T H E G I N G E R P I G
Tim Wilson Grange Farm, Levisham, North Yorkshire
Visiting Tim Wilson at Grange Farm is like taking a long step back in time. Levisham is a late seventeenth-century village, which I understand was built according to a plan laid out originally by William the Conqueror. All the houses are set back in a formal row on each side of the village green which was once cropped by sheep but is now kept impeccably mown. Each front door is approached by a long, straight stone path. There are no shops or signs of contemporary life apart from a few parked cars at the rear of the pub. At first it seems unreal, but if you poke around you realize that many of the houses are farmhouses, like Tim's with yards and barns at the back.
At the time of our visit, the main part of Tim's house was virtually gutted, with neither windows nor flooring. A large barn was also being renovated. Tim promptly explained this: 'The trouble with employing farm workers is that you have to find something for them to do in bad weather. We're good employers and pay them more than usual — but they have to multi-task.' The kitchen, however, was not only complete but remarkable for three stunning pieces of furniture: an eighteenth-century Welsh oak dresser, an enormous, intricately carved oak sideboard dating from 1660, and a very long, solid kitchen table where all the farm hands would once have taken their meals together.
Before accepting his fate as a farmer, Tim had been an antiques dealer specialising in oak furniture. He comes from a farming family but as a boy had rebelled, feeling that the last thing he wanted was to be tied by the needs of animals. As he already very well knew, 'Live animals have to come first. That rule is set in stone.' He tried various alternatives, favouring antiques because keeping a shop didn't seem to involve much work. However, antiques led to property and property, inevitably in this part of the world, led to farms.
He now owns four farms over 3,500 acres and has 2,000 sheep, over 1,000 pigs, and 400 cattle. Although not organic, the farms are almost self-sufficient: Tim will apply chemicals if necessary, but wheat, oats, and barley for animal feed and bedding are own-grown and the manure is used as fertilizer. Everything, he emphasizes, is interdependent. 'Dispense with barley and you dispense with bedding.'
The pigs include Gloucester Old Spots and ginger Tamworths (hence the name of his stand at Borough and the Marylebone shop). The cattle are Longhorns, who are distinguished by a white stripe going down their backs as far as their tails and 'bonnet' horns, which typically curl round their faces like bonnet-strings. The tips are kept trimmed with a butcher's saw. Like that of other traditional breeds, the meat is slow-growing. Tim doesn't market it until it is at least four years old (which meant that during the BSE restrictions, selling it was prohibited). All the cows have names: the eldest, who is eleven, is called Generous.
On the way back from admiring the cows, we met a party of very tame rams, or 'tups', as they are known in farming terms. They didn't run away at our approach or indeed take any notice of us at all. Some of them were limping. 'They're exhausted,' Tim explained. 'They've been with the ewes for two days.' We asked how many they were expected to serve in that time. 'About forty each,' he replied. That means an average of twenty a night. 'Well done, chaps,' murmured George (the photographer). The next morning, Tim introduced us to a group of junior bulls, pointing out one or two whom he thought promising. It seems that with bulls, as with human beings, everything depends on confidence. Without that, according to Tim, the cows would laugh at them. A little later he added, memorably, 'The thing about farming is that it's seventy per cent sex and thirty per cent violence.'
The animals are slaughtered at Nunnington, just a few miles away. That's the time above all others, Tim says, when they really need you. Interestingly, he thinks that taking a cow's calf away from her, as is the practice with milking herds, is more inhumane than slaughtering her for meat. When we asked him what his next plans were, he said that they might included founding a milk herd in which the calves were separated from their mothers at night but left with them during day.
Borough is not only very profitable to him (his taking on a bad day are around £4,000) but was the cause of his founding his famous Marylebone shop. When he started selling at the Market, he tried to employ a part-time London butcher for his stand but couldn't find one: he opened the shop in order to provide full-time work, on the same principle as the conversion of his house. Today, the stand and the shop together have a staff of twenty-five. The charcuterie which is so prominently displayed is entirely the initiative of Paul Hughes, who used to be a chef at St John, near Smithfield, and is as passionate about the possibilities of pork as Tim is committed to his cows.