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News > OBs Remembered > RIP - John S Herdman, (SHB, 55-58)

RIP - John S Herdman, (SHB, 55-58)

John was above all else a farmer
18 Jan 2022
Written by Huw Richards
OBs Remembered
John S Herdman, (SHB, 55-58)
John S Herdman, (SHB, 55-58)

How do you summarise the life and works of John Herdman?

I could easily fill the time recanting my own memories of the last 25 years or so, a time in which I have had the privilege of knowing him and being part of his Herdman clan. It would be however, a disservice to neglect the lifetime before when so much was done and achieved. I have therefore spent the days since his passing speaking to friends and family to help paint the picture of a life so well lived.

Brother, my friend, lifelong friend, husband, Dad, second Dad, father-in-law, God Father, Uncle, Poppy.

Straight and Honest, Hard Working, Generous, Mischievous, Kind and Thoughtful, Determined, Full of Fun, Stubborn, Larger than Life, Loyal, Selfless and Cheeky, Proud, Persistent and Persuasive.

These are not my words but ones all of you have used to say who John was to you and how you would describe him.

However, running under, over, between and through all this, John was above all else a farmer.

Farming is a calling. It’s in your blood. A way of life rather than a profession. The promise of a lifetime of toil, for which you will receive very little recognition. 

Born March the 27th 1942 in Colwell, Malvern to George and Theresa, John was the youngest of 4 boys, Morris, Roy and Peter arriving before him. George and Theresa having worked originally as a gardener and Housekeeper started farming on a rental farm, The Bage, in Kington before buying New House farm, in 1950 – Painscastle would be home to John for the next 70 years and where he would make lifelong friends, Afon, JR & Bob Lloyd, Gomer, Ken Frondi, Ken the Lundi, Ron Francis, and the baby of the bunch, Roy Lloyd.

These were idyllic times bombing around on bikes, dragging Roy Lloyd in a cart behind them, fishing in the Brook and getting up to the type of mischief only capable by a gang of young boys. 

After a couple of years in Painscastle Junior, John went to Clyro school before boarding in Christ College, Brecon. In these early years John was renowned as a cross country runner being a regular winner at sports days. He was also an accomplished rugby player - the 1955 Breconian describing Herdman, as outstanding in the loose.

In fact he put his athletic ability to good effect by running away from Christ College – setting off after Chapel, John would tell people that he was home by lunch – now whilst John was a good runner the children had a suspicion that the story may have been embellished a little as the time it took him to cover the 20 miles or so would exceed those of a world class athlete! Whilst chatting to Roy Lloyd, these suspicions were seemingly confirmed where Roy recalled that having heard John had set off from School he had gone up onto the Tumps to watch him come up the hill but he never did. He would later find out that he had been met in Llowes by his parents who had gone to look for him.

Never believing that what he did was wrong and should not be punished, John would later promise his children that if they ever ran away from school, he would give them five pound. Beau took him up on this, covering the slightly lesser distance from Rhosgoch. True to his word, Beau got his money - but was most disgruntled to find out that he had to go back.

School to John though, was just a delay to his desire to be back at home to work the farm. A trait that appears to pass down through the generations of Herdman boys.  When recently asked how long he had left in school, implying how long to the end of term, Will who is obviously keeping a close count on these things, was able to state precisely how long he had left till he could legally leave school for good!

With school over John settled into the serious business of farming, working alongside Peter to help their father, Pop, in running the farm.

However, as teenagers and with a ready band of willing accomplices, mischief and high jinks were never that far away. 

Bikes were swapped for cars and quick ones at that. John liked to go fast and with his brother Roy they shared a passion for Jalopy Racing, and with their infamous Allard they made a formidable team – Roy preparing the car and John driving. For those that are interested footage and pictures of John racing can be found on the Facebook Page, The best of Jalopy Days. It shows John winning the Golden Valley Championship Grand Prix at Vowchurch – I particularly enjoyed the quote stating “John raced an Allard and as Jethro would say he was bloody flying”!

John’s love of driving was not just contained to the track. In these earlier days he could be found tearing all over the county and beyond in his A35 van, much to the annoyance of Pop and the ever-escalating fuel bill. The A35s also paid a heavy price, with numerous replacements having to be sought as they fell victim to the wear and tear of the mileage, as well as roads being less forgiving than a grass track when they were turned over!  

Probably as a surprise to the boys, who I remember always battling with their Dad for a new tractor, John also had a great passion for farm machinery. Roy Lloyd and Gomer recall John’s delight when the Ford Super Major arrived at the farm swearing that after its arrival, he and it were inseparable. This affection did not however, extend to the comforts that can be found within more modern cabs, John particularly detesting the idea of a radio as you wouldn’t be able to hear the engine properly. Richard remembers excitedly rushing home from college knowing that the new Ford 6610 had arrived. However, much to his dismay, by the time he had got there John had already taken off the back window and one of the doors, in his pursuit of making sure you could hear the engine properly.

Like any good farmer, in addition to the machinery, John was undoubtedly a good stockman with an eye for a good animal. Proof provided by John spotting a magnificent beast on Raymond Bagley’s farm – concerned for the financial welfare of their neighbour John and JR convinced Ray that he could not possibly sell it at Builth Wells market and it must go to the Christmas Fat stock in Haye, where it would certainly get a better price. With Ray not qualifying to enter, John and JR entered it as one of their own. All went well until it ended up winning after which John and JR, unusually for them, became incredibly shy, trying to distance themselves from the glory.

Whilst profit is obviously important to farming, John’s love for all living things, the countryside and his way of life extended well beyond simple accounting. From the outside, to the uneducated, the sight of wild ponies on Painscastle Hill is a stereotypical image of wildlife. Little do they know of the work required to keep these herds, something John alonside many others in Painscastle have spent their lives doing to maintain the tradition of the ponies on the hill.

I remember John appearing on ITV news objecting to legislation that the ponies were to be chipped and passported, adding an additional cost to what was already an unprofitable endeavour.

John’s ability to sense life around him extended far beyond animals. After our own wedding John asked Marianne how far gone my sister-in-law was. Querying this with my brother he looked incredulous and told me John had got it wrong. 8 months and two weeks after the wedding my niece was born. This was, I’m led to understand, was something John repeated on many other occasions. Marianne certainly believed in it, as we would always abstain from heading up to the farm when trying for a family….. she didn’t want her Dad to know before she did!

Being outspoken was something that came naturally to John. From a young age he was full of ideas which coupled with his strong will was a recipe for getting things done. Afon commented that when Johnny put his mind to something it was the Devil’s own job to convince him otherwise.

John put these attributes to good use, not just for his own purpose but for the benefit of the wider farming and local community, whether it was the support of the Church or Painscastle hall, the local buyers group, Golden Valley hunt, the farmers ferry, or marching with the Countryside Alliance. John was always ready to stand up for what he believed in.

I remember John once again gracing our national press with his picture in the Daily Mail, proudly partaking in a funeral procession for British Agriculture in protest of the Labour Parties handling of farming at their party Conference. A picture of this can be found on the back of the program.

John’s involvement in such things is likely a result of his ability to strike up conversation with anyone and not to be intimidated by their standing. Peter Rogers an AM at the time became all too aware of this with John spending weeks bending his ear on the phone. To his credit Peter listened intently and travelled down from North Wales to meet John at New House after which the pair became friends.  

Probably one of the cruellest effects of Parkinsons, particularly for John, was that whilst the mind was willing the body was not. One of my last memories of John was a Sunday lunch at our house where after a couple of glasses of wine the children’s conversation had turned to nights out and what they and their friends had got up to. Getting ready to tell them that this conversation was not appropriate whilst their grandparents were at the table, I caught sight of John, his eyes were alive with that unmistakable twinkle and across his face was that wide playful grin.  He always did enjoy a risqué conversation.

Backing up this alert mind and headstrong determination John had a limitless capacity for work. During my time of knowing John he would regularly mention the winter of 63, when Painscastle was cut off by snow from the outside world for almost 8 weeks. He would relive the effort to rescue and keep animals fed and the constant shovelling of snow. However, from talking to Afon I suspect that the need to dig themselves out of Painscastle may have only become a major concern after the pub was drank dry. 

In all seriousness, John was renowned for a tireless work ethic, taking on Pop’s mantra of never put off to tomorrow something that you can do today  -  and an insistence that if you were going to do something you may as well do it right.

He was also persuasive in squeezing just as much work out of those around him. Gomer remembers looking on at trailers full of bails, the loading of which was likely to have been aided by David Gwynne, after he had done a full days work elsewhere, being parked up on the yard with it being too late to unload, having been brought in after dark, knowing full well he’d have to be back at 6 in the morning to start the unloading. Him and John at the top of the elevator and although working close to their limit, shouting down at Peter, goading him that he was going to slow.

Alan, John’s right hand man for fifteen years, remembers being asked to help out on a bank holiday, John convincing him it would be an easy Good Friday. Needless to say, it turned out to be anything but. Many years after, when Alan was on his own farm, he recalls that John would regularly give him a call close to the Easter weekend and with tongue in cheek ask Alan whether he was, “planning on having an easy Good Friday”

Richard remembers fencing up by the hill with snow coming crossways, him in the legendary 165 facing the windscreen to the snow, John in his element outside, with George suffering beside him. With George complaining that the weather was too bad and Richard eventually agreeing with him. John uttered the words, at least you’re not in the trenches.

Even Marianne claims to have spent days having to pick stone, although this is much disputed by the boys who are adamant that she never did a days work on the farm.

And of course, not to forget the feathering and dressing of Turkey’s when every able body was recruited and put to good use under the strict rule of Nan Herdman.

Even John’s first word’s to Margaret were, “I’ve got a job for you” and Margaret confirms that she has been doing jobs ever since.

Hard work though was always well rewarded, at New House, and you certainly never went hungry. In the earlier days being well fed by Nana Herdman and latterly Margaret. Indeed, over the years New House became synonymous with good hospitability.

At the centre of the village, the door was always open to drop in for a cup of tea and much to Margaret’s annoyance to find a willing participant to join anyone passing on the way to the pub, who needed a drinking partner. New House was also a safe haven to those who were too drunk to find their way home, with a bed or settee always being made available, and even for late night rescues after putting a car through the hedge or even hitting a cow on the road.    

Returning to playing hard - the 1960’s version of tinder, known to many of you here as a Young Farmers Barn Dance, is where John and the gang strutted their stuff and John certainly new how to, being renowned as a mean dancer - something he continued throughout his life, jiving away with his regular dancing partner, Dot.  Afon remembers John often approaching and saying, I’m going to need to borrow her for a minute and Dot recalls that even after the onset of Parkinsons John joking to her that all he needed was a good dance.

It was at one of these dances where John met Ivy. Ivy was at that time, attending Aberystwyth University, and afterwards worked in Pembroke, however this proved there to be no obstacle too large for John Herdman and his trusty A35 van.

They were married in 1965 and John moved from New House for the first time settling into The Cottage no more than a stones throw away from the farm. In 1967 Richard was born however just a couple of years following, Ivy fell ill, and shortly after, sadly passed away.

John and Richard stayed in The Cottage for a while but ultimately moved back into Newhouse. It was now that John set about with a gritty determination to grow the farm, purchasing Upper House farm in 1971, the year before Pop passed away.

A growing farm was necessary as John’s family was just about to start expanding once again. Meeting Margaret at the showground and after wooing her with that romantic line of “I’ve got a job for you”, they were married in 1973.

Their family quickly grew with the arrival of Marianne and then followed by George. Staying initially with Nana Herdman, they later moved into Upper House Farm, no more than a few hundred yards away from New House. Soon after, John, know to us all as Beau, arrived on the scene….along with a dishwasher!

Margaret remembers these as particularly tough times balancing a large family whilst funding a further expansion of the farm with the purchase of the Wern Fawr land. This was not made any easier by a house fire in 1988 which rendered Upper House unliveable and caused the family to move back into New House with Nana Herdman.

Tough times or not this did not prevent John from offering hospitality and his love for a good party. Upper House barns hosted one of the largest Rally dances of its era and to those of you of my generation who thought you were having a great time Afon let slip that the adults party went on in Upper House until the sun came up!

Many other good evenings were enjoyed with good friends Afon and Dot, Enid and Deri, Roy and Avril and Christine and Phillip. There were also good weekends away with the buyers group to far flung places such as London and fancy Night Clubs like the Talk of the Town not to mention the trips away with Young Farmers through the entertainment competitions.

With Cadw’s interference and the grade II listing making the restoration costs of Upper House unviable, particularly when the money could be used to buy more land, John and Margaret decided on a New Build, The Fron….. yet again no more than a few hundred yards from New House.

The frugality over these years was put to good use as after the purchase of Upper House Farm, and the land at Wern Fawr, John further expanded the acreage with ground from their good friends John and Evelyn Bally at the Lane.

After Nanas passing, Richard moved into New House but after he built Orchard House the Fron was sold and John and family moved back to New House for the final time. For those of you have lost count, since arriving in Painscastle in 1950, John moved 6 times and by my estimate probably no further than 200 yards from New House on each occasion.   

The move back to a large warm and welcoming house was a good thing, as it was now time for grandchildren. First came Jake, followed by Oliver, Evie, Erin, Will, Ruby, Daisy, Edie, Sophie and Ffion. Although attempting to show a tough exterior John, or Poppy, like many grandfathers was soft when it came to his grandchildren. Always lighting up in their presence no matter how much trouble and noise they caused.

And although he may have treated them a little bit harder and not always shown it Margaret wants Richard, Marianne, George and Beau to know, no father could be prouder. In his eyes no one could control a digger, or for that matter any other piece of machinery like Rich. He was inspired by George’s determination to farm for himself, and the responsibility that Beau has taken on in looking after New House Farm and Marianne was his girl to whom no one else could hold a candle.

As the boys managed to convince John that the farm wouldn’t fall apart if he wasn’t there, Margaret finally convinced him to a holiday abroad – not by plane I hasten to add – this allowed him to visit many sites he was passionate about through his love of History, particularly Politics and the World Wars. I always thought Sky had missed a trick when it came to the History Channel. If they had made it pay to view, they could have significantly increased their profits from John alone.

It was on one of these trips that John once again demonstrated his acute awareness for his surroundings. Returning from a trip to Paris with Roy and Avril the bus was making its way back from Dover when it stopped in a service station on the M4. After rejoining the coach and continuing the journey, John was adamant they were heading in the wrong direction, ignoring Roy, Avril and Margaret’s embarrassment John approached the driver and said. I’m just a simple farmer – a line I became accustomed to as John’s way of disarming an unknowing victim, just before he would deliver his factually correct assessment of a situation, but when we were driving to the service station the moon was on that side of the bus and now it is on this side of the bus. The outcome….they were indeed heading the wrong way down the M4!

It was after occasions like these that John would sometimes relent and look back on what they had achieved after a lifetime of hard work, taking hold of Margarets hand he would tell her that, “those days, made these days.”

Whilst, with the onset of Parkinsons, he finally began to relinquish the work on the farm to the boys, John, much to Margaret’s consternation, could never sit still. The blessing and the curse of a man with such drive and determination. Even on his zimmer frame he would still on occasions be found out on the road making a break for the sheds. 

Before I can finish, I know Richard, Marianne, George and Beau want me to thank their Mum. Everything great that is built is always from a strong foundation and for 50 years Margaret has been the rock at John’s side and it has been her never ending care and support that allowed John to stay at home, on the farm, in the house and with the woman whom he loved.

As George Washington was known to say – I’d rather be on my farm than be Emperor of the World.

Well John, the time has finally come for you to put your feet up. Rest well – you’ve most certainly earned it.



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