One man's battle to save Yorkshire's historic ploughing matches now run by elderly volunteers

Autumn has always been ploughing time in the farming calendar and, in years gone by in the days when every farmer that planted crops seemingly ploughed the land every year except for the years in the rotation when it was left fallow, ploughing matches were the beating heart of the arable world.

If you couldn’t plough straight you had to learn and there was no finer place to see this in action than attending your local annual event that sorted out the men from the boys, and at least very occasionally perhaps, the women from the girls. Ploughing properly was an art form and a source of great pride and honour among the farming community, as it still is, in certain locations.

Norton Ploughing Match, to be held once again next Saturday 21 October at Povey Farm in Norton near Sheffield, could quite possibly lay claim to being one of the oldest such events, but it is in need of a very real injection of enthusiasm from new and perhaps younger people if it is to maintain its longevity much further, according to its association’s vice chairman John Rose who farms next door to the current venue and has been involved for over 60 years.

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“We all desperately want this year’s Norton Ploughing Match to be a big success,” says John. “It has been a part of the lives of those farmers who have lived in the village for coming towards 200 years and I’d love to see new life breathed into it.

John Rose and his family have been involved with Norton Ploughing Match since it started in the 19th centuryJohn Rose and his family have been involved with Norton Ploughing Match since it started in the 19th century
John Rose and his family have been involved with Norton Ploughing Match since it started in the 19th century

“We all know that over the last 50 years ploughing matches have changed considerably as farming has moved on, and that Norton is no longer a village in the same way it was back then.

“I would say that 75 per cent of small village ploughing matches have gone, but we know that people still like attending matches and that there are now some really big ones. I went to a big match at Bridlington last year which was run by two Young Farmers Clubs and the organisers were full of enthusiasm.

John would be delighted if there was a sudden surge of interest in Norton Ploughing Match between now and next Saturday and somewhat more ideally between now and Wednesday 18 October, which is the deadline for entries.

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“We have 13 classes on our schedule for this year including the classes for reversible, vintage, classic, Ferguson and horse ploughing. Vintage ploughing has been the saviour of small matches like ours for a number of years and we’ve welcomed that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We would welcome entries from everyone in all classes.

Tractor driver Sam Wainwright who will be taking part in this year's Norton Ploughing MatchTractor driver Sam Wainwright who will be taking part in this year's Norton Ploughing Match
Tractor driver Sam Wainwright who will be taking part in this year's Norton Ploughing Match

“We really want to encourage young people, but anyone younger than the average age of our committee, which is currently around 74 years old, would be welcomed with open arms. We no longer have a young farmers club close by.

John took part for a few years when in his teens some 60 years ago.

“I did okay. They were the days when I would go to at least five matches that took place around here, just going on my tractor. You couldn’t do that now. There are only two that have survived, us and Barlow.

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“There was a time way back when you didn’t enter a ploughing match, you had to receive an invitation to take part.

“Norton Ploughing Match has an amazing history that we’ve only just, in recent years, found out it extends even further back than when we thought. On our website it says that it goes back to the 1880s but when a schedule turned up out of somebody’s attic it showed the date of October 20, 1851 and it does not say it was the first match, so we could go back to the 1840s.

John says that all is not lost for Norton Ploughing Match, but that his hopes are that at this year’s match or in the lead up to it, perhaps through reading this, there might be someone or some people who get in touch to either take part or play their part in its future.

“We do get people coming from quite a distance, including Northern Ireland, but we just need more people, more involvement and that spark that will reignite what is still a great autumn event in the farming calendar.

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“We’ve been lucky over the last 25 years to have some of the top ploughers in the UK and the world from around here. People like Edgar Davies, John Hill and John Mills.

John still farms at Hazelhurst Farm. He’s now semi-retired.

“We’ve sold some of our land but still have 90 acres where we grow wheat, barley and grass leys. Our harvest dragged on a lot longer than it should have done and was hard work this year.

“We use a Dowdeswell 4 furrow vari-width plough for our cultivation. Our land type is very heavy clay land. We’ve one field that was partially open cast in the 1950s. With your bad land you have to be go in at the right time when the land is in the right state. That’s the main difference. It’s irrelevant really how heavy or light the land is, it’s more the timeliness of the cultivation.

“We were trying to plough last week, but it was just too wet and wouldn’t go at all. If the ploughing match had been then it would have been cancelled. Fortunately, it is Stephen’s (Thompson) land not ours for the ploughing match and also fortunately the weather has been much better.

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Norton Ploughing Match was also previously known as the Norton Show & Ploughing Association as for many years its committee was also responsible for an agricultural show that was as big as the then revered Bakewell Show.

The 130th Norton Ploughing Match will take place at Povey Farm, Norton – home of Yorkshire Post Rural Awards Pig Farm of The Year 2023 winners Stephen and Karen Thompson – next Saturday 21 October. For more information email: [email protected]