Between you, me, and the gatepost (Bridport Times, December 2019)

We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.

Written by Ellen Simon

Bhutan, we hear, measures its success in gross national happiness instead of gross national product. Provided we stay above the breadline and can pay the bills, I think we might measure the farm’s success by whether the gates are good. Gates in good order are a joy. A gate should unlatch with one hand and easily swing open with just a light push. It should stay roughly where it is left, neither swinging wide open nor closing onto the person passing through. It should not touch the ground or have space underneath it to allow lambs to find their way through. It should have clear space at head level for the user, with no bramble shoots or sallow whips to catch unwary faces. It should close readily and latch securely when given a gentle nudge in the right direction. It should make a distinctive noise as it latches so that one can be totally sure without going to check that it cannot be opened with a shove from the next passing animal.

Ideally a gate should stay like this forever. We have a lot of gates which we keep in pretty good order with the help of a spanner and a spade from time to time. We have just one gate on the farm which has stayed in excellent order for many years with no attention at all. It isn’t perfect: it closes very slightly faster than ideal and it latches just a tiny bit too easily. Just occasionally, it is handy to be able to leave a gate pushed to but unlatched, and this gate will not stay like that; the latch is slightly too responsive to the weight of the gate. It is a ten-foot gate and we now much prefer twelve-foot gates wherever we expect to use a tractor. Over the years, even on our conservative farm, machinery has gotten a little larger and every now and then we ask ourselves whether we should replace this gate with a longer one. It would entail replacing the sleepers which went in to hang the gate as a falling-to post back in the 1960s and which, unlike almost every other post we have put in since, seems to stay still whatever the weather and clay soil do. We don’t take the tractor in very often. The largest implement which needs to go through it is the flail topper, which has a 2.4 metre to go through it is the flail topper, which has a 2.4 metre cut. The whole thing, with skids and the belt casing is a bit wider than that, so there are only a few inches either side (note how we, like NASA with a memorable failed Martian expedition, work in more than one system of units). With care, it is perfectly possible to get the topper through and we do not plan to risk any change.

We have about seventy fields on Tamarisk Farm and almost all have several entrances, typically around three although many have more. In a walk taken in my mind from the top of Tulk’s Hill, just below Abbotsbury Castle on the coast road, along the top of the farm walking westward to Swyre Hill (known to many of you for Flying Frenzy, my brother’s paragliding school), I can count many more than that average. As I walk into the first field, through seven fields in succession and out onto the village road near Gorselands, I go through nine gates, but there are others around me: one field has four gates, one has five, another four fields have six gates and one has seven. Of course, many of these gates are shared by next-door fields but still it adds up to 31, a lot of gates to look after.

When we are walking, gates don’t need to be perfect. We are already in the right position for untying ropes and lifting gates over rough grasses and, having stepped through, we are ready to turn to see the gate safely closed and latched. When we’re walking, gates don’t even need to be opened. They may be vaulted with elegance by the younger among us and climbed by the older, with more effort as the years go by. Many years ago I went to the doctor wanting help with my knee. Having hurt it badly long before catching a sick ewe on steep rough ground, I explained that, amongst other things, I no longer dared to jump off gates in case I damaged it further. I was told (politely!) that I could not expect the National Health Service to keep someone of my age in a condition that allowed her to do this. I was, however, given both surgery and physiotherapy and I do again jump off gates, though carefully and without my old youthful style.

When we are riding to get about the farm, gates are more challenging than when walking. A good horse or pony will walk right up to the gate, stand still while the rider unlatches it, push the gate open with her nose or chest on command, walk through when told and turn neatly to push it closed without help. If the gate is less well-hung or adjusted, or the horse less convenient, a bit of leaning and lifting must be done. With a gate which is ill-hung or tied closed, I need to get off, lead the horse through and mount again: much less satisfying. I calculate my journeys to see the stock by how many gates there are and whether I can manage them when mounted. My choice of route may alter from day to day, with variables such as what I am carrying, whether the hedge is becoming overgrown, what the weather and ground conditions are like, how relaxed and good the horse is today and how stiff my back.

Going through a gate gets you to the next field and always that field has something fresh. Sometimes it is special; maybe there will be a lovely flower blooming which we haven’t seen since last year. For the stock it may be special too. Early last month our rams left their bachelor band and each went though a gateway to find their ladies and do their year’s work. Generally, however, the animals go through a gate just to find the greener grass beyond it. It is a simple satisfaction adding to their wealth of happiness.

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