Bill Cowling - My Yorkshire childhood
PUBLISHED: 19:41 02 July 2012 | UPDATED: 17:36 17 March 2016
Honorary director of the Great Yorkshire Show, Bill Cowling, recalls hard work on the family farm and learning how to ride
The city address of Street Lane, Leeds is not the most obvious start in life for someone who would become totally immersed in farming and become a director of the Great Yorkshire Show. But it was there, in a stone-built house in that busy part of north Leeds, that my childhood began.
One of my earliest memories is of the family’s wholesale fruit and veg business which was based there, and of going to Kirkgate Market, the wholesale market in Leeds, where I thought the sounds and smells were just amazing.
I guess my dad always had a yearning for the outdoor life because it wasn’t long before we moved to a smallholding at Scarcroft, near Leeds, where the delights of keeping pigs and poultry became part of my life. As you do on a farm, I got involved, feeding the poultry before and after school, but to be honest, horses were my main interest. It was when I got Judy, my first pony that my lifelong interest in shows began.
I began riding lessons with Tommy Mallory, a professional jockey. The one thing I do remember is that Tommy always seemed to have a lot of broken bones. He’d have a broken arm, so my lessons would stop whilst that got better, then they’d start up again, but before long he’d break a shoulder or a wrist and they’d stop again. Amazingly enough, given the stop-start nature of tuition, I did quite well at the local shows and even remember winning a first at Harewood Show – that was a red letter day.
We moved into ‘farming proper’ when my father bought Wike Ridge Farm, a 140-acre dairy farm on the outskirts of Leeds and I remember helping with the milking. The cows were bought at Otley Market and we’d bottle milk for retailing. The milk went to houses in Moortown and Alwoodley, I believe.
Then in the 1960s my father had an offer for the farm he couldn’t refuse. That was when he bought Hornbank Farm at North Rigton, which was 180 acres, and we still farm it today. I remember he bought it at auction for £11,000 and of course nowadays, land prices are getting up to £11,000 per acre, never mind for nearly 200 acres.
It was there that we began to build up the Hornbank Herd of British Friesians which we eventually showed up and down the country. I remember one particularly good cow, Hornbank Double Queen, she won many prizes including at the London Dairy Show, though I believe she only managed reserve at the Great Yorkshire. The excitement of getting ready for the show ring and then winning is really quite something to experience.
My involvement with the Great Yorkshire was first as an exhibitor, taking my turn in the show ring, and then I began stewarding in the days of the ‘two Franks’ - Frank Abbey and Frank Chapman, who were legendary in the dairy world. I started at the bottom of ladder so to speak, as the assistant chief steward’s assistant, which basically meant running around everywhere, putting the show ring hurdles out, getting the breed boards organised, making sure the rosettes were in the right place at the right time; precision was vital, and still is. exactly as it should be.