Lancaster nostalgia: Back Farm

A typical crop farm which families may have moved to from Back Farm.
A typical crop farm which families may have moved to from Back Farm.

In a collection of farming memories Wray historian David Kenyon takes us on a journey through the Roeburndale West Valley to Back Farm. In the final piece this week David looks at Back Farm.

Around a quarter of a mile from Barkin Gate, down the road to Wray, is Back Farm.

This is the smallest farm in the dale, being around 70 acres.

In the past this was always known as a starter farm. For many families this would be their first farm. When they had found their feet they would move to a larger farm.

My grandfather John Gorst and his wife Margaret were farming at Back Farm in 1897. Their eldest son Harry was born there in 1900. They left in 1903 moving to Bell Hurst Farm on the eastern side of the valley.

Other farmers at Back Farm were the Beaumonts, Lewises and Charles Preece, brother of Maurice from Thornbush. Next came Norman Gardner, followed by Alec Robinson and his wife Martha in 1964. Martha’s twin brother Robert, who had purchased the 60 fell sheep, also lived at the farm.

Alec also worked for Robinsons of Wray, the local coal merchants, a good way to supplement the farm income. The couple had five children – Desmond, Gweneth, Audrey, Helen and Doreen.

In 1985 the farm had new owners, John and Hill Harpley. The Harpleys were the first non-farming family to move into the dale. John was an engineer in the architects’ and planning department of Lancaster City Council. Jill was a secretary at Lancaster University. Jill has a past connection with Roeburndale – her aunt Annie Woodhouse had farmed at Backsbottom Farm in the valley below.

John and Jill had three children at Back Farm – Alice, Will and Rosie. The Harpleys are well thought of among the Roeburndale families, embracing the values and ways of the hill farming community.

An interesting character who lodged with Charlie and Annie Preece at Back Farm in the 1940s and 50s was John William Winn, always known as Happy Jack.

Happy came to Wray from Garsdale near Sedbergh around 1940. He came to work for Southerns, who had a saw mill at Claughton.

As a young man Happy trained for the church but his addiction to alcohol was his downfall. After leaving the saw mill he went to work for Billy Robinson, who had a coal and firewood business in Wray. Happy was an excellent worker, highly skilled with axe and saw.

Happy was paid daily but Thursdays and Fridays wages were given to Mr and Mrs Preece for Happy’s board and lodgings in case he spent the money in The New Inn.

Billy Robinson used to collect Happy from Back Farm, bringing him down to Wray to work.

One morning young Terry, Billy’s son, was sent to collect Happy from the farm. Charlie told Terry that Happy had not been home that night and was advised to try the stable down in the village. Happy often slept there if he was too drunk to walk the mile and a half up to the farm.

Then news came that there was a man sleeping in a dyke near Wray. They managed to wake Happy and take him down to the yard. After a mug of strong tea he did a hard day’s work in the woods.

As small children we spent many a night laying in our beds listening to Happy singing and preaching to the stars as he staggered home.

When the Preeces left Back Farm and moved to Crummock Farm at Austwick, Happy went with them, making himself useful doing jobs on the farm. When Charlie retired Happy returned to Wray and lodged with Thomas Stephenson.

Happy Jack died in 1960 aged 75 years.