The East Devon Plats Were Famous For Branscombe Potatoes That Rivalled Jersey Royal & History Records The Dependence On Donkey Power. Did Plat Farmers Donkeys Obscure Mechanised Farming? Did East Devon Plat Farmers Embrace The Internal Combustion Engine?

History has noted the early efforts of photographers that captured images of donkeys on the cliff plats of East Devon. And the sheer physical effort of maintaining these small plots of land on steep cliff side fields and ledges is well attested in oral and written history. And when historians the plats based on their questions it is understandable they do so from a historians perspective. But I have another perspective. It’s one from my market gardening background where we succeeded best where the work was mad easy rather than hard. Where if we could mechanise rather than break our backs we did. Where Plat Farmers Donkeys were superseded by machinery.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. But that is only part of the story. Necessity goes further. Necessity is the mother of regular usage, because inventions are only remembered when they get used. And mechanised inventions on smallholdings, and plats, became established not because they had been invented but because they were useful and productive.

Making Plat Gardening Easy

In my market gardening mind my question has always been how did the plat farmers, aka plat market gardeners, make life easy for themselves?

It has to be to do everything with as little effort as possible, consistent with being able to make a profit of course. And for me that means mechanisation.

Mechanisation On Steep Cliffs?

Donkeys were used on the cliff plats because they were more sure footed than horses. That’s because the slopes are steep and often there is little sp=ace to turn a horse. The same would be true of tractors. The early tractors were very unstable on steep land. The centre of gravity was high and they had no safely cabs if they did turn over. Indeed, cabs of any kind weren’t a feature of tractors until much later. I can vouch for that after many hours sat on a tractor ploughing steep Devon fields. The rain and winds were part of it. We kept dry by putting fertiliser bags over our coats and we kept our knees warm by laying a few hessian sacks over our legs. The cold was severe.

So, in my view, a pedestrian tractor was the only choice one these steps slopes. But nowhere have I seen records of any kind of mechanisation being used on the plats. And when I talked to the person I consider the world expert on plat farming, retired professor of Archaeology, Barbara Farquarson, she had no knowledge of mechanisation being used. Barbara, who lives in Branscombe, is a key figure in the Branscombe project and has published several books covering the plats and those that farmed them.

The National Trust, owners of the land on which the plats were farmed, also have no knowledge of the use of machinery and, indeed, little of the way the land was farmed. They do have a page about the history of Branscombe on their website but, to me, it seems to paint a romantic idyll view rather than the harsh reality. For example they claim “Cliff farming was originally developed to keep the local fisherman occupied within sight of the water as fishing from Branscombe beach can be difficult due to its steep and unsheltered nature.” My view is that they weren’t to keep fishermen occupied .. they were to keep their families from starving.

I can quite understand why mechanisation has been missed. Photos of donkeys carrying cliff grown produce abound. The oral record focuses on the men and some women, plus the donkeys. So unless they had a market gardening background why would anyone question the oral wisdom and written evidence of the time. Because there is written evidence of the time. Diaries with details of sowing dates exist, newspapers carried stories over many years of the Branscombe potatoes being carried by donkeys to Honiton station for transport to London. This was off course before Sidmouth had its own station.

But none of these sources mention mechanisation. The land was so steep it wasn’t even possible to get donkey carts on to the plats. The produce was carried in panniers on the donkey’s backs. So why would anyone question it?

I Had Questions About Plat Farmers Donkeys & Machinery

But I did question it. Tradition is wonderful but I know no market gardener would ignore mechanisation if they could use it.

So I started to search for myself and the results surprised me.

Rather than search the historical records I wanted to search the land. The land can show the way it is farmed centuries after the event. Examples include the furrow long scars that ox and horse powered ploughs left in the landscape from medieval ploughing. As the satellite image below shows these ridge and furrows can be seen across the UK. This is Childswickham near Broadway.

The ridge and furrow show very clearly and I hoped to find some evidence on the plats. Though nothing as clear as this of course. I hoped to find clues, but knew they would be much less tangible clues. And aerial photographs weren’t going to do it as the deserted plats are now all overgrown. Lidar might show someone but I couldn’t find suitable Lidar images. There are a few black and white aerial photos taken during the second world war but there was nothing obvious on them. Some plats can be seen but no evidence of machines.

So my only way forward was to visit the plats and hope to find something. Anything that would give me a clue.

So one day a few years ago I visited Weston mouth to battle my way through the undergrowth and find some clues. I started here because the National Trust now owns the land and had carried out a project to clear this specific plat at one stage.

Sadly neither the National Trust local staff or regional office had records of the clearance work that had been carried out and they referred me to the AONB .. who referred me to the NT! A lot of man-hours had been put into clearing the area and no doubt it required funding. But no one had records or details!

So I ventured forth and soon after entering the plat I found a clue. Embedded in the mud of the path was what I’ll describe as a pulley wheel of some sort.

Surely donkeys don’t require metal pulley wheels. Was this a hint of more to come .. or just a clue that proved nothing?

I ventured further into the area, looking for the bird life, amphibians and snakes I’d been told to expect.

The cleared area had been largely reclaimed by nature. If we cut down trees or scrub and nature soon reasserts itself.

Would The First Hint Be A False Start?

I was expecting to see much. The undergrowth was too thick and no soil was visible. Nature abhors a void and had filled it was vegetation. Brambles were taking over and the sunlight was dappled due to the trees that had encroached.

But one shaft of sunlight lit up a bramble patch. And in the midst off it I could see an old piece of machinery. There were a pair of spade lug wheels, handles and the top of an engine block. It was clearly a pedestrian operated tractor. What sort I couldn’t tell as all the covers and insignia were absent. Clearly they had rotted away in the circa 50-75 years since the implement had been abandoned.

Mechanisation evidence on the plats of Plat Farmers Donkeys being superseded by machinery?

Why Was A Machine On A Cliff Edge Plat?

I can think of no reason why anyone would take a piece of machinery down to this plat unless it was to use it. And as this is a pedestrian tractor used for cultivating land the answer had to be to cultivate the plat in some way.

My next question was to determine what make and model the machinery was. Then to use that information to date it and to determine what it would have been used for. But where can I get that sort of information? Searching online is fine if you have a starting point but all I had was a pile of scrap metal and some brambles.

Fear not. There is a way.

The answer is found via social media.

I visited a number of vintage farm machinery and similar groups wit the above photo and a request to tel me what it was. Various potential answers came back. Some were quickly excluded based on size and I was left with two potential machines.

The one that felt right for no better reason than the name of the manufacturers was made by BMB Ltd ..that’s British Motor Boat .. which seems appropriate for plat farmers that were often also fishermen. One of their sidelines was to produce pedestrian cultivators for market gardeners. Certainly the size was right, as was the single cylinder block.

Auto culto cultivator from 1932 - 39 similar to the one found on th cliff plats at Weston Mouth in Devon. This one replaced Plat Farmers Donkeys.

However on careful consideration and advice, from Jim Beacon who runs the Allen & Simmonds Auto Culto group on Facebook, I now know it is the remains of an Auto Culto Model E or F manufactured between 1932-1939. It’s not possible to tell which model as the difference is slight. The E is a 250cc engine whilst the F is 350cc.

Impossible Access

I’ve been told that the plats were too difficult to access with a pedestrian tractor and that they were also too steep to be accessed.

I disagree.

The plat at Weston mouth is not that steep and the path to it is passable with a wheeled implement, especially one with lugged wheels as the one I found had .. in fact it had a pair of heavy lugged wheels on either side which would make it stable on very steep slopes as it provides a low centre of gravity and sufficient power to go up and down very steep cliffs.

The auto cult is in the same family of machines as the Allen scythe and I have used one of these with spade lug extensions alongside a cleated rubber tyred wheel and they will climb slopes of 45-50 degrees with ease.

Some fields will of course been more difficult to access. But I doubt any were impossible to the intrepid people that farmed these inaccessible slopes. At worse they would have broken the machine down into its component parts and used donkeys to get them on site before reassembling them. Even the US army used donkeys in the post war period. For example, when US Marines were deployed to Lebanon in 1958 they used locally purchase donkeys to help carry supplies. Photos can be found online but copyright prevents me showing them here.

Tag: Plat Farmers Donkeys

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