Les, a friend from our days as boys together in rural Somerset, emailed from his south Devon home this morning. Vigar, a farmer well-known in our village community from boyhood days, had died at the age of 82.
People are born and people die, death and taxes are the only certainties in this life; but there was an indefinable sense of loss as I read the news. Another piece of the jigsaw has gone, another familiar sight in the local community has disappeared.
The working farmers, the men (and women) who ran the countless small farms the length and breadth of England become rarer each day. Vigar would have been of the post-war generation of farmers who could make a living on a small, mixed farm. The days before the Common Agricultural Policy rewarded huge agri-businesses for producing crops that no-one wanted; the days before quotas, and BSE, and Foot and Mouth and Blue Tongue. With a few dozen acres and cows for milking and pigs for fattening and hens for eggs and potatoes each autumn, with a grey Massey Ferguson and an old Land Rover, you could live – my own Grandad did.
The change has been slow, but complete. The pastoral landscape, the meadows for grazing and hay with their miles of hedgerows, has disappeared, making way for bigger fields and arable land. Farming is business; agricultural science and management and administration press down on those who in former generations learned all they needed from fathers and grandfathers.
But the change is about more than the farming. It has been about the change in rural communities. The buying up of houses by weekending Londoners; the shift away from the land by successive generations of young people; the pricing of local people out of the housing market by the spending power of those commuting to nearby towns and cities, has removed piece after piece from the jigsaw. The last places in England where community still endures are under threat from expensive cars, electric gates and gentrification.
Vigar is one more piece that has gone, the picture fades further. The sense of loss is for a world that threatens to be no more.