Janet Meets Fred Handford For The First Time

Ball Beard Farm Fred Handford
Fred Handford at Ball Beard Farm

28 January 2010 (cont)


I carry on reading Janet’s manuscript, fascinated by the world she describes in the 1960s in the Peak District of Derbyshire, but feels, to me, like a generation earlier.

In 1963, when Janet is 13 years old, she goes looking for grazing for her pony, Lucky, and Fred Handford at Ball Beard Farm happens to have a field available.

Janet’s first meeting with Fred – at the farmhouse at Ball Beard – is told with real flair, evoking an eery, atmospheric gloominess that pulls you in to the Peak District farming world – a world that doesn’t appear to have changed since the immediate post war period. Fred reads as gruff, uncompromising and a little eccentric although it is clear, once she gets over this initial fear, that Janet comes to have great respect for his ability with animals and his respect for the land that he farms alone – both ideals that she shares.

I carry on reading, making a careful note of what reads like a throw-away remark on page 121 when a gypsy puts a curse on Ball Beard Farm. Janet dismisses it as nonsense but it is a good story in that it shines a light on Fred’s character.

And then, in August 1975, Janet describes a terrible accident involving Fred Handford and his young horse, Paddy.

Fred is leading the young horse by the bridle, pulling a flat cart behind. A sheep jumps up on the bank of the narrow path and startles Paddy. Paddy shoots off, down the narrow lane, dragging the cart behind – and pulling Fred along with him. And for a couple of hundred yards, Fred never lets go.

I read Janet’s words quickly, concentrating on every word: by clinging to Paddy’s neck Fred hopes to slow down the relentless gallop, because if he doesn’t, Paddy will almost certainly cause serious injury to anyone or anything that stands in his way.

In her manuscript Janet portrays the terrible image of a man caught up in equal parts panic and bravery. As I read the words at my desk the emotion still seems raw and I feel as if I am there with him, panicking as he tries to halt the galloping animal, like a badly trained stunt man in a cowboy film. The image of an unconscious Fred, blood streaming from the deep cut on his head, lying on the ground as Paddy comes to a halt, is both terrible and frightening.

As a result of the accident Fred has 42 stitches and, what I can only assume, severe concussion. He discharges himself from hospital the same day.

It is clear from Janet’s description that this is a very important point in her story. Although she doesn’t say so, I think she sees it as some sort of turning point. Fred doesn’t let go of the horse’s neck when it bolts down the lane. If he had let go, the young horse would have galloped faster and almost certainly killed someone.

After he’s discharged himself from hospital Janet can sense almost immediately that Fred’s character is changed.

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