Lifelong farming couple retire after a job well done in the Dales

Retiring couple Keith and Jean Clarkson, on the roadside outside their farm on which the Tour de France will run this year.
Retiring couple Keith and Jean Clarkson, on the roadside outside their farm on which the Tour de France will run this year.
Have your say

When the Grand Départ flies by Throstle Nest Farm near Aysgarth in the blink of an eye in July it could also signal another departure as farming couple Jean and Keith Clarkson head for pastures new.

Since their regular travel extends to little more than the marts at Hawes to the west and Leyburn to the east it is however unlikely they will follow on behind the cyclists to live in France, but in a world where the average of age of farmers is 59 just why are they coming out of the only world they know?

Keith is philosophical about their decision. “The older you get the harder it is to farm. You tire a bit and there are jobs that need doing that don’t get done. In one sense the farm probably wants that youth and vitality to bring about the spark again. We’d love a young couple to take it on.

“Whether we’re doing right by calling it a day who knows? We love what we’ve done here and in reality it’s all we’ve ever done or wanted to do. We always said that when I got to 65 that would be it. You never know how many years you have left. We’ve nowhere lined up just yet but ideally we’d like a bungalow with a paddock for our dogs.”

Jean came to Throstle Nest as a four-year-old with her parents Tom and Cicely Andrew in 1957 when they shifted their sheep and dairy farming operation from Askrigg to what was then a 90-acre farm alongside the A684.

“I always worked on the farm as I was growing up with my elder sister Beryl. Mum and dad bought another 27 acres and stayed in dairying until they took the golden handshake when the Government was encouraging farmers to come out of milking. From then on we just had sheep.”

Jean and Keith met at a Saturday night dance in the 60s. “There would be dances every Saturday night and I remember the popular band at the time round here was a band from Cumbria called Ray and the Teenbeats. It must have been around 1970 that we got together and we married in 1973.”

Marriage took Jean away from Throstle Nest for 14 years as she and Keith initially lived at Finghall some 15 miles further east up the dale.

“I farmed with my father on a small farm that included arable, sheep and cattle,” says Keith. “It wasn’t so big and when he decided to sell up we came back to where Jean had grown up.”

Three years after their move to Throstle Nest as a couple they started a suckler herd that grew to around 25 cows, in addition to their sheep flock of around 400 mostly Swaledale breeding ewes and a few Mule ewes.

“Our ambition with the sheep flock has always been to produce the best Mule gimmer lambs that we can, using a Blue Faced Leicester tup on the Swaledales. The gimmer lamb sales at Hawes Mart are the highlight of our year each September. We’re about halfway between the marts at Hawes and Leyburn, and we use them both.”

Happy times have outweighed the bad for Jean and Keith but their worst time of all occurred on 9 April 2001.

“We kind of knew we’d got foot and mouth even though we’d never seen it first hand. We recognised some of the symptoms. It was the sheep in the field furthest away from the farm and it wasn’t near the road. All of the sheep in that field were just laid about. It was a strange feeling going in and seeing them. They wouldn’t get up and if they did it was as though they were walking on red hot cinders.

“We rang our local vet who told us to ring the ministry vets. It all happened so quickly after that. We had no control. An auctioneer came round to value the stock the same day and by the time we were back at the farm the slaughterers were by the roadside all in white suits. It was a terrible, awful day.”

The Clarksons’ life’s work was destined for a funeral pyre on a neighbour’s farm.

Like many others though farming is all they have ever known and they restocked back to their original numbers as soon as they could when restrictions were lifted and started smiling once again.