Once he was well, Dick was keen to return to farming. He spent a spell at Tytherington Farm again and the family lived briefly in their first married home together, Tudor Cottage, Sutton Veny. They also got the first of many dachshunds, Anna. But Dick still wasn’t strong enough to be of much use on the farm, so he went off to do an agricultural course for ex-servicemen in an old Wiltshire manor house. While he was there he managed to cause a hamster infestation when his pet hamsters escaped and bred like crazy!

In 1947 the family business, Golden Valley Paper Mills, which had done well during the war, bought a small dairy and arable farm and installed Dick as manager. The idea was that the farm would supply eggs and milk to the mill canteen. Dick, Myrle and Juliet moved to Woodlands Farm, Coalpit Heath, and lived there happily, if not prosperously.

‘. . . life at Woodlands Farm was really an extension of our childhood pet-keeping. Breeding animals was the thing we liked doing and in an ideal world we probably wouldn’t have sent the calves to market or the piglets to the dealer or the chickens and ducks and rabbits to the deep-freeze, but instead kept the lot, revelling in the increase in our flocks and herds.’

On Leap Year’s Day 1948, another daughter was born, a red-head, officially Elizabeth but to be called Betsy. On the same night, a fox attacked some hens Dick had recently acquired. Happily, once her duties with mother and child were completed, the midwife was able to turn her attention to patching up the three surviving birds with stitches, dressings and antiseptic! On Myrle’s birthday, in August 1953, she completed the family with a baby boy, Giles.

Dick was an enthusiastic and hard-working farmer, with most days starting with milking at 5.45 am., according to his farm diaries. And over the years Woodlands Farm became home to many sorts of creatures, not all of them profit-making. There were dairy cows, pigs, goats, hens, ducks, geese, pheasants, budgerigars, tortoises, mice, rabbits and guinea-pigs, not to mention a variety of cats and dogs. Each was given a name and treated more like a pet than a working animal. The pigs were always Dick’s favourites and he credited them with much intelligence and humanity. As he said in his memoir,

‘. . . when you next get a chance, look closely into a pig’s eye. The expression in the eye of a dog is trusting, of a cat supercilious, of a cow ruminative, of a sheep vacuous. But the look in the eye of a pig is, quite simply, knowing. The other beasts think, “This human is looking at me.” The pig thinks, “I am looking at this human.” There is all the difference in the world.’

Dick wasn’t much of a businessman, something he freely admitted; he loved doing things on the cheap and acquiring ‘bargains’ which turned out not to be.

‘Although I’m good with words, I’m no good with numbers. If you’re no good at numbers you are no good at business and if you’re no good at business you are no good at farming.’

But it wasn’t all hard graft. Dick and Myrle managed to get out to the cinema or theatre regularly and enjoyed many jolly evenings entertaining friends or going out to supper. In the farm diaries there is more than one mention of a hangover! Once a year they would dress up to go to the local Hunt Ball, at which Dick sported his Great-Uncle Sydney’s ancient and clapped-out white tie and tails, held together with baling twine and safety pins!

Despite Dick’s love of the farming life, Woodlands Farm never made a profit, and when the paper mill closed in 1961 the farm had to go too. A family friend offered him the tenancy of nearby Overscourt Farm, at Siston, and Dick ran it for six years, trying in vain to make a profit, until finally the bank manager called in his overdraft.

But those years weren’t just about farming and fun. Since he’d been at school, Dick had written poetry and had had verse published in the press from time to time. In the 1950s and ’60s individual poems had been accepted and published in national newspapers and in publications such as The Field, Punch and Blackwood’s Magazine, appearing under the pen name Rex Faber. An extract from what was later published as Alphabeasts appeared in Punch in 1967, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Something that never appeared in print was a musical called The Canutopian, inspired by Julian Slade’s Salad Days, which Dick and Myrle wrote with a doctor friend and his wife. Dick couldn’t read music, but he sang the songs into a tape recorder and Jimmy, the doctor, played them on the piano, though unfortunately he could only play in one key – one that Dick found it impossible to sing in. Despite some professional interest, notably from the then director of the Bristol Old Vic, the musical came to nothing; and a second one, Who Goes Where? also bit the dust.


The Teaching Years

After the failure of Overscourt Farm, and with no job and no house, Dick and Myrle had to consider all sorts of ways of making a living. They even thought of becoming pub landlords . . .

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Dick King-Smith site illustration