Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
All the Danish excitement and then off to Calne. Travelling on the Great Western Railway from London to Calne, the excitement in our cabin could be felt in the air. At the insistence of our new host, we got off at Bath. Bath is a postcard-perfect town. The experience of seeing town is surreal as you walk back in time with where Roman baths from the 3rd century are still in use today! A newspaper I picked up on the train says about Bath that “nowhere in England have so many great men and women come and for a time lived and left behind them such clear and charming chronicles of their tarrying as in the interesting old Somersetshire city of Bath.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892) Bath has a known antiquity of almost 2000 years and a claimed antiquity of at least another 1000 years beyond that.” The hot baths possess a luxury not rivalled anywhere in Europe. Another journalist wrote that “As one is enjoying the thermal waters, it is striking that these, Roman Emperors and Generals of 1400 to 1800 years ago shared. These waters banished the ills of St David, King Arthur, and a vast line of old British princes and potentates for half a thousand years beyond.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892)
After a pleasant day at Bath, we returned East along the ancient Roman road linking Bristol and London by train to arrive in Calne in the late afternoon. As the train slowly made its way into a newly built station, two large and impressive buildings of the Harris Bacon operation flank the station. It signals clearly to anyone arriving on the Great Western Express that this is bacon country!
Calne has a sleepy character, except, I am told, on market days. Houses are built with a coarser kind of Bath stone or Sarson stone. It very quickly ages. After only one year it looks older than a limestone house looks after five. It has a creamish, grey tint which resembles the look of the stones that form the footpaths, built from broken Sarson stone.
It is very interesting what one learns on a train. A gentleman sitting next to me saw that I was reading a copy of an American newspaper. Intrigued he asked if I am from that country. When I told him that I am from South Africa, he was very much amazed and started to give me a rundown of the local politics.
The town is situated on the estate of the Marquis of Lansdowne. The Marquis was the Governor-General of Canada from 1883 to 1888 and currently serves as Viceroy of India, a post he occupied since 1888. His estate manor, Bowood, is situated a mile away from Calne which is located on his estate for which he receives rental income. The small farms and houses are mostly held in tenantry and some have been on the estate for ages. The cottages of the labourers are said to be the best in Wiltshire (and the cheapest). Most of these are three-bedrooms with a small garden. In England, the Marquis is known as a reasonable gentleman of high intelligence and a keen sportsman.
The Marquis of Lansdowne, like the Marquis of Bath, is also a large landowner in Ireland. The former in Kerry and Kildare and the latter in Monaghan. In Ireland, they are referred to as “absent landowners”. A third English nobleman, Lord Digby, from the next county of Dorset, owns 31 000 acres in King’s County near Tullamore. It is interesting that all three have the same agent, Mr Trench. These men, although they are quite forgiving about rental payments in England, instructed their Irish agent to collect as much rent as he can from the tenants on their Irish estates. We have then three neighbours, all three owning large lands in Ireland with the same agent. This seemingly trivial fact, I quickly discovered, is very important in trying to understand why the Irish invention of Mild Cured bacon of William Oake did not cross over into England, but instead, through the power of being at the right place, at the right time, the importance of which Oscar’s Dad reminded us of at the founding meeting of Woodys, was adopted in Denmark as the way they now produce all their bacon.
Something else is of interest. The stranger on the train told me that Mr Trent’s father occupied the same position as the Irish agent to the fathers of the three noblemen. Mr Trent, Senior even wrote a book about his experiences, The Realities of Irish Life. I understand that a copy of this work is in the library and Bowood!
The manor houses of the Marquis of Bath, the Marquis of Lansdowne, and Lord Digby are Longleat, Bowood next to Calne, and Minterne House respectively. I did not tell the stranger on the train that our guest in Calne was none other than Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquis of Lansdowne! Our ultimate destination for that evening was Bowood!
I was almost just as excited to see Bowood as I was to see the Harris Bacon operation in Calne. It was in this famous house where, on 1 August 1774, Joseph Priestley, acting as a tutor for the children, did his experiments and discovered oxygen. When Kevin Pickton introduced me in Peterborough to an agent for Lord Lansdown I never dreamt that we would receive an invitation to stay over at Bowood!
Kevin is Welsh. What more can I say! We had many nights in the pub in Peterborough where we had intense conversations and on our third and fourth beer, I was no longer certain that we were conversing about the same subject on account of his strong Welsh accent. Who cared! It was, in any event great evenings! We were having the time of our lives!
Kevin is a unique, intelligent, perceptive man and as tough as nails! He is clear about his goal and he pursues them with a single-mindedness that I have seldom come across in my many travels. Kevin, his dad, and his son all three played rugby for the same team, at the same time! This sums up the kind of family they are. I very soon learned that Kevin conducted his business, which was in making knives, precisely to slice bacon, as he played his rugby and trained his body – with single-minded dedication and courage! In my life, I have met some of the toughest men on earth in the bush in Africa, on the goldfields in Johannesburg, and the diamond fields in Kimberly; but I will venture to say that amongst them, there is no man as tough as Kevin! I only recently met him by the introduction of Andreas, and I already see that I will learn from him and that the proverb is true with Kevin and me that as iron sharpens iron, so two friends sharpen each other.
In Peterborough where Kevin lives, the local pub is the Bull. I can honestly say that Minette and I spend some of our most enjoyable evenings there with Kevin.
Above: The Pub in Peterborough where Kevin and I spend many enjoyable hours, talking bacon! Later, Oscar accompanied me to England and again, the Bull was our home away from home!
Kevin’s wife, Julie, met the agent of Lord Lansdowne, a certain Mr Fife, on account of the work she does for their local government. Mr Fife inquired of a good pub to have a drink after work and she suggested that he visit the Bull. It was quite serendipitous that on that precise evening, Kevin, Minette and I were at the pub for a few beers before we intended to head home for supper.
Kevin, propelled by his Welsh nature, told Mr Fife about my quest to discover how to produce the best bacon on earth, and knowing that he is from Calne, he correctly surmised that I would probably need a place to stay while I visit the Harris bacon plants. It is widely known around the world that Harris produces the best bacon on earth.
Mr Fife was very much intrigued by my story and invited Minette and me to stay at Bowood. He told me that Calne is situated on the lands of which Bowood is the manor house and the Harris bacon was, as it were, established right in front of their eyes. He extended his right hand to me. As I shook his hand he formally invited us to stay over at Bowood and said that Lord Lansdowne would not want it any other way. He told me about the room where Priestly did his experiments and how Lord Lansdowne welcomed anybody to his house who has any interest in the sciences. The Marquis was to remain in India for a few more months, but he said that his master would not forgive him if, upon his return, he would learn that we met and that he did not invite us to stay at his official residence so close to Calne. With that, it was set – we would reside at Bowood!
I have been preoccupied with bacon for so long that an altogether different matter started to occupy my mind. During my visit to Peterborough, Julie took me aside one day and spoke to me about Minette. I am not the most perceptive person on earth, and it never occurred to me that there may be more to Minette joining me in Europe than a friend supporting another friend. My first wife, also named Julie, and I had a brilliant relationship, but we had completely different interests. I think I am a nomad and a wanderer; an explorer and an adventurer, and my Julie (as opposed to Kevin’s Julie) is someone who is looking for white picket fences. She wants to grow old with a man, a small house, a quint garden and a cat! I, on the other hand, want to die as a man who lived a full life and explored everything! From there the love for mountaineering and bacon!
I told her how I started to see Minette in a new light when we camped out at Penny’s cave the night before I left for Denmark. Kevin’s Julie was quite intrigued about what I meant. “You know,” I stuttered, “I saw that she was beautiful. It is as if she belongs here on the mountain and not in a city. There is a connection that I cannot explain. As if something is drawing her to me.” Julie laughed! “And you think that when she came all the way to Denmark, she only came over to have a holiday?!” She shook her head. She then turned to Kevin and said, “I did not think I will meet another man as ignorant as you when it comes to matters of the heart!”
Kevin’s Julie made me think differently about Minette, our friendship and her visit. Suddenly I felt very silly for not seeing this. I knew Minette had to return home soon but I already started planning to establish myself at Bowood join her on the voyage to Cape Town for a short visit. I am telling you about this so that can be encouraged that I will be home very soon.
There was something else that I learned in Peterborough, which Kevin and Mr Fife explained to me. The landowner was often very involved in the affairs of the villagers who resided on their land. Lord Lansdowne, for example, supplies 30 Highland Bulls for use by the tenants on the estate. They explained to me that the same was true of pigs. That the landowner would secure the best boars from China and make them available for the tenants on his farm to impregnate their sows which meant that the pigs raised in such a village all have similar characteristics.
I immediately thought of the Kolbroek pigs of Oupa Eben. Uncle Timo and Oupa Eben told me about the pigs that came to Cape Town with the Colebrook ship (Kolbroek). I did not understand the importance of the boar in transmitting its characteristics to his offspring, and how, if the pigs are bred in a closed unit like on the land of a landowner, that the kind of pigs raised will become typical of that village. In this way, they explained to me, breeds started forming, typical to specific towns and counties across England. I know that the origin of the Kolbroek breed is debated in South Africa, but sitting in the Bull in Peterborough, and listening to these men, I have a feeling that they know a thing or two about pigs, and that unless slaves or farmers kept the pigs that swam from the Colebrook together and farmed with them, that they would not have developed as a “breed” in the Cape Colony. It all started to make sense to me.
I was on my plenty-ith beer. Still, I could think straight enough to wonder about C & T Harris. Back home, Oscar and I did the calculations of how much it will cost to set up a commercial curing operation. It requires an enormous amount of money and I wondered if Lord Lansdowne and his ancestors somehow supported or funded the establishment of such a large business as C & T Harris. On the other hand, did it organically grow over many years into the lucrative business it is today without any investment from a wealthy landowner?
These matters will be investigated carefully over the next few months. That night, I must confess, as I fell asleep in Kevin’s son’s bed who very graciously agreed to sleep in the living room for me to have the use of his room. Minette slept in their daughter’s room. My thoughts were more with you and Minette than with the enigmas of pork farming and bacon curing. To be honest, more with Minette! 🙂
Tomorrow we leave with Mr Fife for Bowood and Calne! I can hardly wait!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Blackland Mill, Calne, c. 1903 from the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham,
“It is likely that there was a mill on this site in the 13th century or earlier. The mill was rebuilt in three stages in c.1800 to incorporate the mill, a mill house, and a detached granary. This mill had a 19 ft. wheel, three pairs of stones, and a loft, which could accommodate 1,000 sacks of wheat. Milling ceased between 1915 and 1920 but then continued until 1982. The mill was restored between 1982 and 1983 and then produced wholewheat flour until 1993. When this photograph was taken the miller was Abraham Lock.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 9 October 1892
Blackland Mill, c. 1903, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham
Postcard dated 1917: Calne railway station: http://mfo.me.uk/wiki/index.php?title=C%26T_Harris_(Calne)_Ltd