;
I’ll forsake the map and compass, ride my road – and not look back.

Will work for food

A day of rest? Not for this silage crew.
Hard-pressed, the forage harvester devours
The thick green swaths; the spinning steel blades chew
A month’s growth into half-inch lengths. For hours
The tractors have been hauling high-heaped loads
Then racing back with empties, raising dust
And thunder from rough headlands hard as roads.
To lay the winter’s feed in is the trust
Placed in them. In the next field, unconcerned
With hurrying machines, the engines’ roar,
The man-hours and the diesel being burned,
The cows plod in to give their milk once more.
An ancient pact, whose terms both sides accept.
A Sabbath broken. But a bargain kept.

The dark side


The sun’s long gone; the summer evening makes
The first down-payment on the winter night
To come. Long shadows creep out from the woods
And over hilltops, driving colours deep
Into the still-warm soil to sleep till dawn.
But in the mothy dark, new sets of eyes
Are opening; the bright, all-seeing stare
Of sleepless beasts whose labours will not cease
Until cold dews come down upon the crops,
Or diesel tanks are hollow, drained to fumes.
They sweep the stubbles, flood the fields and gaze
With halogen intensity on plough,
Ring-roll and tillage-train; while in the lanes
Red pairs blink bright on bends, then settle to
A ruby glow that dwindles on the straight
Run in to barn or silo. They will haunt
The land a little longer, then be gone
Like swallows. All their mighty works complete,
They’ll drowse the dreary winter months away
Snug in their sheds, while night is handed back
To fox and owl and badger, who will reap
Their harvest from our acres as we sleep.


Photo credit: CLAAS GmbH & Co KGaA

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.

A good way to go


This is my kind of road:

“No entry
Except for agricultural vehicles
And bicycles.”

A gentle road, benevolent,
With its priorities exactly right –
A road on a human scale,

Where I might meet
Madame on her old Motobecane
With baguettes in her basket;
A tourist couple, side-by-side
Puffing, sweating on their shiny his-’n’-hers,
Or a quartet of ancient Anquetils,
Paunchy on immaculate Looks and Lapierres,
Trusting in cash and carbon-fibre
As specifics against the years.

A John Deere hauling big round bales;
A rusty Renault puttering home
With a couple of hundredweight of hay;
Dusty Axions, hot-running, gunning it at 30 k,
Ten-tonne loads of wheat and barley bucketing behind,
Or a Lexion, filling the lane from verge to verge,
All flashing lights and turbofans, a factory on wheels.

A thoroughfare of real life,
The traffic of an older, saner time
Where nothing’s moving faster
Than a decent horse can run,
And everyone is close to home.
A road that truly gets me
Where I want to go.


Another piece from Brittany. The fact that it’s in free verse (almost the first I’ve written all year) is a good clue that I was finally starting to relax by this stage of our holiday! N.

Jubilee day

A day replete with pomp and circumstance
And I am out here, sitting on a stile
To watch the silage-makers grab their chance
To beat the rain and take this cut dry. While
The gilded ones glide down the Thames, this crew
Are flat out: that big harvester can fill
The trailers so fast, it’s all they can do
To keep ‘em coming; in their speed and skill
They almost match the martins, skimming low
Across the windrows. This, then, is my land
Of hope and glory: in that regal show
I see no sight, nor hear no sound so grand.
When passing pride and pageantry are gone,
The seasons’ timeless work will still go on.


Think I may have just blown my chance of being made Poet Laureate…N.

Ploughed in


They ploughed this land in March. Back then, it lay
Dark, heavy, full of winter rain, and turned
In thick, slow-breaking waves. Spring baked the clay
To bricks and horse-heads when the sun returned.
They worked it down somehow and, fingers crossed,
Drilled wheat and waited. May breathed savage heat
On helpless shoots. By month’s end, all was lost,
Each lifeless leaf a limp flag of defeat.
And so they let it go. The big John Deere
Came armed with power harrow to the field.
They reaped an early, empty harvest here:
Brown dust and diesel fumes the only yield.
To start, to break new ground, takes guts and will.
But knowing when to quit is harder still.

Old faithful


She’s standing in the yard: a runabout
Hitched to a feeder wagon. Grubby, old –
She’s twenty-five if she’s a day – and with
A million hours on her.
                                 She was mine
One sacred summer when we both were young:
Together we hauled ten-tonne loads of grain
And shifted straw-bales by the thousand, cars
Strung out behind us like a comet’s tail
Along the gasping lanes. Deep in the night,
We rolled beside the combine, halogen-
Lit like an offshore oil-rig, tawny ropes
Of wheat unwinding from the auger, down
Into the trailer’s famished metal mouth.
And I felt like a king, enthroned on that
Air-cushioned seat, my CB radio
A-crackle, Steve Earle in the tape machine,
Rear window open, orange warning light
Up on the roof: all any boy could want.
I took her home at lunchtime: parked her up
Outside my parents’ house, then swaggered in –
Her oil on my jeans, dust on my boots –
Ate fast and hurried out; just couldn’t wait
To fire up the diesel, go to work.

And after all these years, she is still here –
They couldn’t do without her now – while I
Roam, restless, heartsick, purpose still unclear
And dream of those lost days, that cloudless sky.

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.