The following article appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Exmoor Magazine (see pages 18-20 if you still have it). It is reproduced here as many people have asked to read it since the sad passing of Gerald at the end of last year…
WORDS by Tony James, from winter 2015 issue
Gerald Down is telling us what makes a champion Exmoor Horn sheep but, strangely for someone who has just returned from judging the breed at the Royal Welsh Show, he seems to have other things on his mind.
From the kitchen wall of the cosy flat in Brendon Manor where he has lived since his retirement from a lifetime of moorland farming, Gerald takes down the picture of an elderly man. “That’s George Thorne of Simonsbath Barton. I worked for him for 20 years. He taught me everything I know about sheep and cattle, but even he
wondered whether we’d copped it this time.”
And the memories flood back over half a century to the worst Exmoor winter for 15 years, when Simonsbath was virtually cut off for nearly three months in 1962/63, snow drifted as high as the telegraph poles and was still lying in the combes in June.
Gerald has hazy memories of the previous great freeze-up of 1947. “I was only nine and it was all a bit of fun, but this time, when it started snowing on Boxing Day, it didn’t take us long to realise that things were going to be really serious.”
As snow fell relentlessly day after day and piled into house-high drifts, as many cattle as possible were brought under cover, but all George Thorne’s 600 sheep stayed out in fields next to the farm, where they were fed and watered and dug out of drifts day and night. “We didn’t lose a single sheep,” Gerald remembers. “I doubt if any other breed would have survived like those Exmoors did.”
It just goes to confirm Gerald’s lifelong view that there are no sheep like Exmoor Horns. His passion for choosing, preparing and showing them is undimmed. He’s a renowned judge of the breed throughout the South West and Wales and at 77, whilst recuperating from
serious illness, he braved lashing wind and rain at the last Porlock Horse Show to give the sheep class the once-over. “I’d judged some of them the previous week in Wales and just wanted to check that the Porlock judges agreed with me.” Hardly surprisingly, they did.
“The moor is my life and always will be. I still love going to shows and stock markets, meeting people and bringing back the memories.”
Gerald has other reasons to remember the wicked winter of ’62. As the snow fell on Boxing Day, his pregnant wife Eileen was taken into South Molton hospital. Hours later Simonsbath was snowed in and it was five weeks before Gerald saw his baby son Richard.
“The only way to get from Simonsbath to Exford was to walk through the snow five miles over the fields. You couldn’t see the hedges and you had to trust to luck you didn’t fall into a drift. My brother met me in Exford and managed to drive me to South Molton. Then I had to walk back another five miles in a snowstorm but it was worth it.”
Gerald has spent his life on the moor, although, as he explains, there has been a highly unexpected career change. He was born at Slocomslade, one of the hill farms above Brendon. When his father, a groom at Oare Manor, was called up for the Army, the family moved in with Gerald’s grandparents.
“Times were hard and money was very short. My mother would pick
whortleberries and sell them at Watersmeet and County Gate. I was
very close to my mother but she was very strict and you had to behave yourself. We all worked to help the family. My grandfather was the Brendon parish road-mender and grew all our vegetables.
“He also dug peat for the fire and I remember being sent up to the common on cold winter days with hot cocoa in a bottle with a sock wrapped around it to keep it warm, and beetroot sandwiches for his lunch.
“I always say I was brought up on rabbit and junket! Milk and rabbit was good cheap food and we would eat rabbit at least two or three times a week. From a young age I went out rabbiting with my ferret and my dog Spot. He’d ride on the crossbar of my bike with his front feet on the handlebars.
“I was always out on the moor and I couldn’t wait to leave Brendon School. I got a job with Bill Harding at Lower Tippacott, working the sheep, but soon afterwards Bert French asked me to become a fulltime rabbit-trapper. We’d do eight to ten days on a farm and then move on.
“It was hard work and very long hours. We would put out up to 200 gin traps a night – they’re illegal now – and if you got 80 rabbits from 100 traps you were doing well. Sometimes you would get a fox in a trap and that could be dangerous. The rabbits went to Dulverton station hung in special hampers to catch the ‘rabbit train’ to London. Apparently they sold eight for £1 up there, but Bert and I didn’t get anything like that.”
After George Thorne retired, Gerald managed a farm at Wellshead for 12 years and has watched the evolution of moorland farming with interest and not a little envy. “It’s still a hard life on the moor but certainly easier than when I started farming,” he says.
“Look at all the stuff they’ve got nowadays… state-of-the-art tractors, quad bikes. Any emergency and they fly a helicopter in. Before the small baler came in we had to sweep the hay up and
make a rick.
“No one digs up roots and turnips any more – it’s all cake now. Load a quad bike up with cake and take it out to the sheep. Job done in no time. But one of the really big changes on the moor has been the round bale. The bloke who invented that should have got a medal from the Queen!
“Shearing has been transformed in my lifetime. If I could shear 80 or 90 in a day I’d done well, but now it’s 300 or more thanks to new ideas from Australia. They use special shearing pens and have the radio going – you almost expect them to start dancing with the bloomin’ sheep!”
Sheep, dancing or otherwise, were Gerald’s life. He fully expected it to stay like that and had no complaints but then, in 1996, when retirement began to loom on the distant horizon, Gerald’s life
suddenly changed in a fairytale manner. He became a movie star. Gerald shrugs off the description, but that’s about the truth of it.
It started at Taunton market. “I was there with some stock and saw two chaps looking at me. When I next went to Cutcombe market they were there again and this time they came over and asked to have a word outside. My first thought was that they were from DEFRA or trading standards, but I couldn’t think what I’d done wrong.”
In fact the mystery men were film-company scouts looking for a non-actor to play the pivotal role of farm-worker Ratty in the £6 million production of The Land Girls, a story of three town girls recruited to work on a remote farm during the Second World War. Out of over 140 hopefuls, Gerald got the job.
Supposedly set in Dorset in 1941, the film starred Anna Friel, Rachel Weisz and Catherine McCormack and was shot mainly in Exmoor National Park and Dulverton. “I was filming for about three months and had quite a big part. My daughter Mandy helped me learn the lines.
“One scene I particularly remember was when we were out in the fields loading potatoes on a horse and cart. Anna Friel asked where she could go to the toilet and I had to say: “This is a two-acre
field but if it’s not big enough, there’s a four-acre field over there!”
“We did the Christmas scenes in a pub and I had to say to one of the girls: “If you’ll have a port and lemon with me, I’ll sing you a song.” I sang them ‘A Bunch of Violets Blue’, which my mother used to sing when we were little. Would you like me to sing it to you now?” and he did.
“I still get Christmas cards from the girls and everyone was really kind and friendly. I went to London for the première and walked on the red carpet. When the film came to Lynton I took everyone to see it, just to prove that I was really in it.
“I got paid really well – I’m not telling you how much – and for a while I was a bit of a novelty on the moor and was asked to open Dulverton Fête. The producer of The Land Girls even said I should try for the part of Compo in Last of the Summer Wine when Bill Owen died, but I didn’t pursue it.
“It was a whole new world to me and I wouldn’t have missed it, but I was glad to get back to the sheep.”
PHOTOS AT TOP and HERE: Gerald Down in the autumn of 2015, photographed by Andrew Hobbs.
You can read more about Gerald in an article on this site about the Lyles and also in David Ramsey’s book Unforgotten Exmoor, Volume Four.