Picture this; the rolling Salisbury hills, short stems of yellow straw jutting from the ground and ginormous stacks of the bales that they made dotted around the fields. They stand out against the landscape, under crisp and luscious blue skies scattered with cloud. There isn’t a soul around, except for me, Danny and Caroline Wheatley Hubbard, the wonderful lady who runs Boyton Farm in Wiltshire.
And then, the squealing and snorting of strawberry blonde piglets snaps us out it.
Boyton Farm sits nestled between Warminster and Salisbury, on the edge of a huge expanse of chalk downland stretching from close to Longleat, all the way down to the Dorset coast. If you look on google maps, the entire area is green – perhaps it’s the only way for a millenial like me to comprehend just how wild this place really is. Toto, we’re not in London anymore. Danny and I are off the train and greeted by a large, green Landrover, Caroline’s trusty vehicle for manoeuvring the immense amount of land under her care. I jump in the back with her beautiful flat-coated retriever, Kai, who in turn despite his size jumps straight into my lap for a cuddle. I am already in heaven. I tune out mostly, to what Danny is talking about in the front, besotted with my furry friend who demands the majority of my attention.
Pulling up on the farm itself, to a grand and beautiful 60s build house in which Caroline resides, it’s clear that a lot of love goes into this farm. The steps to the house are flanked by thin stone pillars, ivy and green wrapped around them above our heads. The front garden by the driveway is alive with flowers and shrubs; Danny stops for a closer look and I follow Caroline inside; into a huge kitchen looking out onto the beginning of the farm’s land.
“In the autumn, those hills turn bright red from the leaves.”
Boyton’s history is a long and illustrious one. At the very heart of the farm, and its practices today, is a 95-year-old herd of pedigree Tamworth pigs that stemmed from one singular sow over three quarters of a century ago. Her name was Jemima, and she began the Berkwell herd under the care of farmer, Joshua Hirst. The herd diversified and grew, until we reach present day, where Caroline and co. take care of a large herd of Tamworths, some for breeding purposes and others for meat. There’s talk of visits from journalists (some of whom have been kinder than others), and film crews; even Countryfile on a particularly dreary day, but Danny and I still can’t imagine how this place could ever look ‘dreary’.
Caroline makes having a lot on your plate look easy, it seems. An incredibly busy woman, who knows the process of pig farming and slaughter inside out, she rents out some of her land to dairy farmers and others to sheep farmers, both of which we see on our tour. She speaks of the farm and its history with fondness, and I wonder if she will miss her day to day life much when her son takes over in eighteen months.
The process has already begun, she tells us, the takeover will be gradual.
Caroline’s son, Chris, is a 35 year-old with a background in graphic design. Danny asks if it’s common in farming families, to go away and fulfil a different career before being drawn back into the lifestyle. Chris says that it is, but his ideas with Boyton is to make it more marketable in the long term. Caroline herself notes that the purebred, often fatty Tamworth has no place in commercial butchery. Danny and I thank our lucky stars that Turner & George is as independent as butchery gets.
There are two separate parts to the pig farm; the indoor pens where the mothers stay with their babies for the first 2 months of life, and the outdoor, where those animals old enough to roam freely are kept in herds. There are probably six or seven indoor pens; each with a large mother looking as mothers do – stressed and tired, but fulfilled. I squeal at the sight of the piglets, as do they me, and scatter around the pen in bursts of sprints; this way then that, then finally standing deadly still, wandering over to me having decided I’m not quite as scary as they think. Their coat is almost orange; soft and shiny with a gleam that catches the light, and my God are they cute.
The way that Caroline speaks about breeding and farming is something that I’ve encountered in butchery for a long time now. One of the piglets is much smaller than the rest, and I ask Caroline about it. “Oh, there’s always a runt.” she says.
“We can’t put the runt into the breeding program because he just doesn’t have the traits we’re looking for.”
It’s an honesty that I appreciate. As meat eaters, we should understand the realities of meat production and Caroline clearly sees things very methodically. A lot of these piglets will be bred to further the bloodline of the Tamworths to ensure its survival as a breed. And then, a number of them will grow into the grunting, chubby, squealing sows and boars we see in the outdoor pens. When they’re big enough – 200kg liveweight if they’re coming to us – they’ll be driven to a slaughterhouse half an hour’s drive away.
The pigs kept outdoors are in herds of perhaps 10 or 11. The pigs scatter this time, too, but once I crouch down they’re quick to muster up the courage to come over. Caroline encourages me to coax them with grass; “They love it. It’s like us eating lettuce.”, and funnily enough, the pigs come running. There are grunts, deep grunts that I can only assume mean ‘hello’ and the occasional squeal when one animal pushes past or runs in front of another. These animals are January born, almost 8 months now, and coming up to weight pretty soon. Industrially farmed pigs are slaughtered at perhaps 4 months, and no more – perhaps a little less.
The meat from Tamworth pigs is famed worldwide. Slow grown as nature intended them to be, the meat produced is rich, strong in flavour and incredibly marbled, with a very good fat covering making some of the best crackling around. I tell Caroline that we get requests for it often as it sells so well. The breed began in, well… Tamworth and today, it is one of the oldest pig breeds in the UK but also one of the most vulnerable with only 300 registered sows in the country. Its decline came towards the end of the 20th century, as the pigs were better suited to slow, responsible production, rather than modern industrial methods. It’s distinct red hair, blonder and paler as the animals get older, thick at birth, has earned it the nickname the ‘ginger pig’, trademarked by the butchers of its namesake thirty years ago. I’m sure they prefer strawberry blonde, anyway.
Back at Caroline’s farmhouse, she cooks us a courgette, pasta and bean salad with sliced roast beef from her own herd. The recipe is adapted from Ed Smith’s (Rocket and Squash) new book On the Side, and the beef is delicious. We mention to her how satisfying it must be to have an allotment for vegetables, and a farm for meat. Caroline agrees.
“I can’t go to the butcher anymore. I hate not know how the animal was raised or what it ate. With my own animals, I know that it was looked after well, raised naturally and lived as long a life as possible. And it tastes better.”
Caroline and her son, Chris threw a party a few weekends ago, with a lamb on ossado from a herd on the farm, roasted for 6 and a half hours and put into 50 pittas for the guests. Some of Caroline’s closest family didn’t even get a look in.
“The whole thing was gone in 15 minutes.” Chris says.
I offer up my butchery skills for the next time – this sounds like the kind of party Danny and I want an invite to.
Kai’s paws lie in my lap on the journey back to Salisbury station. Apparently he doesn’t like pigs, but if he can smell them on me, he doesn’t show it. Danny and I make further jokes about Salisbury Hill; ‘we can see why Peter Gabriel loved it’, ‘you could write a song about this countryside’. It’s only when googling the lyrics to this article that I realise the song isn’t called Salisbury Hill at all, but Solsbury. No wonder we were met with odd frowns at each comment.
Still though, move over Peter Gabriel; we’ve seen the Salisbury hills, and its pig farm, and let us tell you – it's much better.