Lately, I’m beguiled and slightly haunted by local female farmers of the past. It seems that there were quite a few. Recently, a latter-day Bathsheba Everdene appeared in the historical section of my local newspaper, the Newbury Weekly News. She’s remarked upon not for her 1920 harvest in the Corn Exchange but her novelty, her smock and her billycock hat. Then there were the female farmers of the 1940s and 50s: Miss Atkins of Hill Farm, Miss Mason and Miss de Beaumont of Shalbourne (one of the girls who gatecrashed the first-ever Scout rally, subsequently co-founding the Girl Guides), and Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves of Starlight Farm, Lambourn (immortalised in a book by Rachel Malik).

But it is a Miss White who is of particular interest. She published diaries about modernising the near-derelict Manor Farm next door. She steered it, and its community, through the war years and beyond, from horse to tractor power, operating the threshing machine, driving the first combine harvester in the village, putting in running water, sanitation and electricity, and making improvements for her farm workers in their tied cottages – all in a dozen years. In 1942, the cowman lived with his wife and 10 children in “half a primitive cottage”, with two tiny upstairs rooms accessed by an upright tree trunk.

Our own square, practical cottage was built by our landlord’s grandfather in 1952, for the dairyman. It is one of six identical cottages, the tied and tenanted rates of which still fluctuate.

From reading Miss White’s diaries, I know that the horseshoe I found in a freshly ploughed furrow belonged to one of her “nice grey mares”, Sylvie or Dollie. I like knowing their names. Though rusted, the shoe hasn’t worn; it would have been searched for, the loss of it cursed over. When I consider this wet summer’s harvest – stalled, flattened, dull – I can hear the collective sighs and frustrations of past harvests, pooling in the damp air.

From the hedgerow, the descending subsong of a willow warbler heading south has the tone of someone whistling a tune softly through their teeth. A rueful chuckle to themselves at the start of a long road, before moving on. Ah well, it seems to say. There’s always next year.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary. Nicola Chester’s book, On Gallows Down, Place, Protest and Belonging is published on 7 October


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