JIM WEBB & MIDDLE HILL FARM
Jim Webb and Middlehill Farm
James Webb was born in Haydon Wick in 1931 into a dairy farming family and describes himself from then on as “a lazy boy” His schooling was taken care of by “The High School” on the Bath Rd in Swindon which was the place many farmers sent their children to.
School was not for Jim and at 14 years old he couldn’t wait to get out and never go back. He’d been spending his earlier years on his parents' tenant farm taking every opportunity to carry out his favourite pastime - driving tractors - which he’d been doing since the age of 8. Work involving the actual milking of cows was largely left to his father and in approximately 1935 they bought their first milking machine. These were initially rather crude devices and unreliable but probably a little better than doing the whole herd by hand which is what they’d been doing up until then.
Finally in 1945, the Webb family had the opportunity to purchase Haydon End Farm outright which they did with a large loan from the bank to not only buy the farm but update buildings and machinery. In 1957, Jim and his then girlfriend “Bubbles” tied the knot in Purton Church and became Mr & Mrs Webb. That same year, Jim became officially a business partner with his father running the farm.
Most people will know that Swindon was designated an overspill town for London soon after the war and great swathes of development started taking place in the 50’s. This huge program of course brought in developers and building firms wanting a piece of the action. At that time Jim and his father were constantly asked if they wanted to sell their farm but although many of the surrounding farms did sell, the Webbs declined at that stage. They were however, able to rent the sold land from the developers who just sat on it until they were ready or given permission to start building. By this time the herd was up to about 100 cows and still Short Horns.
Daughters Heather and Claire came along which obviously meant Bubbles was kept busier than ever whilst Jim was out all hours of the day (and night sometimes) tending to the cows. It wasn’t until the late 70’s that Guernsey Cows were brought in to replace the Short Horns which (along with Frisians) is what most dairy farmers were doing at the time.
It wasn’t until as late as 1986/7 that Jim finally negotiated the right price for Haydon End Farm and sold to a developer as “Planning Permission Land” . There was never any chance that Jim and Bubbles would sail off into the sunset with the money; farming was deeply rooted in Jim DNA so with Bubbles insisting a replacement farm must be in the local area they started looking. Middlehill Farm run by Henry Gaisford in Tockenham happened to be available, was twice the acreage of Haydon and was already / had been a dairy farm so a deal was done.
At the age of 91 Jim is still very active on the farm and can often be seen driving farm machinery up and down the lane. His daughter Claire is responsible for the running of the dairy herd and has help from others in doing that work. Bubbles died in 2019 and a ceremony was held in Purton Church where a great many people from all over came to pay their respects. Claire and Jim have been continuing to expand the farm, recently buying land from Greenway Farm. They presently have 270 cows of which 240 are milkers but with the small followers they have over 500 cattle. Their customer is Waitrose and has been since 2000 for which they produce between 6,500 to 7,000 litres PER DAY.
“So what of the future?” was my final question to Jim. Not surprisingly the erratic prices being paid by the supermarkets will always be a concern but perhaps more worryingly according to Jim is the complete lack of young people coming through or even considering farming as a career. Where are all those youngsters who much prefer the outdoor life, the caring of animals as well as the business of running a commercial enterprise ? Long gone are the days of a country bumpkin walking around with a shepherds crook. Today you will be trained in complex machinery operation, soil management, animal welfare and business acumen. That sounds pretty interesting and challenging to me.
As for Jim, he has no plans to retire and you get the distinct impression it’s still the farm life that keeps him getting up in the mornings and loving it.
As an addendum to this article there is another whole story to be written about Jim's passion for motorcycle trials riding of which he was very successful locally in the 50’s and 60’s. He was very reluctant (because of his modesty) to show me a cabinet full of Trials Riding cups and trophies. But that’s for another time.
You’ve packed a lot of physical hard work in your 91 years Jim, but also managed to have a hobby and some fun along the way as well as helping to bring up a family. Well done , you’re a fortunate man