A large grey cat squats in the cobbled yard. Around him is a range of stone-built barns. Protruding from one is a blue and red painted cart. There’s no sign of mechanisation, just wisps of hay lying across the cobbles. This is Sillywrea, high above the Tyne Valley, and the last farm in Britain to be worked by horses.
I walk along a track where the mud is studded with hoof prints. Either side, curlews bubble over the fields. Ahead, through a gap in a hawthorn hedge, I spot two horses powering up the slope. Behind them, the figure of a man, bent to the plough. Wheeling above is a flock of white gulls like one of Rowland Hilder’s prewar paintings of British landscapes. The team works up and down the slope, creating corduroy lines of turned soil, curved and smooth on one side where metal has sliced through the earth.
Stopping to turn at the hedge line, the horses nudge one another, shaking their massive heads, ears pricked towards me. A pair of Clydesdales, one is Alfie, the other is Archie. Brown and white roans, their dark shaggy manes are the same colour as the padded leather collars that let them pull to their full strength. Two horses working a field in Northumberland – in 1900 there were a million working Britain’s farms.
Richard Wise makes an adjustment to the plough. Born and brought up on this family farm, his grandfather was John Dodd, who died last year aged 91. The film by Charles Bowden, The Last Horsemen, is the story of John and his family and this, the farm that never converted to tractors. Alfie and Archie pull a sledge in winter to feed the sheep, they cut and turn the hay, they lead the hay into the barn and cart out muck for spreading on the field. Just a borrowed tractor is brought in for baling.
Rope coiled in his hands, Richard clicks to the team and they move off. With an “Away, Archie, to the gate”, they turn into the next field. Rhythmical plods come from their thickly feathered hooves. The sounds are slight: a faint squeak of metal, nodding heads against leather, the song of peewits and skylarks. No diesel fumes, no tractor noise; Sillywrea means “quiet corner”.