Thursday, August 12

The Story of Ballyferris

The Farm and The Farmer...

Mr William Hope owned the field and surrounding farmland. In fact we were eventually to find out that he also owned most of Millisle and large swathes of Donaghadee too!.
Of which town, much more later.
But without being disrespectful,even at the tender age of eight or nine , this would have seemed a very tall tale to me.
"Wully" Hope, was the complete essence of the ulster country man. Rough farm clothes, strong almost unfathomable County Down accent, and a ripe vocabulary, introducing me to expressions that I had never ever heard before, in my safe, narrow, urban life. What an education for a good city girl! But a man of property? No I didn’t think so.
How often are the definites in our lives turned upside down, breaking through the cement fix of our set ideas?
 Anyway the farm was run by Wully and his two sons, young William the older son, and Neil the younger. Miss Gilchrist, the housekeeper, kept the home farm together and ran the dairy.  Mr Hope being a widower. To enter the farm required a lot of feet wiping on the sacking provided at the back door. Watched over the whole time by a scowling  Miss Gilchrist. Of course now I understandhow she felt, due to the mud from the field at the back of my own home and the continual clay dust that seeps in under every doorway, no matter what I do, from the potter's ceramic studio next door.
 Early on in the story of the caravan, mum and dad had become  friends with Miss Gilchrist and we were allowed the treat of sitting on the living room floor on rainy days watching television.
But the best part of the farm house for me was the dairy. Milk, cream, butter and eggs were sold from the farm. Often I was sent  to buy some dairy goodies from Miss Gilchrist... and this entailed being extra polite as there was always a possibility that she was preparing food, or cleaning, or some other even more important adult occupation, and I would get a sharp slice of her tongue.
But...  entering the dairy, with it's whitewashed walls, scrubbed slabs and gleaming buckets often full to the brim with warm steaming milk, oh my...what joy!  Spotlessly clean boiled clothes covered the jugs and buckets. She would carefully uncover one of these, dip a ladle into the milk and soon our container was filled to the brim with sweet smelling liquid.
The back of the farm was reached by turning right off the lane. This brought you into the yard. To the left was a large open barn for storing straw and hay. Woe betide you if you were caught on top of the bales at harvest time. Either old or young Willy would gulder...shout... at you to, “get the f--- off the f---ing bales before I f---ing come and drag you off the f---ing things mesel”. Clear enough!
However if the younger son, Neil, was home from boarding school , Campbell College, it was often a different matter. Any young farmer’s son knows that the best place to do a bit of courting is in the hayloft, and with the daughters of the caravanners the choice was increased.
Campbell... there’s a thing I didn’t understand. My brother and the Henderson cousins, all attended The Methodist College Belfast, and Rosie and I were both to follow in our time. Campbell College was a sworn enemy. Not only was it a boys school but apparently more cultured and snobby. Yet, there was Neil with his untranslatable County Down accent and a plethora of expletives encouraging the girls up into the hay, with many expressions that I for one had never heard of before, even at the car repair business, where Aunt Helen worked!......
The farmyard was a dangerous place to get across at times. Mr Hope kept geese. They could peck a chunk out of your leg if they took a mind to it, and no amount of reassurance persuaded me to put them to the test. So when it was my turn to fetch the water from the farm pump, I always hoped and prayed that they had wandered off somewhere.
They had  two sheepdogs, Prince the older dog and Rex the puppy. Although I was and still am a dog lover I realised that these were working dogs and had to be respected. So to get to the pump was often quite an adventure. Dad had invented a trolley to hold a large milk can, the type you used to see waiting on a stone step outside a farmhouse to be collected by the milk companies. These we trundled up the field, along the lane and into the yard. On the far side of the yard was a water pump. To get any water out of it you first had to prime the pump, so a little bit of water always had to go down into it if you wanted an easy flow from the spout. Then it was a matter of pumping with the handle as hard as you could until the water came and filled the can. Of course the hardest thing was then to get the heavy can back on to the trolley and safely back to the caravan with most of the water still inside it.

To the side of the farmhouse and attached to it was a cottage .Every year this was rented out to a well known Belfast family called the Laverys. I thought of them as extremely exotic with their wonderful red curly I have my own grandgirl with her cloud of golden curls!! The rumour was, that they not only had a pub but were also Catholics. I regularly walked past the back door of the cottage hoping against hope that I might see them or even be invited inside to play.
 But it never happened.
 Perhaps I was too exotic for them as well.

Close to the cottage was the byre where the cows were milked.  If Wully Hope was feeling friendly and you waited outside the entrance without  annoying him, there was always the possibility that he would invite you in to watch. I think I was allowed to have a go at milking once, but then again is that just another of my imaginations that has grown into a happening? Probably my family will say so, but I will go on remembering it as an actual! I do know that if young Will or Neil was in the byre doing the milking you were more than likely going to get warm milk squirted at you straight from the cow.. There were  no modern machines used then, every thing was done by hand and the milk swooshed into a galvanised tin bucket, previously scrubbed clean by Miss Gilchrist with boiling water. Then as I stated earlier the foaming bucket full of milk was carefully carried to the dairy room and left to settle before the cream was skimmed from the top.

On past the byre, you went through a gateway into the pigs area. This as I remember was a smelly yard with a pig house by the far wall. So far, so good. However from Easter on, the pig or pigs lived in a walled garden at the front of the farmhouse . Then the pig house in the yard was swilled out, dried, whitewashed inside and out and only then pronounced fit for a poor family to use as a holiday home.
Whaaat !!! I hear you shout.
 But this was the 1950s and not that long after the war , and only just after the end of rationing. Money was tight and to have a holiday at all was a luxury. And of course as usual I thought it amazing. To make a space out of such a place seemed so creative . I’m sure that all of these unusual environments at Ballyferris have gone towards my joy in later life at taking a property that others have rejected , and turning it into something beautiful and useful. By the way the sow was always called Susie, whether it was the original pig or not, and the history is that it was Rosie’s first word as she ran away from the caravan towards the walled garden it inhabited.

Rosie goes searching for Susie the pig.

Dogs, pigs, cows, geese, ducks, hens, cockerels and farmers sons made for an adventure to be remembered for ever as you walked through the farmyard.


  1. Gerry, you made the farm experience so vivid that I felt that I'd been there! Great writing.

  2. Wonderful memories Gerry and a delight to read - those days have long passed and they were halcyon days, weren't they? I could tell the same kind of story about my Lincolnshire days in the fens. Those housekeepers took some getting past!

  3. Completely absorbing, every sentence full of interest. It reminded me somewhat of Seamus Heaney's account of his childhood. A most enjoyable read.

  4. Och Gerry I have tears in my eyes - what wonderful memories - brought it all back to me I can even smell susie and see the whitewashed stone with the gold (brass) stud on the top where I used to stand to get a better view of her!!

    1. That must have been the stone at the top of the lane next to the road, i'd forgotten about that, Gerry your stories about Ballyferris are fantastic, by the way my older sister slipped and cut her head on that brass stud, unfortunately the stone has gone now along with quite a few other things, but your stories have brought a lot of them back again, thanks for that x

  5. Problem with this one is that I doubt I can top it for storyline, it was just a magic time!


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