Albert Beer Remembered

WORDS by Albert’s son, Sean Beer
From issue 64, autumn 2013

Albert started writing for the Exmoor Magazine in the summer of 1998, its third edition.  His last article was published in issue 63, a few weeks after he died.  It was very poignant to go into the dining room and see the various documents that he had used for the article laid out on the table where he had left them.  During that time he wrote 35 editions of the ‘Farming News’ and 30 other articles including the popular series, ‘Characters of Exmoor’, which amounted to 20 interviews with some of the people who make Exmoor what it is; a very special place.

In the spring of 2007 he ‘retired’ and wrote a piece on 60 years of his Exmoor experiences.   This article did describe some aspects of his life, but, looking back on it, it didn’t do that life justice; it was never going to, as Albert preferred writing about other people even though he had so many of his own stories.  One Christmas a few years ago I bought him a digital recorder hoping that he would record some of his memories.  Unfortunately it is still in the box.  He was going to write a biography to be called ‘Teddies and Greens’, because, as the son of farm workers, that’s what he mostly lived off when he was young (all home grown by his father Edwin, or ‘Ned’).  He never started it.

So I sat down and decided to list the various areas of his life.  It turned out to be a long list.  First and foremost he was a Christian family man.  Albert was born to Edwin and Margaret on 20 February 1935.  The family were members of Lovacott Chapel and Granddad ran the Sunday School as well as acting as a preacher.  His strong family upbringing and Christian faith and belief in integrity stayed with him throughout his life, though Albert was to roam far from home before returning to his beloved West Country.

Albert and a friend drinking from the source of the Exe as young boys (c. late 1940s).
Albert and a friend drinking from the source of the Exe as young boys (c. late 1940s).

At school he was a very bright young man and once told me that he deliberately misspelt words in spelling tests; sometimes it didn’t pay to show that you were clever.  That said, he passed his 11-plus and won a County Scholarship to West Buckland School (WBS).   You need to bear in mind that Albert’s parents were broad North Devonian and a great-aunt once told me that he had an accent so broad that people couldn’t understand him in Barnstaple.  The family came from generations of farm workers, smallholders and craftsmen and women.  At home, the Doctor called him Beer while he was expected to call him Sir.   To gain an understanding of this social dynamic you need to read some of Henry Williamson’s books on village life, such as The Labouring Life or Tales of a Devon Village; books that Albert loved.

‘Run the straight race’ – a young Albert crossing the line first, c. late 1950s.
‘Run the straight race’ – a young Albert crossing the line first, c. late 1950s.

This humble background was to prove a problem for some of the young gentlemen at WBS, until they discovered that actually Albert was quite a good chap and also a fine sportsman; and that was always important at WBS.  He played rugby and competed in athletics for his school, university and various clubs.  He was also a fine rifle shot who competed regularly for the WBS Veteran’s Team at Bisley and against the school.

He left school in 1953 and went to work for Jack Andrew at Umberleigh Barton, the site of the new North Devon Show Ground.  Jack was a football fan, but also appreciated sporting endeavour across the board and used to let Albert go on a Saturday afternoon to play for Barnstaple Rugby Club.  He then went on to Reading University and studied for a Degree in Agriculture and a Post Graduate Diploma in Poultry Husbandry and thence to the National Agricultural Service (NAS) where he met Vivian.  They married in 1960.  Albert’s career in the civil service took him and Viv to the USA (he won a prestigious Kellogg’s Fellowship to study at Cornell University) and all around the UK, as a teacher, lecturer and adviser.  He published many papers and was one of the world’s experts on the hatching of chicks.  Ultimately he became disillusioned with government cutbacks which seriously affected organisations such as MAFF, ADAS (for whom he worked), Liscombe and the Grassland Research Institute – all working in support of farming and food – and he took early retirement back to North Devon where a new life began.

Albert was a real country man and one of nature’s gentlemen.

Some of you may have met him through the pages of this magazine, the North Devon Journal (for whom he was a farming correspondent) or other papers and magazines, the television and radio, talking about farming, food and the countryside.  He was a real country man and one of nature’s gentlemen.  He was also a gardener, having learnt these skills at his father’s side, and could be seen exhibiting and judging at horticultural shows far and wide.

albert beer 01
Horticultural success, c.1975: Albert with his wife Viv holding a prize-winning cake and their daughter Sue holding a piece of her brother’s forge work.

Albert was an enthusiast with passion and courage.  Sometimes people found this difficult, particularly when he was campaigning for the family farm, his beloved local breeds of livestock – particularly the Closewool and Devon Cattle – or on other countryside issues such as his support for field sports.  This work paid off; the success of Devon Cattle is a testament to that.  But he was always Albert.  There is no more space for me to talk about his stories, the various events he hosted, his hospitality and the way he and Viv loved to look after people.  He was a friend and brother to many.

In 2010 Albert and Vivian raised the money to send a dairy cow to a family in Africa, in celebration of their Golden Wedding anniversary, through the charity appropriately called Send a Cow which helps families in Africa to grow enough food to eat, sell their produce and develop small businesses that last. They do this by providing livestock, seeds, training and on-going support, enabling families to leave poverty behind; we think that at times our lives are tough, but in many ways we have no idea.  In memory of Albert’s life, friends and family have donated £1,500 which will pay for two dairy cows; almost a herd!  Dad will be smiling ‘in glory’ as he called it.

Main photo: North Devon Show, 1988, and Albert with Champson Bribery 29th led by Richard Dart (then aged 15).  Mrs Ivy Kift is presenting the Trophy.  (Courtesy Marcus Bath)