Former Advertiser reporter pays tribute to Joe Towers, a true son of the soil

Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott pays tribute to a true son of the soil…

Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 10:49 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 10:52 am
The way we were... rural Warwickshire in days gone by.

I’ll never forget that first meeting with Joe Towers outside a snow-bound barn in the coldest winter Britain had experienced for years.

Our neck of the woods in north-east Warwickshire was pretty much the same as the rest of the country during that unforgettable time.

And, as I have related in a previous article, the entire nation was then held in Jack Frost’s unrelenting iron grip.

And yet, there were already signs that my own personal spring was not all that far away.

For outside that barn, with the breath of both humans and animals hanging heavy in the Arctic air, I clinched my first job interview.

I badly needed a weekend and holiday job. My schooling at Lawrence Sheriff was not going well and I must have been a constant worry to my

parents.

The answer back then was that I needed a constructive distraction from hanging out with my mates around Rugby Clocktower and periodically

being moved on by a policeman.

In short, I needed saving from myself. And that meant getting a job that would hopefully tire me out so much I wouldn’t have the energy to thumb a lift into town from Churchover in order to buy an illegal drink at the Beehive in Union Street.

There was, after all, no point in trying that on at the Greyhound in Churchover. Landlords the Stringers knew me only too well.

Oh yes, they did indeed.

So what was to be my personal salvation? Well, it would prove to be Joe Towers and his wife Deirdre, both of whom were kind enough to give this

particular village idiot a job.

So that Easter holiday of 1963 I started work at Harborough Fields farm.

This was so-called because the buildings and land lay in Harborough Magna parish, the boundary between that village and Churchover being

formed by the River Swift.

Spring turned to summer and I learnt how to become a farmer’s boy.

Soon, I was immersing myself in all the tasks demanded by a farm that had yet to become fully mechanised.

In the April, I carried the hundredweight bags of grain and fertiliser to the seed drill, and then rode on the back of the machine as Joe’s tractor pulled it along, sowing the crop.

The sunnier days of late May were sheep-shearing time, to be followed by haymaking in the middle of June.

There will still be plenty of Rugby people of around my age who will remember haymaking time, along with potato picking and gathering leeks.

Yes, it was hard, but honest work. However, there was the pay at the end of the day – hardly a fortune - but for youngsters whose only income was

a few shillings’ pocket money every week this was wealth beyond our wildest dreams.

As time went by, I learnt how to drive Joe’s tractor, a Massey Ferguson 65 that was very much the workhorse of the farm. One day, I was even entrusted with moving a combine harvester from a field up to the farmyard… but this proved to be a big mistake on Joe’s part.

Attempting to manoeuvre the huge contraption through a gate, I miscalculated the width, and in my ensuing panic, pulled on the handbrake instead of applying the pedal brake.

It was a foregone conclusion. The wheels locked, the combine slithered to one side, and the sails collided with one of the gateposts.

I can still hear the sickening, crunching sound of that splintering wood.

I made my way back to the farmhouse, convinced that my days at Harborough Fields farm were over.

Yet when I confessed to what had occurred, Joe merely said: “Well, I should have realised something like that would happen. It’s my fault – I never should have told you to drive

the combine in the first place.”

But that was Joe all over. A Warwickshire countryman to the core, his was a just and reasoned response to my shame-faced confession, obviously noticing my apprehension and remorse.

I worked for Joe Towers for two years. By that time, my schooldays were nearly over and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my destiny lay in columns of print rather than ploughed furrows.

I didn’t see him for several decades. Then in 2016, during a visit to Churchover, I enjoyed a long conversation with him at his home in the village.

“Call me Joe,” he said. “No need for ‘Mr Towers’ now, John.”

I’m glad I had the chance to meet him again, because not long after our meeting, Joe passed away.

He’s buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, his hillside last resting place looking out across the Swift valley to Harborough Fields farm, the home and workplace that he knew for so many years.

I’ll always remember him as the easy-going, ruddy-faced farmer who gave a certain likely lad his first taste of paid employment, an experience that would set him up for life. May you rest in peace, Joe.

Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott’s second book Beef Cubes and Burdock: Memories of a 1950s Country Childhood can be ordered from booksellers or bought online.