Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Obituary: Ernie Stiles 1941 - 2014

Ernie at Harvestgate Cottage 2012

Ernest Stiles was born on 17th May 1941 to Alfred and Edith Stiles at Hillcrest in Meonstoke, within sight of the Bucks Head.  He was the youngest of three boys and is survived by his brothers Alfie and Phil. Ernie went to Meonstoke School and then to Cowplain, and left school at 15 - as was common in those days - and started work for my father Patrick Lawford at Stocks Farm in October 1956. Ernie remained at Stocks all his working life until Patrick Lawford died in 2002 and the farm was sold – a total of 46 years.

Ernie met Sylvia Painter when he was sixteen and she 14 and they married in 1963, when he was 22. Sylvia came from a family of eight from West Meon. Together they had four children - Jane, Andrew, Phillippa and Richard, and there are three grandchildren, Chloe, Rebecca and Jessica. Richard still lives with Sylvia at home at Harvestgate while the others are in Bishops Waltham, the Isle of Wight and Devon – and all are of course here today. 

I would like to tell a little of the story of Ernie’s life from the time he joined Stocks. On Saturday 14th October 1956 my father’s farm diary includes ‘Stiles Boy’ for the first time in the list of those working there – which in those days included Reg Whitear, then the head man, John Spreadbury, who had joined he farm in October 1950, the year we moved in, George Langridge (who my brother Piers and I called ‘long-nose’) and who later worked at Peake, Tyrell and ‘Shep’ Frampton, who had worked with my father at Litchfield. In those days there were seven or eight men working regularly on the farm, and there were three cottages in the village on the hill above the Buck’s Head, as well as two at ‘Blackhouse’ on the down under Old Winchester Hill - now an enormous pile called Stocks Down Farm and rented to Dr Morris, who has been so good with Ernie throughout his long illness (but I am getting ahead of myself).

In the those early days Ernie had a BSA motorbike, which Sylvia remembers cleaning, and they used to travel together to watch stock car and speedway racing in Southampton.  They married on 30th November 1963, and the farm diary records the wedding - naturally on a Saturday – but by Monday Ernie was back at work and he spent the rest of the week ploughing. He and Sylvia moved into one of the Blackhouse cottages, which being high up under Old Winchester Hill had by far the best view in the valley - at least they used to until a later tenant, Stan Cutler, planted a Christmas tree in the front garden!  

Ernie’s life was bounded by the farms and villages around Stocks, and he never travelled very far.  To the north, there was the imposing bulk of Old Winchester Hill, which was taken over from us by the Nature Conservancy in 1954, and behind it Peake Farm and the McPhails where Ernie was sometimes sent to help. To the East was Parkers, and Tom Parker could often be seen up, riding the boundaries in his polished riding boots or in the lane in a pony and trap, and we all marveled at ‘the Cathedral’ – the huge drier and grain store which he built over the hill from us. To the south and west were the Horns - Bob and Stephen – and down Stocks Lane towards Meonstoke, the Biles’s at Harvestgate Farm, which we bought on Tom Biles’s retirement in 1970.  Ernie and Sylvia moved into Harvestgate Farmcottage and remained there to this day. Down Stocks Lane were the Minors and beyond them Bruce Horn at Shavards, the Martins in Exton and above Corhampton, the Rowsells. And Ernie worked with all of them, for as we shall see, he was also a great beater.

When Ernie first came to Stocks, he would have driven the old Fordson tractors without cabs and other comforts, possibly still started by hand, but he became a good ploughman, winning some ploughing matches. But my memories of Ernie then were more often on one of the Fordsons with a buck rake on the front, moving stuff around the yard or carting feed. Ernie had many years potato and sugar beet harvesting and used to take trailer-loads of sugar-beet to Droxford station where the invariably wet and muddy beet had to be loaded by hand onto the wagons using those strange blunt-ended forks. In later years, he ran the drier, working for hours in the heat and dust to clean and dry the grain and either bag it or move it into great piles from where it could be loaded onto the grain lorries. Ernie would work, as all the men did, late into the night and at weekends without complaint, until the harvest was in and safely stored away. But that heat and dust made his job particularly arduous.  

Ernie had the customary schooling, but I wonder if his teachers knew that he would turn out to be good as he was at mental arithmetic? Bruce Horn remembers the terrifying ‘Tiger’ Harris at Cowplain who would hurl the blackboard rubber at you and once cut open David Cook’s head. But Ernie was extremely quick; a skill learned perhaps not from school but from playing darts, which was his main pastime. He loved to play with friends like Tony Farnell, John Miles and George Hambly at the Buck’s Head and in the Thomas Lord West Meon and won may cups and trophies. Indeed his daughter Jane told me that she wasn’t allowed to play darts with him until she could score  - and what a brilliant way that was to get your children to lean arithmetic!  And his skill was not only essential at darts, but also invaluable on the farm, as my brother Fairfax remembers that he always knew exactly how many bales there were in a rick, or bags in a stack in the barn. And despite being slim, he was strong too, with Fairfax, who worked with him for a year before going to Cirencester, again remembering that he (and fellow-pupil David Williams) could together stack 200cwt sacks of wheat up to three tiers high! We all know what ‘health and safety’ would say to that today – not to mention the fact that Fairfax and I used to do some of the corn cart from the age of about ten!

But in addition to his traditional farm duties, Ernie was extremely helpful and reliable and he became indispensible to my parents, undertaking many duties apart from tractor driving, such as feeding the animals, pheasants, chickens and sometimes ducks – if the fox hadn’t had them - as well as the dogs when my parents were away. When there wasn’t one, he was also unofficial keeper, which suited his other love, that of beating.  Ernie beat at all the shoots my father had at Stocks and at many of those on the neighbouring farms as well.  Rod Rowell, the Parker’s keeper, knew him from his teens and just now from Scotland, couldn’t speak highly enough of him. He admired not only his skill as a beater and always being in the right place (or more particularly perhaps, of not being in the wrong one!) but of his general cheerful common sense. As a beater, he probably knew the woods and hedgerows of these farms better than anyone. But he never shot, himself.        

Rod also mentioned something else, his kindness. and this is echoed by everyone one who knew him. Nichola Hussey, who came to Stocks after us, found his kindness and reliability a great strength, whether it was helping with horses, or dogs or even children.  Rod says, and anyone who knew Ernie would agree, that he behaved always as though he didn’t think of himself. Rod also found him well read and interested and knowledgeable about many things.  Simon Martin also recalls his sense of fun. When doing his garden in Soberton, he used to call down the garden, ‘Tea, Ern?’ and invariable they would both crack up laughing about it.

Ernie retired from Stocks when my father died in 2002 and the farm was sold, but he continued to work part-time for those around him and with his son Richard, and of course continued beating. He spent a lot of time with his friend Ron Talman in Soberton, and Bruce Horn used to take him to Salisbury Market, which he greatly enjoyed.  Bruce was amused to find that the last time he had seen Stonehenge was on a school visit 50 years before, and had never seen the Fovant badges.

In 2007 he fell ill with leukemia, which meant that he had to have chemotherapy and thereafter, constant transfusions, but he never complained and bore his illness bravely. Even when weak, he still liked to go out as much as he could, walking the familiar fields and hedgerows, refusing a stick or a scooter. Sylvia said that he never admitted to being in pain, even at the end. He was well looked after by Dr Arnold in Winchester Hospital, and Dr Morris at home, as well as his carers Jenny and Jilly  - and of course always Sylvia who bore the brunt of his care.  But Ernie was a true kind ‘gentle man’ and in the best way, became part of that beautiful landscape, which will always contain him now, as after this service his family will spread his ashes on Old Winchester Hill. 

Herry Lawford
29th July 2014  

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