A UNIQUE award is to be presented at the Great Yorkshire Show to a remarkable countryman. Mike Keeble reports. Pictures by Mike Cowling.
A remarkable continuity links the lives of the men from the early Victorian period to the present, and at this month’s Great Yorkshire Show, its president, Sir Ken Morrison, will celebrate that. He will award Percy a lifetime award on behalf of three generations of his family who were born and worked for all their lives on the same estate, near Masham.
The Marquis of Downshire, present owner of the Clifton Castle Estate, devised the award. Recently, he took Percy, now 96, around the farms. When Percy arrived back at the castle he said, “It doesn’t seem that long ago – 90 years though – that I used to come down to do ’osses with me dad.
“Castle’s not changed, trees on’t drive have grown and you’re the fifth family to live there. But, by gum, the farms are different and I think they’ve never looked as well. Congratulations, sir.”
We don’t know when and how Tommy Vayro, the first of the line, arrived in the late 1830s. But we do know that, today, Tommy’s Hut remains as a relic of the days when the estate’s head horseman was allowed an acre for his house cow and the hut was provided for her shelter and for the hay the family made for her winter provision.
Tommy’s son, Bob Vayro, was born in 1859. His last child was Percy and he came late to the family. Percy’s elder brother, Billy, was already approaching school leaving and work on the estate. The Great War was into its first year and “it would all be over by Christmas”. In 1921, Percy started to walk across the fields to Thornton Watlass village school where he received an excellent eight-year education which, had it been possible for him to continue, might have changed his life.
That was not to be. In 1929, the country was falling deeper into recessionary times and rural poverty was rife. Lady Cowell, the chatelaine of Clifton Castle, instructed her agent to arrange for all her workers to be allotted a couple of acres so that they could feed their families during the hard times.
Bob Vayro instructed his youngest son not to go out to work. Instead, he was to grow food for the family and, as Percy now recounts, because of that they thrived at a time when others were starving.
In the early 1930s, Mr Petch, a Clifton tenant farmer, offered Percy his first job at a wage of £1.50 a month. He took it. By then, he knew how to work hard – he had helped his father, the head horseman, and he knew how to feed working horses, harness up and hitch up to plough and sow.
Another world war was brewing and the countryside roads were still unmade, cars and tractors were a rarity and cattle could still be walked from Clifton to Northallerton, some 15 miles away, by a boy like Percy.
He well remembers the doctor bringing his father home with a broken leg, carrying him over his shoulder from his car into the house. Bob had been bringing two new farm horses back from Northallerton when he fell in front of them trying to cross the hard tarmac of the A1.
Before the war, Mr Petch retired and Percy started to work for the Curzon family who had inherited the Clifton Estate. The first tractors were appearing, and while the old hands found them hard to accept, Percy soon learned about spark plugs, magnetos and radiators. He regarded his first Standard Fordson as no more than a team of horses which didn’t need feeding, shoeing or resting.
He worked long cold hours ploughing and working the Clifton Banks facing the west looking right up Wensleydale to far-off Pen Hill.
Those were the days when social life was restricted to a small area, public transport was rare and the bike the main option.
At the start of the war, Percy’s family moved to Masham where he went weekly to hand over part of his meagre wage and call at the pub to join friends in singsongs. He got word that the Thirn chapel congregation had a higher than usual number of young girls. Here he met Muriel who was to become his wife.
With the war came better wages as the country dug for victory. Percy became farm foreman and moved to the Grange Farm house with Muriel.
When the father of the estate’s present owner bought the estate, he enlarged the farm and modernised the system. Percy took to it like a duck to water, confirming that his life could have been very different had he had the benefit of modern education.
He worked happily with the estate’s advisers and today looks back with pride at the young men who came to the farms to spend their first year learning the basics. Among them are David Anderson, the founder of the Agricultural Consultancy Andersons, Charlie Pye-Smith, the international ecologist, and many others who went on to make their impact on contemporary agriculture.
Percy became manager of a farm on the estate to which the very first herd of French Limousin cattle came in 1971.
American ranchers wanted UK-born calves; the French still played their part in helping UK/US transactions, and Percy learned how to cope with what was a unique situation on a farm where cowboys in boots and stetsons met with French bankers in suits who were financing the ranching revolution in Montana and Colorado.
Percy and Muriel never had a family of their own. On his 90th birthday, Percy hosted a party at Northallerton Golf Club. He concluded by singing The Village Blacksmith, a song learned at school 80 years ago.
Today, he goes to Sunday services at the Methodist Chapel where, if there is no accompanist, then one nod to Percy and he strikes up, always hitting the right note.
Percy has put in more than most into his life, his community and the industry he entered just as times were changing. He adapted to that while sticking to old-fashioned human values which are today often forgotten.
Not long ago, he was in a care home having just left hospital to correct his hip. I visited him a day or two later and he looked up and said, “Good, I can go home now. The garden needs hoeing and I’m not happy with all these old folks.”
The many who know Percy hope he goes on singing and digging to meet his maker. In arranging the pictures for this piece, he said to the photographer, “You’ll be back in four years to see my letter from Her Majesty.”
He’ll make it, I’m sure.