Wight Life

Mottistone Manor Farm

by Joyce Eley

Picture of Mottistone Farm

MOTTISTONE MANOR FARM has all the advantages of a site which our Saxon forbears usually selected — shelter, varied soil and water — but there is nothing primitive about it today. For the last 19 years it has been successfully run as a mixed farm by Mr Ronald Smith. When he first leased the farm from Lord Mottistone, it was in a very run-down condition, for the previous tenant-farmer had gone bankrupt. But Ronald Smith and his wife were not discouraged. The kitchen was modernised and Mrs Smith set to work on the rubbish dump outside the window, transforming it into a charming rockery which is a blaze of colour in the spring. Meanwhile, her husband improved and modernised the farm itself. And no one was more knowledgeable or better fitted for the task.

Ronald Smith had been the Principal of Hampshire College of Agriculture near Winchester from 1933 to 1946. He was closely in touch with the Hampshire cattle-breeding association and with their work on artificial insemination of cattle in the Hampshire area. In 1948, he became the general manager of this association. In the course of his work he often visited the Isle of Wight, but it was pure chance which eventually led to his farming on the Island. Born and bred on a farm, he decided to have a farm of his own in the south of England. It just so happened that the tenancy of Mottistone Manor farm had fallen vacant.

Although at that time Guernsey cattle were the popular breed of dairy cattle on the Island, he decided to build up a pedigree herd of Friesian cows with the help of artificial insemination. His decision was influenced by the fact that Friesians not only have a higher milk production but their bull calves have also a good beef potential, producing the lean meat which is so much in demand. He did however keep an Angus bull to run with the heifers, because the resulting calves were small and gave an easier calving. On the death of Lord Mottistone, the whole of the Mottistone estate was left to the National Trust and Mr Smith's lease was transferred to it.

The National Trust is usually associated with the preservation of an historic building or an area of special natural beauty. Seldom do we connect it with farm lands. Yet there are three National Trust farms in the Isle of Wight apart from Mottistone Manor farm.

The farm-house nestles down slightly below the level of the road which links the villages of Mottistone and Brook so that it is barely visible to the passing traffic. Yet its lands cover some 270 acres, stretching from the crest of the Downs right to the sea. The road which actually cuts across the farm is the demarcation line between the light green-sand stratum on one side and heavy clay on the other. Here the spring line occurs, so the farm has always had an adequate water supply, and even today, well water is used to cool the milk in the dairy because it is so much colder than the water from the mains.

The present farm-house is probably little more than 200 years old. It was at one time just a gentleman's residence on Mottistone Manor estate, but, as part of the home farm of the Manor, the land itself must have been cultivated for a very long time. (It is possible that the house is actually on the site of an old Saxon farm, for the name of Mottistone can be traced back to the Saxon name of Modestran meaning 'Speakers' Stone' which probably refers to the mysterious 'Long Stones' on the Downs. This takes us back to prehistoric times when primitive men buried their dead in the long barrows on the Downs and met at the 'Speakers' Stones' for disputes to be settled and judgment given some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.)

,p>I asked Mr Smith if there were any restrictions on a National Trust farm and what the advantages were. He explained that there were no restrictions on the method or type of farming, but he could not sub-let or permit camping on the land. The advantage was that he had security of tenure, for a National Trust farm could not be sold.

So Mottistone Manor farm continues to be a mixed farm with the emphasis on dairy cattle. Gradually it has become more mechanised as the cost of labour and the difficulty of obtaining experienced men increases. When Ronald Smith first leased the farm he employed seven men. Now he manages with only four. A high-level tandem milking parlour has been installed which enables one herdsman to milk 70 cows in 2½ to three hours. It is fascinating to watch the black and white cows patiently waiting their turn outside in the yard, queuing up one at a time by the door and then standing placidly to be milked in the parlour. Everything is spotlessly clean. The special circulating system for transferring the milk to the dairy can be automatically cleaned in 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the outside work on the farm goes on. With a few small exceptions the fields are not left in permanent grass, but are ploughed and cropped with wheat and barley for several successive seasons, and then sown to grass and used for grazing the cattle or for making hay or silage for winter, again for several consecutive seasons.

The fields for grazing are divided into a number of small paddocks with electric fencing to make the fullest and most effective use of the grass. Special grasses are sown, bred for a high yield of leafy material. In one field, an Italian rye-grass which grows quickly and provides early grazing is sown, while in others, a mixture of a perennial rye grass and timothy is planted for grazing later on in the spring and summer. The dairy herd is not wintered out in spite of the Island's mild climate because the trampling of the grass is uneconomic; instead they are housed in a covered yard. With hay, silage, straw and barley for winter feed, the farm is to a large extent self-supporting.

When I first saw the farm in the spring about year ago, quite a large area of the lighter soil across the roaa had been planted with early and main crop potatoes. They were grown as a money crop for sale on the Island; but in 1973, the area had been reduced to only three acres due to the high cost of labour required to lift the crop. By the end of August, nearly all the harvest had been gathered in but not quite all the fields had been cut. Even as I sat talking to Ronald Smith in the study he noticed that something had gone wrong with one of the tractors and that his assistance was required. So, even with mechanisation and labour saving devices, a farmer's work is never done.

The farm itself is not open to the public although there is a right of way through the farm land, but perhaps the best way to see it is to look down on it from the crest of the downs.

The easiest way to get there is to take the well-kept footpath to the 'Long Stones' opposite the church. It is an enchanting walk with occasional glimpses of the sea on looking back through the trees. Only about a quarter of a mile long, the path rambles up through the forest, but it is not too arduous a climb, for the National Trust have provided steps where the way is steepest. Outcrops of sandstone occur and there is a strange atmosphere of antiquity. At the end of the path, one comes suddenly upon the 'Long Stones', solid, massive and mysterious against a back-ground of conifers.

Further along on the open downland, all is sunshine again and, far below, the farmland slopes gently to the edge of the cliffs. From this soil maybe Bronze-age man had obtained his food. Here the Saxons had tilled the land and years later the Enclosure Act had been enforced. According to Fred Mews in his book 'Back to the Wight', one of the strangest crops ever to have been harvested was gathered from the Withybed field on Mottistone Manor farm just over a hundred years ago. Smugglers with the connivance of the farmer had buried tubs or kegs of spirit in the ground and there they remained for seven months until they were duly harvested with the ripened wheat that had been planted over them.

Perhaps, after all, the National Trust is preserving history, so it is good to know that this land can now never be built on, but will remain farmland for ever.

picture of Mottistone FarmFarming calls for an early start, and Mottistone Farm is no exception. Here Mrs Smith sees her husband off to work from the porch of their stone cottage