It is all too easy, when contemplating historical personages, to stick to the notional attachments to place, which give them a romantic air. The reality was that they were often powerful, and ruthless players in the social game.

Nothing will bridge the gulf which stretches between the Victorian farmer and his labourers except the discovery of a personal account written about what it was really like to spend from January to the middle of March, dawn to dusk, bush draining a huge expanse of clay land. So far, Chediston has not, nor has any other village as far as we know, yielded a literate labourer witness. The gleanings of George Ewart Evans in Norfolk, and Alan Jobson in Suffolk, both taken from oral reminiscences collected in the 1960s and 70s, of those born at the end of the last century, provide us with filtered fragments which just about reach a generation long gone.

Luckily, in Rider Haggard we have an East Anglian farmer who documented the social gap, although he was not able to fill the void. He lived on the clayey drift edge, just across the Waveney border in Norfolk, a landscape not so different from Chediston. The journal he wrote for the year 1898 chronicles his daily observations of what it was like to be a tenant farmer on 350 acres. He admired the skills and strength of his hired workers, their stoicism and their character, but with all his imagination as a novelist he could not get into their situation. Perhaps there is nothing to say except the bald facts of their labouring, which Haggard really admits when he says 'such toilers betray not the least delight at the termination of their long ill-paid labour'. Indeed, why should they be keen to articulate the 'poverty, pain, and the infinite unrecorded tragedies of humble lives'.

Haggard employed fifteen men on his farm and gives meticulous descriptions of their many skills, such as dyke-drawing, the toughest of all the winter jobs. This is an account which reminds one that, the ploughing apart, most of Britain's landscape was fashioned by men with spades. Haggard's labourers worked a twelve-hour day in summer and every daylight hour in winter, and without holidays. Minimal though their education was, it taught them that there are places in the world besides their own parish, and made them aspiring and restless. More and more of them disappear, making for the army, the colonies, the Lowestoft fishing smacks, anywhere preferable to a farm. It grieved him. Published as 'A Farmer's Year', Haggard's journal praises agriculture as man's natural activity, the noblest of tasks, and he cites its improved conditions. Now and then, he joined in the labouring, although this he found separated him further from the workers than if he had merely sat on his horse and made notes. Whatever he saw, felt, or did, is written down with total candour, and the outcome is that he revealed what many farmers today would recognise as the lost soul of British agriculture. How else could we possibly interpret the following-
  • "It is curious how extraordinarily susceptible some of us are to the influences of weather, and even to those of the different seasons. I do not think that these affect the dwellers in towns so much, for, their existence being more artificial, the ties which bind them to Nature are loosened; but with folk who live in the country and study it, it is otherwise. Every impulse of the seasons throbs through them, and month-by-month, even when they are unconscious of it, their minds reflect something of the tone and colour of the pageant of the passing day. After all, why should it not be so, seeing that our bodies are built up of the products of the earth, and that in them are to be found many, if not all, of the elements that go to make the worlds, or at any rate our world, and every fruit and thing it bears? The wonder is not that we are so much in tune with Nature's laws and phases, but that we can ever escape or quell their mastery. This is where the brain and the will of man come in."

Indeed, it is 'the brain and will of man' that have produced the technician in an air-conditioned capsule, pulling a multi-furrow plough across an empty landscape as fast as the wind. The paradox is that the soul of agriculture has gone the way of Rider Haggard's hired ploughman, who behind striving horses, "wrapped in his thick cape against the sleet, wrestled the complaining plough beneath his hands'. The soul of agriculture is the spiritual enthusiasm of articulate landowners and urban critics of the rural scene. It is difficult to discern in the general picture of the countryside. This is created by brain and will, with the broader brush strokes of jobs and incomes. In this respect, Haggard's ‘isolated existence of town folk’ has now spread to villages, where even a child's journey to school involves being encapsulated from the elements. The speed of this change is remarkable. People farming today, who started out milking individual cows into a pail from a wooden stool, have ended up being told what to do by their internet agronomist and a computerised combine harvester. Everything about farms is seen to be dangerous- children are worried about poisonous flowers, won't get their feet dirty, and daren't stroke the sheep or pat the cows. Farmers have changed from being 'dear Farmer Giles' to a wicked sub-set of society that poisons the land, and whose animals you've got to let out from behind bars.

The turning point for Chediston, as in most other parts of rural Suffolk came in the 1960s. The typical ‘80 acre farmsteads’ came on the market with the retirement of the pre-War generation who had just about been converted from horse to tractor. At that time most of Chediston’s farms were mixing dairying with arable, and kept pigs and chickens. Farms were amalgamated and the 800 acre farm became the norm. Redundant homesteads were sold off to dentists, doctors and computer programmers. In the urge for higher productivity, land was drained and hedges removed. Livestock that could not be intensified was removed from the balance sheet. Animals no longer diversified the farming scene. The last of Chediston’s dairy herds was sold off in 1997. Although pigs remain, they are produced unseen in intensive enclosed prefabs. Barns are being converted into houses and the land of the retired 1960s generation is being farmed by contractors, who can descend on the fields to complete harvesting, ploughing or sowing in less than a day. There has also been a decided shift towards farmers functioning as landscape and wildlife managers, for which environmental goods the government pays out money that was formerly attached as a subsidy to increase the output of agricultural products.