We moved from NW6 to Oatley on Michaelmas Day 1985, in a car filled to the gunwhales by 3 small children, a collie dog, 2 cats, 2 rabbits and a tortoise, to follow a dream. Iain had given up a job in international computing. Jane had been a West Hampstead mum. Most of what we knew about wine came from drinking it. (Still does really). We bought two pigs to clear the garden, six chickens and three geese, found part-time jobs, enrolled the kids at the village primary and life was sweet.
We invested £350 in a 1951 Ferguson T20 tractor. (It’d been retired some years by 2012 but then was bought by George, a young local enthusiast, who is bringing it back to life). We used its plough to help lay the black plastic mulch, but otherwise planted the vines by hand. Jane kept a journal in the early days. The entry for 10th June 1986 reads "Iain and Mike finished the canes and rabbit nets today. The planting has taken 2 days short of 2 months, occupying every daylight moment that could be spared from children and work and with lots of help from friends. The vine shoots are 2-3 inches long and the mayweed that sprang up from the bare earth is up to the childrens' waists. We're exhausted". And that was before putting the trellis in.
Our first harvest on 5th November 1988 was a casual affair. That was when we started the tradition of harvest lunches for our friends, family and neighbours who helped us pick the grapes. Back then we sat in the barn on bales and it was bread and cheese. Now it's a 4 course reward for our harvesters and our own last year's wine.
Our sandstone farmhouse is from the 1600s and was thatched until 1916. Now tiled, it stands alone in the shallow basin of land formed between 3 low hills, Swang, Horn Hill and Bower Hill. But Oatley was a hamlet in the 1400s with three farms and several cottages in that basin. Although Wilhayes field, where the vineyard is, was beef pasture when Stuart sold us the farmhouse, traditional buildings and three fields in 1985, his father had grown early peas on it in the mid 20th C. for Covent Garden market, where the earliest peas got a premium in the days before frozen peas. Then Wilhayes was known to be the earliest field in the area. We are told its rounded corners and species-diverse banked hedges indicate that it is very old, cleared from the original woodland rather than enclosed later from open land.
On two sides of Wilhayes is a sunken green lane. Now we know it's an ancient Saxon stone warpath, the Herpath, which was used to muster Saxon men at arms from North Devon, via the Quantocks to Wessex. It crossed the River Parrett by a low-tide Roman ford at Combwich. The path was in regular use as a track from Nether Stowey to Combwich and Cannington until well into the 20C. We just call it the Secret Lane and enjoy the bluebells..