Memories from ‘Down on the Farm’

This interview features David Mead, from the family that have been farming in the local area for many years and established the farm shop that is familiar to us all. David talks about his time as a child during the second world war, the community of Wilstone and his life in farming.

This article builds on previous contributions from long standing local residents by featuring an interview with David Mead from Great Farm, Wilstone. It was particularly good to meet David for two reasons; first because he is one of the few people still living in Wilstone who can remember what it was like during the second world war and the immediate post war period; second because David is from a family of local farmers who have not only provided much employment over the years but have also developed Meads Farm Shop from a trolley by the side of the road to become the flourishing business that exists today.

I soon realised that my interview had an unexpected bonus. In addition to David, I was also going to be able to have the benefit of additional memories and insights from David’s wife Teresa. This is not the first time that my interviews have had such an extra presence and it helps in two ways, to provide a check on what the husband might say (!) and to add a different perspective. Teresa did not disappoint, hardly intervening at first but then providing valuable contributions with her memories from the past.

We started with David’s memories of Wilstone at the time of the outbreak of war, when he was five years old. His parents, who had taken over Great Farm in 1930, had intended to send him to a private school – Osmington – on Tring High Street. However, early fears of the impact of war caused his parents, remembering the horrors of the first World War, to change their mind and send him to Wilstone School. David remembers his form mistress, Miss Woodman, who had an interesting way of teaching nature studies, getting the class to weed her garden! He also remembers that there were problems of integration because of the social hierarchy that was a feature of the time; villagers used to refer to him as ‘Master David’ and he had rarely been able to mix with village kids before, so it was not easy at first to settle into school life.

David’s memories of the village during the war are of a general quietness; kids would play in the road and if one of the very few cars came along, you would instantly know whose it was. He remembers seeing a glow from the sky lit up in the distance by the bombs falling in London and hearing doodlebugs dropping in the fields nearby. He also recalls a plane crash a year or so before the famous US air force crash in 1945; this was a smaller plane which had taken off from Halton and crashed on Cemetery Hill. All the children rushed to see what had happened but were not allowed near; a lorry later arrived from Halton to remove the wreckage.

He does not recall there being too much fear and anxiety in the village during wartime, despite the doodlebug and the bombings in Long Marston. But there was much less communication in those days, no TV, few telephones and only government approved radio programmes. One memory is of David’s father Eric going out at night as a special policeman after a full day working on the farm. (At this point Teresa contributed her own memories as a wartime child. She was evacuated from her home in London to Bicester where she lived with three land-girls and had to sleep in the bath!)

David only stayed two terms at Wilstone before moving to Osmington School, then later to Berkhamsted School on a scholarship after the eleven plus exams, which were first introduced around that time. He recalls vividly the nerve-racking ordeal of an interview with a Mr Cox at the Deans Hall part of the school but, despite his fear, he was accepted and became a boarding pupil. From Berkhamsted David went to Moulton College in Northampton where he not only learned about farming and agriculture but also had the pleasure of meeting Teresa.

Before they could start their life together, there was the unfortunate requirement of that era, the need for all young men to carry out two years of National Service, which in David’s case was spent in the canal zone of Egypt. This was not as exciting as it sounds because most of the time was spent confined to barracks after a female soldier was sadly killed while venturing outside the camp. This was in the tense period just before the Suez Canal was taken back by the Egyptians under President Nasser.

After the national service ended, the newly married couple moved to Gubblecote as David began to work with his father on the family farm; there was no other career that he would have wanted. Farming was very different then, carried out by manual labour, ten people being required to handle what is now dealt with by one combine harvester. It was very much a family business with everyone, including children, helping out at harvest time. In 1967 David and Teresa moved to their house at Great Farm, Wilstone and have been there ever since. David made a valuable contribution to village life with his ‘Down on the Farm’ column in the Village Newsletter for several years.

P.E. Mead Farm Shop in 1964
P.E. Mead Farm Shop in 1964

It was during this period of the 1960s that the Meads Farm Shop began its remarkable growth. It started with David’s uncle Duncan placing a tea trolley by the side of the road to sell his lettuces on Fridays and Saturdays. David’s mother Doris then saw further potential and started to introduce her own produce and the range soon extended to carrots and spring onions. There was originally only an honesty box but, as customers began to require change, Teresa started to serve at the barrow herself and remembers customers flooding in from the Tunnel Cement factory after being paid on Fridays. Soon the tea trolley became a hand barrow, then a rickety shed and the path to growth was set in motion.

David and Teresa’s son Simon is very much involved in the business, with the development of the rape seed oil product his speciality. They now enjoy the pleasure of their extended family – children, grandchildren and one great grandchild, Florence. Covid has made it difficult to see them personally but a particular delight has been seeing videos of Florence growing up.

They still enjoy being in the community of Wilstone, grateful that there are no longer the social class divisions of the past. They are particularly impressed by the enterprise of those who have made possible the village shop, excellent for such a relatively small village.

It was a privilege to meet David and Teresa and good of them to give their time to share their recollections of the past. Theirs have clearly been lives well lived.

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