Chris Eldon Lee
Arthur's Plough 2008
By the play's writer Chris Eldon Lee
One of Shropshire's favourite modern legends - the saving of Fordhall Farm - is the subject of a new play. Writer Chris Eldon Lee explains the background - and how this is the culmination of a project he started almost 20 years ago.
In the late 1920s 14-year-old Arthur Hollins inherited the tenancy of Fordhall Farm near Market Drayton in Shropshire. The land was in ruins. Using his own 20th Century organic principles, Arthur spent 65 years pioneering a new, "old" way of farming. Ever original and inventive, he paved the way for today's keen interest in organic farming, produced the first commercial yoghurt to appear in Harrods and invented a "plough" to revolutionise third world farming on poor soils.
I interviewed Arthur for BBC Radio Shropshire in 1989 and spotted that his autobiography would make a good play. Arthur's Plough was given 16 performances by a team of 13 amateur actors and musicians in 1991. Arthur brought his second wife Connie and their wide-eyed children Ben and Charlotte, then seven and nine years old, to every night.
Within a year, the farm was under threat again. The German yoghurt giants Müller spotted, as Arthur had done half a century earlier, that Market Drayton had herds of under-employed cows. They unwittingly built a large yoghurt plant adjacent to Arthur's farm; buying one of his prized organic fields from the landowner... and tarmacing it.
I kept in touch with Fordhall and the Hollinses and I produced a 40-minute documentary, A Tale of Two Yoghurts, for BBC Radio 4.
Further attempts to destroy his life's work were stoutly rebuffed by Arthur, but the effort took its toll. Now in his 80s, he couldn't fight and farm at the same time. The farm began to decay again. The landowner was even more keen to feed it to developers and an ultimatum to quit inevitably came.
By now, Ben and Charlotte were of student age. They loyally took up the Herculean fight, persuading the landowner to give them the first right to buy. He set a tight deadline and price tag of £800,000 and waited for them to fail. Arthur passed away.
What happened next absolutely amazed the folk of Market Drayton and the world's press; not to mention the landowner's solicitors.
In December 2005, Ben and Charlotte spearheaded a huge campaign to save the farm. With a tiny team of volunteers they started selling non-profit-making shares to create a pioneering community farm. Sting very publicly donated £2,000. Prunella Scales (appearing as Queen Victoria at the New Vic in Newcastle under Lyme) took off her wig and urged the audience to buy shares. The press leapt on the story and 8,000 organisations and individuals around the globe heard about the plan and were moved to buy shares. The money was raised with just a few hours to spare.
In less than two years, Fordhall became one of the very first organisations in the UK to place farmland in common ownership. So it's now owned by 8,000 people, who collectively employ Ben and Charlotte to run it along their father's wholly organic lines. The Board of Trustees includes the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and fundraising continues to create a permanent educational establishment at the farm.
Meanwhile, Ben and Charlotte never forgot the play and, as you may have noticed, they are very persuasive!
Fordhall Community Land Initiative invited me (repeatedly!) to revive and significantly revise Arthur's Plough. The new updated play tells the stories of both pioneering generations of the Hollins family. I see it as a subtle educational tool, exploring the changes in social history over the last 80 years, increasing "real food" awareness, reconnecting people to the landscape and encouraging their interest in the use of the land.
The musical play format will combine a team of a dozen of the best amateur actors in Shropshire, including some of the original cast from 1991 with the 40-strong Mere Singers and a professional direction and management team.
We will stage the play for eight nights in the garden at Fordhall Farm itself with the farmhouse as the backdrop. The dates are 25-28 June and 2-5 July. Then we'll move to Home (Organic) Farm, Attingham, Shrewsbury for four more shows from 9 -12 July, all at 7.30pm.
last updated: 11/08/2008 at 09:21