Church Farm, Hethel

Formerly Dairy Farm

In 1842, James Claxton was renting 156 acres of land from Hudson Gurney. Mr Gurney of Keswick Hall had bought up a substantial part of the farmland belonging to Hethel Hall when it was sold in 1828. He added this to his already vast land-holding and lived off the rents of his tenant farmers.

Dairy Farm

The heavy land of Hethel was more suited to pastoral farming and James Henry Claxton called himself a dairy farmer in the census returns.He must have been Hudson Gurney's first tenant, or may even have been the sitting tenant, for after his marriage to Mary Precious in Norwich on 1st January 1826, all their children were baptised at Hethel church, between 1826 and 1839. 

In 1851, the farm accounts show James was paying rent in cash and kind of almost £142 for 156 acres, along with £10 land tax and bills for the work of a carpenter, thatcher, bricklayer and blacksmith totalling over £31.  In 1865, his daughter Emma married the local saddler and harness-maker, Frederick Charles Myhill of Bracon Ash. Frederick would have been well-known to local farmers for making the collars and harness needed for the heavy horses who ploughed the land and pulled the carts. However, Frederick noted in his diary his dislike of the job his father had trained him to inherit and was already moving into farming,  leaving the harness business in the hands of a journeyman harness maker. He moves into partnership with his father-in-law, and farm accounts for 1867 value the farm at nearly £1098, of which James' share is £576 and Frederick's £522.

A very large parchment document signed on 9th November 1878 is a 12-year lease for the "Dairy Farm" between the trustees of the estate of Hudson Gurney of Keswick, Norfolk (1775-1864) and James Claxton and Frederick Charles Myhill, tenants. The annual rent for 156 acres is £220 plus tithes and taxes, to be paid in half-yearly instalments. The Landlord retains timber, mineral and shooting rights - though tenants can use some timber, sand, gravel, clay, brick-earth and marl to keep the premises and land in good repair and may shoot rabbits and hares. The document goes into great detail about care of the land and the buildings, fences, hedges, etc, even requiring the tenants to keep to the traditional Norfolk 4-course rotation on the arable land: 
Year 1 - clover &/or grass;
Year 2 - winter or spring corn;
Year 3 - turnips or other root crops;
Year 4 - barley or spring corn to be undersown with clover or grass for the following year.
Most crops are to be used on the farm, with precise instructions about the hay, straw and manure, although some crops may be sold in order to purchase artificial manure and other items to improve the farm.

In the 1881 census, Frederick Myhill describes himself as 'in company with' James Claxton, and when James died in 1883 Frederick and Emma took over the tenancy and continued to live at Dairy Farm. When the 12-year tenancy was renewed in 1890 it was with Frederick Charles Myhill as sole tenant. The document is very similar to the 1878 agreement, though shorter and simpler, and in the light of the farm slump of that era the annual rent is reduced to £145. There is a bit more leeway, too, in experimenting whilst keeping to the basic 4-course rotation of crops and it seem that the Myhills were permitted to plant a considerable amount of woodland, too. According to draft Wills written by Frederick he continued to be a tenant of the Gurney family, but his son was able to buy the freehold when the estate was split up and sold after World War I.

Church Farm (formerly Dairy Farm) Hethel c.1900 - not so different from today (see below).
Church Farm (formerly Dairy Farm) Hethel c.1900 - not so different from today (see below).

Church Farm House

The main part of the farmhouse is built of clay lump, with a brick building at right angles to it which may once have been a barn. It is thought the farmhouse dates from 1586 but by the track is a much older building that could have been the original 15th century farmhouse. The entry area was once the dairy and still has hooks in the ceiling for lifting churns (see below)
Adjacent are a variety of outbuildings which mainly date from the 17th Century with some Victorian and more modern additions. They include a cart shed - now home to a barn owl; the milking shed - now a garage; and a barn. The current owner (whose childhood was spent in Hong Kong) describes how little the farmhouse has changed: 
'The farm house I saw for the first time in 1954, was the same as my great grandfather recorded in his daybook of 1842, the same as the house I moved into in 1986. It is a living creature, unique, independent, hundreds of years older than any building in Hong Kong, with no right angles, no straight lines, but plenty of wrinkles. Weathered but not beaten. Tiles replaced thatch in the eighteenth century, so the roofscape of farm buildings and courtyards reminded me of the older buildings of Hong Kong.'

Myhill family, Farmers

When Frederick Charles Myhill died in 1915, the farm passed to his son Frederick William Myhill who was already involved in various enterprises that were more lucrative than farming. The Red House was built on land adjacent to the Dairy Farm house for Frederick and his wife Daisy who married in 1905, and the old farmhouse was the home of his brother (Charles), two sisters (Emma and Millicent) and (from 1935) a cousin (Dorothy Wrafter). It was Frederick who bought the land after World War 1. He was already using a barn on the farm for his '[cattle]-cake, manure & seed' business and later had a substantial tin shed built as a store. 

1930s seed store (right) built on to an old cart shed
1930s seed store (right) built on to an old cart shed

But farming was in his blood: he was proud of his herd of pedigree dairy shorthorns and he was a judge for the Norfolk Show.  In 1939 he described himself as 'Farmer & Corn Merchant'. His grandson declares: 'Grandfather was no sentimentalist, but a cold-headed successful businessman. In the 1930s, when his neighbours were selling of timber, he preserved our ancient woodland, because of his respect for his father.' 
During the war, much of the land was commandeered for the USAAF base, and afterwards some of the accommodation blocks became homes for people rehoused at Hethel 'Camp'. Concrete bases, chimneys, toilet blocks and air raid shelters can still be found among the undergrowth. In 1946 Frederick Myhill decided to rent out the remaining farmland to a tenant - to Hugh Rackham, son of George of Hill Farm who had retired and moved to Stanfield Hall. Hugh had returned home having been a POW in Japan during World War 2 and farmed Church Farm as a dairy farm in conjunction with Corporation Farm. The tenancy remained until 1986.

John Myhill, who owns Church Farm now, describes visits to his grandfather as a young child in the 1950s:
'We could look at the bull, talk with the cows, feed them and even try to milk them. We could feed the geese and hens, search the hedgerows for birds' nests, make tunnels from the straw bales, be out all day without anyone worrying about us..... '

When Frederick William Myhill died in 1960, the farm was held in trust for John but passed to Frederick's eldest son Peter who stayed in Wreningham. Much of the land was rented out. The Red House was sold, and Frederick's cousin Dorothy Wrafter ('Aunt Dolly') continued to live in the farmhouse.  "Cold Comfort Farm" was Aunt Dolly's description of Church Farm, Hethel. It was still a dairy farm, but ironically Dorothy was a vegetarian. John Myhill recalls:
'When Aunt Dolly told me they lived on a dairy farm and did not eat meat, I was astounded, having never considered such a thing. Beef was my favourite meat and cows' milk my only drink. This was what had first made me interested in cows. The thought that calves must die to produce these delights had not occurred to me, nor did Aunt Dolly enlighten me.'

The milking parlour - now a garage and store
The milking parlour - now a garage and store

John tried his hand at pig-rearing when he first lived with Aunt Dolly whilst training in Norwich to be a nurse. But the result was catastrophic: 'Disaster struck on August 14th, and fate took over. I was burning a bonfire in the back garden, when a spark caught the thatch of the old corn barn. I sprayed it with the garden hose, but it had been a long dry summer, and the roof was all ablaze by the time the fire brigade arrived. The stable and the bullock shed were ashes in 30 minutes and the fire brigade did well to stop it spreading. Mr Rackham's bean harvester was destroyed and I had been terrified... It was clear that Dolly had no need for such a chaotic person, more trauma than support. My pigs were sold and I moved into the nurses' home.'

After Dorothy died in 1981, John Myhill had to wait until Mr Rackham's tenancy expired in 1986 before he could take over the land as well as 'A barely habitable farmhouse, surrounded by equally decaying buildings, and waist-high nettles over what had been lawns and flower beds; nearly two miles from an expensive shop, with few savings and no prospects of employment...' John inherited 180 acres - some owned, some rented. Today Church Farm has 70 acres of organic farmland.

John Myhill takes up the story:
'Our first winter was terrible. The heaviest, coldest snowfall since 1963 and worse than anything since. We were cut off for three days and huddled round open fires, with no central heating and smoking paraffin stoves. After a slight thaw, pipes burst and we all suffered.... In the Spring, I bought a horse and cart and tried to sell the vegetables I grew around the villages. The country people grew better veg themselves, the migrants from town went to the supermarket or farm shops on main roads. Some of the elderly housebound were pleased to see me and I did sell most of my surplus, but it would never have paid for the cost of buying the horse and cart... At least we ate well and we were all too busy to think about buying things we could not afford. We did have a few excellent days out by horse and cart.'
'I bought three lovely saddleback pigs, intending to breed a herd, but they soon learnt how to dash through the electric fence. They were far too intelligent and I had to walk for miles with a bucket of food, slowly leading them home. A more competent farmer took them off my hands. The gale of October '87 brought down many large trees which kept my chainsaw busy. My first 40, end-of-lay, rescue hens were initially a great success (wonderful to watch them regain their feathers) but fallen trees broke the fence making way for foxes and they all died brutally.'
'We planted acres of grass, harrowing bare fields before and after scattering grass seed. No monoculture, but a variety of grasses - some flourished and others disappeared; new seed sowed itself. We planted six hectares of broadleaved trees, never thinking we would live to see them grown and looking like proper ancient woodland. We replaced hedges that had been grubbed up in the 1960s and I planted a small orchard to replace the old fruit trees, which were coming to the end of their lives.'
'In 2006, My last three cows (Tempo, Andante and Bolero) died, ending 18 years of caring for White Park cows.... I did less on the farm, since the death of cows and horses and now reduced the amount of winter coppicing and the amount of summer gardening. In 2011, I gained the services of a local farmer to cut most of my 100 acres of grass. In 2013 my circular saw failed and I gave up that dangerous but fast method of logging, which had once cracked a rib but kept the fires burning for 27 years.'

'Why Farm? Because it was there and I had to do something with it. Because grandfather had given me a sense of dynasty and the farm represented continuity and stability in troubled times. Because I felt at one with great-grandfather's tree planting, ecology and intellectualism and Aunt Dolly's political radicalism.....'

Extracts from John Myhill's autobiography 'Trials & Inspirations - autobiography of John Myhill' © 2013 - there is more + a link on the MYHILL family page. And thanks to John Myhill for interviews and allowing me to photograph the farm.