As Mick Easterby approaches his 89th birthday we catch up with goings on in Sheriff Hutton
Britain's oldest active racehorse trainer talks about Oliver Cromwell and the importance of sensible tyres as we explore the land surrounding Mick Easterby's training yard in the beautiful Ryedale countryside
It's that time again, time for another tour of the Mick Easterby empire. Fresh from his ten days in Tenerife Mick Easterby is ready for a whistle-stop inspection of the vast acreage that he has assembled in his sixty-odd years at Sheriff Hutton.
Morning training is complete, the riders have gone and the only noise comes from the horse walkers as the horses are readied for the start of the flat season which is now just three weeks away.
"I've got something a bit different for you today", promises the master of New House Farm. "We'll go to Bulmer and have a look at the drains. But have a bit of lunch first."
Easterby reaches into the freezer and retrieves some vacuum packed ham. It has no branding and bears all the hallmarks of another Easterby enterprise.
"I kill me own pigs", starts Easterby. "And I cure the ham. Lots of salt. Here, try a bit, it's strong and not to everyone's taste. It needs plenty of mustard on".
"Where do you keep the pigs?" I ask, curious as I've never seen a single pig in the 25 years that I've visited the farm.
Like many a question it remains unanswered and is something to ponder but not for long.
"It all started when I kept a boar pig. Did I tell you the story?"
"Yes, we did the pig story", I reply. The pig story and short-lived venture into breeding is a favourite tale and one we'll leave for another time. Needless to say, it didn't end well for the pig.
"Try that", he says pointing to a huge slab of white meat on the counter. "Belly pork that, it's all fat mind".
"Do you like pheasant?" asks Easterby pointing to some small legs on the plate.
"No thanks, not for me", I decline and want to press on with the farm outing.
"I made you a cup of tea, over there", he continues.
I take a gulp of the tea and it almost knocks me backwards. The tea bag had likely been in the cup since Lochnager was a foal, and if the supplies of diesel ever run dry then Easterby tea would be a prime substitute for tractor fuel.
The farm trip will have to wait as an enormous pork pie is taken from the fridge and Easterby cuts a slice and sits down in his chair to watch the news headlines.
"What do you make of this coronavirus then?" I ask, safe in the knowledge that there will be no fence-sitting on this one.
"It'll pass. Like everything does," and that's case closed on the issue. It is evidently not a cause for concern at New House Farm and we move on.
By a quarter to two Easterby is nourished and it's time for the tour to commence.
Outside is the trusted Mitsubishi hiding under a generous layer of mud. It's a different vehicle to last time, although I can only tell because this one doesn't sport the regulation gaffer tape which held together the lights and bumper of the previous Easterby steed. But of course it's only a matter of time.
I climb in, and know that this evening's bath water will not be clear for long as the inside of the vehicle is actually muckier than the out, and of course boasts the obligatory collection of hefty rocks salvaged from the fields on previous trips.
"Where we going boss?" I ask.
"Bulmer. They're putting in some drains," is the reply and off we go.
I have driven the road to Bulmer many times and presume that we are heading for Mill House Farm, but as with every Easterby adventure, expect the unexpected. The vehicle slows and takes a surprising turn into a muddy field and we start to descend a hillside. My hope is that we don't get stuck, which happened last time, but the new set of wheels are better suited to off road adventures and soon I see a mini-JCB digger and assorted farm vehicles which mark the work site.
Easterby has a team of long standing staff and Pete Marston, the farm manager, is overseeing the work.
The staff are covered in wet clay from digging out a broken drainage pipe and they greet the boss.
Easterby has a good look into the drain and is happy with what he sees.
"Never know what you'll find round here when you dig," Easterby continues sagely. "I've found old coins and stuff going back to the Romans. Did you know Oliver Cromwell's men were around here at one time? I saw a programme about him on the telly the other night. He died of natural causes and they buried him but then they dug up his body and executed him when he was already dead and hung him up in chains and then chopped off his head. They didn't stand for any messing around in them days."
"What's happening here then?" I ask.
Easterby scratches his chin as he scans the field.
"Pipe's blown", he begins. "Water from that house at the top of the hill's coming up in this field. It needs to all go into this pipe which feeds the drain at the bottom of the hill then it goes into Bulmer Beck and eventually the River Derwent. It's no good stood in me fields."
He finds a broken section of blue pipe that's been taken out of the trench and prods it with his stick. "Look. It's all broke here and it's full o' crap. Silted up."
The work is coming to an end and the shovels are out and the drainage pipe is given an unceremonious reburial. Clearly Oliver Cromwell hadn't spilled any loose change in this particular corner of the Easterby empire.
"We'll have no more problems here", states a proud Easterby.
"We do it ourselves. Just like most jobs on the farm, we just get them done."
Easterby turns to Alex Metcalfe, one of his staff who is busy with the drainage work, and beckons him over.
"This young man, he's from Sheriff Hutton, lived here all of his life. His family were blacksmiths, can trace them back to the 1700s", Easterby explains. "He can turn his hand to anything. Blacksmithing, joinery, he can drive the tractor, drive the sprayer, he can do anything you ask of him".
"When you employ someone, always employ someone who knows more than you do", Easterby continues. "No point in employing someone when you know more than them 'cos then you end up carrying them. D'yer see?"
"This is my buddy, my drinking pal", Easterby states putting his arm round Alex.
"Yeah and you owe me a drink", Alex replies. "Remember that bet that we had?"
"I can't remember what it was", Easterby interjects. "Remind me, what was it?"
"You said there wasn't a pipe down there and I said there was. But then you said we just didn't dig far enough", Alex replies.
"Oh yes, that was it", replies Easterby, who knows that he'll be buying next time.
It's time to move on and we return to Easterby's vehicle which is now sporting a fresh coating of wet mud and clay. I expect to turn around and return up the hill but instead we continue across the field, through an open gate and along a track. It's all Easterby land, and the only restriction to access is when the mud gets too deep.
"This is my afternoon job", states Easterby. "It makes me a better trainer. I have to have a switch off. I'd go mad just training horses. I'd rather be here than on holiday. I've just had ten days in Tenerife but I was itching to come back. This is like a holiday to me. Aren't I lucky?"
"When you moved here in 1955 did you ever think you'd own all this lot and still be here almost into your nineties?" I ask. Folklore has it that Mick Easterby owns half of Yorkshire. His brother Peter owns the rest.
"Never", replies Easterby adamantly. "Never in a million years!"
"And after all this time you must know the land well?"
"Every inch", replies Easterby. "I know every last inch of it".
"So do you ever think you'll stop collecting land?" I ask.
Easterby puts out his hand and tips it from side to side in a 'not sure' gesture.
"Not decided yet. There's a few bits I'm still after if they come up".
We come to a halt besides the bee-hives. They are given a once over by the keen Easterby eye and everything appears to be well so we drive onwards.
I can't help but notice that Easterby is eyeing up the side of the hillside that lies to the left of the track and I don't know why. He has a devilish look in his eye and I know something is in store.
He turns the wheel to the left and puts his foot down and off we go. Driving straight into the sun the visibility wasn't good but there was no danger of any oncoming traffic, just of the mud beneath that was clearly getting deeper.
We swerve left and right and he is clearly enjoying himself. I'm not so sure, having got stranded in a field last time and having to run a mile to get a tractor to pull us out.
Easterby smiles as he knows he's winning and we make it to the top and turn right through another open gate and across another field, thankfully this time it's the top of the hill and the land is drier.
Five minutes later we reach the public road and turn onto Skegmer Lane.
We'd made it and of that I was thankful because it was a hell of a long way to run and get help had we not.
The engine was now quieter and it was time to pick Easterby's brains again.
"Have you any ambition for the coming year, you must have achieved just about everything you set out to do by now", I ask.
Easterby looks thoughtful.
"To live forever," he replies. "I want to live forever".
Returning to the farm we get out of the mud-splattered vehicle and Easterby inspects his tyres.
"Look at them", he says prodding the tyres with his stick. "You won't get stuck with them, they're like tractor tyres".
"Are you coming in for a cuppa?" he asks. I decline as one cup of Easterby tea that's been stewed for a week is sufficient for one day.
"Next time you come we'll have a look at some of the stuff we grow on the farm", promises Easterby.
But before I leave there's one final pearl of Easterby wisdom to take on board.
Standing by the entrance to New House Farm Easterby surveys the view, scanning the panorama from Sheepclose Farm at the top of the hill and then westwards across to the village. Everything that can be seen from the farmhouse is Easterby-owned, the only exception being the church and churchyard of St Helen & the Holy Cross. Well, for now anyway.
"One day I'll leave all this to someone", he states. "And when I do I hope they have as much enjoyment spending it as I had making it!"
"Put that down won't you, make sure you write that!" he proudly reaffirms and off he goes inside.
Things to do and people to talk to. It's a quarter past three and the day isn't even half way through.
Added: Fri 13 March 2020
At Bulmer where we're fixing the drains
The trench where the pipes are being replaced
Some of the beehives as a prospective owner calls!
The Easterby kitchen
The errant section of pipe that has been replaced
Some finds from the fields around the farm
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Mick Easterby, New House Farm, Sheriff Hutton, York, UK
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