How the Yorkshire tradition of competitive ploughing matches is spanning three generations

When a 13-year old boy of Penistone took to the wheel of a Grey Fergie at Austerfield recently it was to bring a lump in the throat of his father.

These hardy farming men of South Yorkshire are seldom noted for their tears but this was an occasion far more emotional for farmer Carl Fretwell than simply his son Thomas’s debut into the ploughing match brethren.

Carl’s father and Thomas’s grandfather, Geoff Fretwell, was a legend in this farming sport having been British national ploughing champion and having competed at the world championships.

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Geoff passed away in 2020 around the same time as his fellow ploughman and also former champion Michael Watkins and the two families organised their own memorial ploughing match event to honour the pair in March, raising thousands of pounds for charities.

The sons and grandsons of ploughing legends Geoff Fretwell and Michael Watkins honour the tradition

Carl, who is a regular competitor and was twice national Young Farmers Clubs ploughing champion, said Thomas made an encouraging start to his ploughing match career.

“Thomas and Michael Watkins’ grandson Sam both ploughed in the Grey Fergie class with a Fergie 20 and a Fergie plough that were my dad and Michael’s first outfits when they started.

“Thomas did great finishing fourth in his open age class.”

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Carl said his father’s success in ploughing over many decades was down to his diligence, his care and attention to every detail, something that he has always tried to emulate.

“Our farm at Mossley House is 1,000 feet above sea level and there aren’t that many farms that have arable land at that height, and fewer still who don’t just plough but become ploughing competitors, however once you’ve been bitten by the bug, as he was, it is very hard to shake it off.

“Dad always did a lot of the groundwork up here. We are not blessed with great depth of soil at this level and it is not suitable for minimum till so we have to plough every year.

“Dad always set great store in doing it right and that showed in the way he ploughed, not just in matches but also at home.

“I try to plough as dad did, to a match standard at home and that definitely helps when I compete, even though at home I’m using a reversible plough but in the matches I’m now in the classic class.”

Carl said that his father and Michael Watkins were legends of the ploughing match community.

“David Chappell of the Society of Ploughmen ploughed with dad for 55 years and said that dad was a master at setting a rig and was able to adapt to any situation and soil type. That was the measure of how well regarded he was, and Michael too.

“Michael and dad were very close and both ploughed at the very top level winning championships all around the UK.

“Dad became British champion using an International tractor and Fiskard plough in the world style conventional class at the 49th British National Ploughing Championships held in Oxfordshire in 1999 and went on to represent England in the World Ploughing Championships held in Lincolnshire in 2000.

“Michael ploughed in the vintage trailed class and represented England numerous times at European level.”

Carl said his dad was as proud as he could be on his greatest achievement and that he was also very pleased for another good friend nearby who won at the same event.

Geoff was quoted as saying: “It’s my first victory in 39 attempts and it was sweet as I will not only be ploughing for England but on English soil.”

“Dad was great friends with our farming neighbour of only four miles away, John Hill of Hoylandswaine who won the reversible class. I think they celebrated their dual success as two great South Yorkshire ploughmen would.”

Carl said he had never expected the memorial ploughing match held in March this year and organised with his good friend Stephen Watkins, Michael’s son, to have taken off as well as it had.

“We thought people might turn out because of it being in their memory and that after the restrictions we might hopefully do well, but it was an amazing turnout.

“Everybody who is anybody in the ploughing match world came, from as far afield as the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales and the South West and David Chappell organised a second day, which meant ploughing ended up being held over two days on the weekend and we had 130 tractors, ploughs and ploughmen.

“It also meant we were able to raise a respectable amount of money for their two favoured charities. Michael was a supporter of Cancer Research UK and dad’s favoured charity was Air Ambulance. The amount raised was £6,152 over the Saturday and Sunday.”

Thomas’s first appearance was a joy for Carl, who has had quite a career himself from having started in the young farmers’ matches, but he’s well aware of what could happen to the sport when losing great men like his father and Michael Watkins and others in the fullness of time.

“I used to plough alongside my dad in the classic class and was in the national plough-offs twelve times with a highest finish of fifth. Ten years ago we moved on to the classic class and I now drive a white David Brown 880 manufactured in 1969 with a Ransome TS86 match plough which dad bought in 1968. It was his match outfit.

“In general it is more the vintage side that is growing rather than the modern or world style classes. That has come from a lot of vintage enthusiasts buying a tractor and once they have done them up finding that they are bitten by the ploughing match bug.

“That kind of new involvement is standing us in good stead, but we still need to attract younger people because there is an age group that once it has gone may seriously damage numbers and the competitive level.

“I’d urge anyone who is interested to come along to a match.”