My Dad’s pigs

Well, strictly, there weren’t his.

OK, I’d better give you some more background hadn’t I? There’s already some words on my Mum in this blog from earlier, so it seems only right that he also gets a fair crack of the narrative whip in my ongoing pig tales. And I’m actually more than a little surprised that I’ve not got around to talking that much about them — except in passing — until now, some years after the blog was started. So, sorry to you both! I love you; it wasn’t a deliberate slight 🙂

But first, here’s a shot of the (in-)Famous Five. Not sure where this was taken but I’m the one on the right in the back row. By the way, you will note that my pristine discriminate suss vis a vis clothes, hair-cuts and general hard-core posing, has always been with me…

The (in)famous Five

Dad had an interesting, varied life. He’d been a merchant sailor on the Russian Convoys in WWII. He’d graduated from the Royal College of Music as a pianist and, initially at least, taught piano, but after he’d met my Mum (met up again that is; they’d split up and gone their separate ways, until Mum went down to Devon and, so her version goes, “dragged him back to Oxford and away from that other woman”), five children came along in rapid succession and it was soon apparent that the measly pay offered a music teacher wasn’t enough to support us all. Taking a cue from his own Dad, he re-trained as an accountant and started working for firms up & down the country. We moved. A lot. By the first 10 years of my life, I think we’d had 4 or 5 different places we called home.

And a couple of early shots of them attending someone elses’ wedding and, in the second, their own.

[I’ve even recently attempted to map some of the houses — it’s available here as The Bulow Clan homes for any of you stalkers out there — and, using Street-view, took a look at how they’re doing now. It’s quite surprising quite how much hasn’t changed from my memories of them, memories in some cases, from over 40 years ago]

Whilst it meant that we were forever making & then saying good-bye to short-lived friendships (at first those children next door, or just along the road, then later, those at primary school), it also resulted in us becoming a superbly well-tuned and tight-knit fighting unit, skilled at packing up one day and then efficiently moving these 7 people, their dog and their furniture to a new location, the very next day. I think I said before that my Mum could easily have organised the Normandy landings — her grasp of logistics was that good. We were the civvie equivalent of the Royal Engineers, moving men, vehicles & supplies through a devastated wasteland.

Here’s a later retirement shot — from the back garden in their nice, newly built, modern house. Finally, my Mum got to have a house that she didn’t have to look after all the time. Didn’t stop her still doing so, mind you…

And then, just like that, Dad gave up the life of an accountant and became a pig farmer. Well, in my memory, it was like that. In all likelihood, it took probably a few weeks or months — at least — to convince my Mum that this wasn’t the most insane idea he’d ever had. Dad was bright (and funny and kind), but sometimes you wouldn’t know it. He also could (and did) drink. And that was a problem at times. I recall being driven by him (in retrospect, a very pissed him) at high-speed around Bournemouth, where we were visiting his parents and after he’d had a row with Mum. He was often pretty useless with money; rather surprising for an accountant and I recall Mum keeping separate little pots for each bill and, once or twice we kids and Mum had to hide silently under the bed and pretend that we weren’t in, when the milkman (or similar dunned debtor) came a’ knockin’.

But become a pig farmer he did. There were, I’m sure, some sharply hissed, unkind words from behind the closed bedroom door or from the front-room, as they discussed it, but again, in my memory, we just effortlessly and calmly segued into our new lives on farms. Dad had always loved pigs, working with them in Devon, so, whilst an unexpected change of tack — at least to us — maybe not a total bombshell for my Mum. Who knows now? But there we were. Living in farm cottages as Dad never owned his own farm; he was always a tenant farmer. But one big advantage of this was that the job came complete with a large house. I’m sure the wages were pretty crap but at least they didn’t have to find rent money and were able to have separate bed-rooms for (most) of us!

Here’s the place at Kingsdown, in Kent. We moved here when I was just 11, from the previous farm in Essex. This was the last one he worked at and it specialised in careful, highly skilled breeding programmes. Now. this pristine, white house is divided into two properties but when we were there, it was all ours. Complete with nests of rats under the garden shed. An endless source of fun for us and the family and farm dogs. Corn fields behind. Bluebell woods on the horizon. And an old Royal Marine training ground  further along the farm road — dangerous as all hell, full of collapsing tunnels, hidden drops and unstable sandy banks, so therefore irresistible to us.

And here, the farm buildings that housed the pigs, now looking almost deserted (and a likely asbestos health & safety nightmare), but these were where Dad worked, where we all ‘helped’ him and, from the concrete jetties, where the animals were loaded and off-loaded. The grain store and chute, at the back, was another treasure trove of rats for hunting. Oh, and it also had a large oil-drum sized tub of black molasses given to the pigs to supplement their diet. Scooping a fistful out when no one was looking, was a treat for all of us kids.

And so, as I said therefore, not his pigs. But as far as the porkers and we were concerned, they may as well have been. He loved them. He cared for them. He bedded them down when they were ill, supervised their births, farrowing, feeding, growth and deaths.  As a breeding experimental site, we had quite tight access controls (for that time); and the occasional foot & mouth outbreaks nearby meant we often went into lock-down and once — luckily only the once — we had to watch as all the animals there had to be killed and burnt. An horrific sight, sounds and a smell that lingered in the air and clothes and even the hedgerows for days afterward. A lot of us cried that day. Including my Dad.

An earlier farm was also the cause of more than one or two nightmares for me. The pig manure was swept into huge underground pits (using what were, in effect, giant rubberised Squeegee mops) from where it was rather (to me) ingeniously pumped out, through a network of pipes either onto the nearby fields or into tankers for disposal elsewhere. Leaning over the manhole covers, seeing the churning, stinking dark, seething mass below, made me wake screaming in the night as I ‘watched’ Dad slip into it and get sucked away.

Gentle reader? Of course, it never happened. For which I for one am profoundly grateful. He went on to live for another 30 years or so.

But “what about the pigs”, I hear you cry? “Tell us more about them”?

Despite (or rather because of) the intensive breeding attempts, these weren’t anything special — certainly not rare breed types, just pink & large — except in their ability to grow quickly to weight, to be low in fat, to produce large litters. You know, the same as everyone else, the same as almost the entire rest of the world was looking for. We (Dad and his fellow pig-herds) were ‘guilty’ of the crimes I’ve previously excoriated the English farmer for. I suppose we could claim that this was a different time and that we “knew no better”, and in all honesty, I think that’s pretty much the case. I don’t recall anyone then extolling the benefits of the old style pigs — hardier, tastier, able to live outside — whilst calling for them to be retained. The dash for profit was headlong and Dad’s employers weren’t immune to that siren call. So these ones weren’t kept outside; they lived in inside sties. The floors were concrete (although they had huge quantities of fresh straw changed twice daily to move around on, root round in, dig for their food in). Food was generally high-energy pellets. They got given some fruit on occasions. But precisely because this was a breeding farm and the owner was paranoid about infections or diseases from outside, pigs weren’t allowed the scraps and swill from school canteens that we saw used on the earlier farms.

Ideal? No. Unfeeling? Yes, pretty much I guess. The sows had large-ish farrowing crates even then, so the natural bonding that should occur was less likely to happen. We docked tails. We de-tusked the boars. They didn’t get to run around outside, to root, to dig, to play in the way that this most sociable of animals needs to. And whilst I never saw anyone treating them cruelly or unkindly, still, this was a processing operation. I’m not happy looking back at the lives these animals led because of us.  I’m unsure how to end this piece. For the time and place, they had a better life than some and Dad was uniformly caring of them. I suppose that’s the best I can say. Somehow though, it doesn’t seem a fitting epitaph for all the work and care and effort that he put into his animals. We never really spoke about this or how welfare for animals had changed when we’d both got older. And I regret that. And I miss him. Of course. But I think he’d have approved of my coming back to write about these lovely creatures. Thanks Bernie. For everything.

Oh, and one last thing? As far as I know, we’re not related to this branch of the extended Bulow Clan. We visited there whilst living in Florida. A beautiful place, calm, green, verdant. And yet. And yet. The stench of slavery — like burning pork — doesn’t wash away, even in the torrential Florida rains…

In 1821, Major Charles Wilhelm Bulow acquired 4,675 acres of wilderness bordering a tidal creek that would later bear his name. Using slave labor, he cleared 2,200 acres and planted sugar cane, cotton, rice and indigo. Major Bulow died in 1823, leaving the newly established plantation to his seventeen year old son, John Joachim Bulow.

After completing his education in Paris, John Bulow returned to the Territory of Florida to manage the plantation. Young Bulow proved to be very capable. John James Audubon, the famous naturalist, was a guest at the plantation during Christmas week 1831. In a letter to a patron, Audubon wrote:

“Mr. J.J. Bulow, a rich planter, at whose home myself and party have been for a whole week under the most hospitable and welcome treatment is now erecting some extensive buildings for a sugar house.” Bulowville, Florida December 31, 1831.

Bulow’s sugar mill, constructed of local “coquina” rock, was the largest mill in East Florida. At the boat slips, flatboats were loaded with barrels of raw sugar and molasses and floated down Bulow Creek to be shipped north. This frontier industry came to an abrupt end at the outbreak of the Second Seminole War. In January 1836, a band of raiding Seminole Indians, resisting removal to the West, looted and burned the plantation. It would never recover. Bulow returned to Paris where he died the same year.

Today, the coquina walls and chimneys of the sugar mill remain standing as a monument to the rise and fall of the sugar plantations of East Florida.


About Salute The Pig

Charcuterie, smoking, curing, brining and all things porcine. Brought to you from deepest, darkest Cambs, England by Chris Bulow. In the smoker or in the kitchen.... Salutate porcum!
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