BBC presenter Rebecca Wood on lockdown on a Cheshire farm
- Credit: Archant
BBC weather presenter and reporter Rebecca Wood spends lockdown milking cows on a farm in her home county of Cheshire
It’s hard to imagine falling asleep now without the gentle hum of the parlour and the mechanised voice recalling numbers of cows waiting patiently to be milked. But since lockdown was announced that’s the soundtrack that has gently lulled me off to sleep – a world away from the hubbub and traffic my usual life in Birmingham offers. I’ve been lucky enough to be on lockdown with my friends Karen and Tom Halton at their farm in Cheshire, which has meant combining my TV life with my love of the countryside.
It’s not totally new to me, I’m Cheshire born and bred and have grown up on the fringe of farming life – Dad, Grandad, and my great-grandpa were all well-known agricultural engineers, the family business – Walter Wood and Son – based just outside Sandbach for years. My friends growing up were mostly farmers, I was a member of Young Farmers, but it wasn’t until Covid-19 struck that I ever milked a cow. I’ve been coming to Halton Farms near Congleton for years now, I’m lucky enough to count Kaz and Tom among my closest friends. I’ve watched them tackle falling milk prices with gusto, reinvent working practices to ensure all the animals here have the best life they can, and trailblaze their way to the top. But in all honesty, although I knew they worked hard until I lived here, I did not realise how hard farming is. Now it is seeping under my skin – much like the mud under my once-manicured nails.
Back in March, when talk in the BBC Midlands Today newsroom turned to whether we’d go into lockdown I had a week of leave to take. Knowing that there was the potential of being isolated in a flat in Birmingham for a week, Kaz invited me and my sighthound Brandy to stay. Months later and we’re still here. And what a time it’s been.
Everything’s changed for me… even mornings. I wake up with sunlight streaming through my window, the dawn chorus replacing the usual sound of my alarm clock. Before breakfast, there are jobs to do. Everyone works really hard here, so to have a few jobs based around the horses makes me feel useful. After mucking out (and, if I’m honest, being waylaid playing with the calves), it’s breakfast time. Cooler days see big pots of steaming porridge, warmer weather brings fresh fruit and cereals. It’s a noisy affair – in-jokes, banter, talk of which new bit of equipment is being coveted by the boys or serious talk of milk prices and Covid. But there’s a true sense of camaraderie – at a time when family is locked away and a new family found. More than that there’s normality here. The animals need feeding, the day-to-day chores need doing and life carries on. Red overalls and wellies back on, and it’s off to feed the cows, fix the fences, or various other jobs. To get a true sense of what it’s like to live and work here I was offered a 4.30am start and a milking shift. Having been in parlours before I thought I knew what to expect… But four hours and 500 udders later I’d had my eyes opened. I’d never really thought about it – but no two cows are the same. The team here loves them, I quickly learned everyone has a favourite, but most of them can remember their numbers with just a glance. Another skilled learned… dodging the poop.
The day job has continued, there have been trips down the M6 to the office in Birmingham, where the city has been a desolate, locked-up land. Technology has helped – there have been days I’ve been able to work from the farm. Every Friday I present the weather from the garden – the team of seven dogs becoming internet sensations with cameo appearances on the 6.30pm news. Around that I can ride the horses whenever I wish, taking full advantage of the quieter roads. I take the springer spaniel, Belle, running around the fields, soaking up the scenery, exploring parts of the farm I’ve never noticed before. After a hard-earned gin and tonic and debrief about the day it’s bedtime. Earlier than usual for me, but it’s remarkable how quickly my body clock has changed. Tonight, I stayed up though… not to drink prosecco and zoom like my friends. No, it was my turn to make sure the chickens were safely in bed, they were – although herding the newly rescued battery hens would have been quite funny to an observer.
If farm life and its challenges weren’t enough, on day three of lockdown the Haltons started a new venture – doorstep deliveries of their fresh pasteurised milk. I can now add bottle labelling to the list of skills I’ve acquired. It’s made a busy place even busier at a time when the rest of the world is much quieter. There have been late nights, snatching a bite to eat as hundreds of bottles are labelled – while in the dairy they’re filled ready to be distributed hours later. It’s been a total success, which, at a time when the milk price has plummeted has really helped. But running a business, on top of a business isn’t easy – I take my hat off to them and am proud that I was there to help with the very first deliveries.
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I know this can’t and won’t last forever. But I’ve learned skills I never expected and I have a new-found love for cows. My respect for farmers has escalated. They work tirelessly to keep food on our tables, but right now they’re losing money every day. They keep going though because whatever happens the animals always come first. Each day, as a little more normality returns to the UK, I know I’m getting closer to moving back to the city. But now I know my heart has always been and will always be in the countryside. And I’ll never forget my lockdown life where I remembered exactly where I had left it.
Rebecca Wood grew up in Arclid and went to Sandbach High School before completing her education with a degree at Queen Mary’s College, University of London, and a Masters at Staffordshire University. She presents for BBC Midlands Today. A quarter of the population of England watch BBC regional TV news bulletins every day and these already successful programmes have seen a surge in viewers during lockdown.
Halton Farms is a dairy farm based in Moreton cum Alcumlow, near Congleton, milking 530 three-way crossbred cows at Chance Hall Farm, and rearing 300 followers at a heifer unit at Townsend Farm. It is part of the Rode Hall estate, and the Halton family has farmed there since 1968.
The farm has a raw milk vending machine and this year started pasteurising and delivering milk across Cheshire.