Root Menu

Geoff Woods

(1) In conversation with Liz Jones and (2) a self-portrait

Geoff Woods worked for many years on a dairy farm and as a shepherd before becoming a self-employed gardener. He is also a scoutmaster, morris dancer and pantomime dame

1

Childhood and the start of farming

I spent 30 years in farming.  I originally started back in 1964, which was when I left school. I’d done part time farm work before I left school, because at the age of 12 I knew all I wanted to do was to work outside and work with animals.

I was born in London, Streatham but moved to Surrey when I was four. I went to the comprehensive school there.  Back then I wasn’t as confident and outgoing as I am now. When I was about thirteen or so I was fairly shy, believe it or not.  If I could go back I’d say, have the courage of your convictions. If you want to do something then just do it.  I’d always just dismiss it or not get round to it. 

My father was very dominant and I always did what was expected. My sister went to Grammar School and got good grades so I was always a bit of an underdog.  My father never spent that much time with us. On the weekends, he’d go and play cricket. We’d watch and I’d think - this is boring. We never did much as a family. We went for a drive occasionally, but it was always mum who took us swimming or to the cinema. She was great.  I’ve always done much more with my children than my father did.  I did scouts with my son, we’d go out on the farm together. We always had family holidays.  I was much more liberal and open minded with my children than my father was with me and I gave them much more freedom.

In school one of my teachers owned a smallholding where I went to work, and absolutely loved it. I got to work with pigs and cattle and sheep.  I left school and went to work on a pig farm for 3 years, then from there I went to agricultural college and did the NCH - national certificate in agriculture.  That was a full time course, in residence there, split between 50 percent theory and 50 practical. I must have been about 18.  We had a go at milking cows at college - they taught us how to do it. We also learnt about sheep - the whole spectrum, and it actually changed my awareness of farming so that I came out of college wanting to go into dairy.

Dairy farming and beyond

I went down to work in Weston Super Mare, and worked on a large dairy farm milking cows from the herd and doing various jobs around the area. I worked in Warminster doing the same thing, and then I moved again, to be nearer my parents.  I drove tractors and did all general sorts of work. 

I was in Northhamptonshire when I married in 1973/4, and my daughter was born there.  The farm was actually made up of two separate ones – it was a very large estate.  I wasn’t working with cows anymore now - I was a shepherd.  I looked after 10,000 sheep, and we also had suckling cows.  These are beef reared cows, which suckle their calves for six to seven months. After seven months the calves are weaned, the cows taken off to one shed, the calves are taken to another and the calves are reared until they’re about 18 months and then sold for beef.  It was an arable farm as well.

My children grew up there. Both children went to the local primary school. It was a lovely little school; it was lovely there; and we stayed for about ten years.  I actually like being in one place, so I don’t move around too much. I had to leave because the farm was sold

I left that farm after ten years and went, not too far away, to Barton Worcester, to a place called Woodlands.  We had dairy cows and a few beef cattle, and arable. There were just the two of us working on that farm.  I milked the cows on his day off, and I just did everything else.  I looked after the maintenance of the farm and looked after the young stock again rearing the calves and the heifers - who are the replacements for the dairy cows. We had a cottage there on the farm, a tied house, which is the way farming exists.  Under a tied system, the house goes with the job. It’s not a perk, it’s not a bonus, it just happens; and unfortunately they think that it’s a good thing to have this house, and pay you less money.

Difficult years in farming and the birth of self-employment

Anyway, I was there for another ten years - my whole life seems to have gone in cycles of ten years.  At the end of those ten years, or within them, after about eight or nine years… my marriage broke down.  My daughter was just doing her GCSEs so she must have been about 16.  It was obviously a difficult time for us. My wife and my children stayed in the tied house, and I had to live somewhere else. That carried on for a year, and at the end of that year we actually got back together again. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but there we are; that’s the way life goes.  It was at the time when foot and mouth broke, and before foot and mouth we had BSE, which did affect the farm in a big way.  We lost lots of cows, which had to be slaughtered, and it affected the milk prices. Farming got tighter and there wasn’t much money around.

Foot and mouth affected the industry in a big way because the milk price dropped. Five years previous it had been 25 pence, and now it was down to 17 pence.  I know it doesn’t sound very much, but farmers only get 10 pence a litre, and when you think what milk is in the shops, it’s worth three times that amount. 

That was the series of events, and the owner decided to sell up. He didn’t sell the farm, just sold the cows, but that meant I was made redundant.  I had to look for a job, which was hard after 10 years. But also there was the fact of getting back together again. I looked at various farming jobs, which didn’t come to the fore really; and then a job came up on a farm near Chipping Norton, a place called Cornwell. There was a farmer there who needed somebody just to milk his cows once a fortnight to give his herdsman a day off.  There were no wages, but they gave you a house. I thought ‘oh this sounds good, I can do my own thing, I can go self employed’.

I’d always been afraid to go self-employed before. Whenever I’d talked to anyone about it they’d said that’s too risky a thing to do; but I did it. This job was offered to me - I had an interview and they rang me up and said look, the job’s yours if you want. The only downside was that the house wasn’t very good, so I had to spend a lot of time doing it up. Then I thought, I can get plenty of relief milking jobs, because in the area at the time there weren’t many people doing relief milking.  When I was being made redundant I put feelers out amongst the agricultural community, and had two jobs offered me within a week, doing relief milking for various people. I took the job at Cornwell and moved into the cottage.

It was a lovely little cottage in this village, which was a private estate.  All the roads into the village were privately owned, so it was like living in a time gone by. I started working there, and got plenty of work.  I got more work than I could cope with at times – lots of milking work – and then I started doing a few garden jobs. People I knew said “oh, you’re self employed, if you’ve got any spare time, would you like to mow my lawn?”.  Once a few of these started it was like a snowball - it started rolling.  People got to hear of me doing gardening, and it took off.  Now I do it full time.

I actually lived at Cornwall for just under a year and my marriage broke down.  Eventually my wife and I, we separated. I’ve been in Oxford ever since.

Gardening blossoms

I love gardening, I love the peace and tranquillity - I only wish I’d gone into it earlier. This area’s brilliant for gardening jobs and I’ve got lots of customers.  I’ve worked on jobs this morning, and gone out to look at three more potential ones.  All my customers are nice people, and I don’t have to work for them if they’re not.  I turn down more jobs than I do, and the financial security is there that wasn’t there in farming.  I’ve never hated my work though; never had Monday morning blues. When I came back from holiday when I was working as a shepherd, the first thing I’d do is go out walking with the dog to see how it was getting on.

When people ask me what I’m going to work on, I say “I’ll have a look round first”, and then I can say, well that needs doing, and that there needs seeing to. There’s always something different and always some change.

I’m never afraid to say if I don’t know the name of something, because life’s all about learning.  I do carry books with me, on what time of year to sow and things like that and I’ve been on courses as well. I don’t use any chemicals when I’m gardening, unless the customer requests it. We do too much to the earth.  I believe in conservation and in recycling, all sorts. We recycle everything here – bottles, cans, paper, compost.

I do loads of different gardens, from little courtyards to really big ones. There are huge gardens up in North Oxford. I work for academics and business people - some who want the garden to look nice but don’t have the time; old people who can’t manage it anymore; academics and people who don’t know what to do themselves.  I start work at seven in the morning, and I’m supposed to only work an eight hour day, but I usually come home at six or seven. Then I work Saturdays, but I try not to work past lunchtime. I never work Sundays, I don’t even answer my phone. Sunday’s my day off.

Jenny

I don’t see myself retiring at sixty-five. I’ll take less work on when I’m in my seventies, but I find it hard to even see myself doing that. I’ve never worried about getting old -never worried in my forties or fifties.  I’m, what, fifty-three now, but I don’t feel my age.  I don’t know what drives me, or where I get my energy.  I always want to do my best and show myself off to the best of my abilities. I just love life.  I want to do everything and go everywhere.

Jenny and I we both dance for the same Morris side in Botley, and that’s how we got together.  It was just love at first sight. I mean, she walked into the hall and that was it, you know, that was the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life and that’s all that mattered.

Anyway, I’ve got my morris dancing; we do morris dancing together. We dance from September to May, and practice once a week at the WI hall in Botley.  From May onwards we dance out at pubs and carnivals and fetes. We get up at about 4 or 5 in the morning, go out to a place called “The Hurst”, light a fire and do some dancing. Each side sings a song, or recites a poem. Then later in the day we go out dancing in the town, in shopping centres.

I suppose a sense of community is important to me. I do like to feel that I’m giving something back to the community I’m living in.  When I got involved with the local Church, I helped raised funds to get the roof and the bells redone, and I learnt to bellring. I got involved in the scouts as well.  I was a scoutmaster for many years, where my son used to go. Then I also joined a drama society. The first year in the pantomime I had about 3 lines, and the next year I was playing the dame. I’ve played the dame every year now, apart from one year when we did “Wind in the Willows” and I played Toad, which was great fun.  I got involved in the guides’ production - which was me on stage surrounded by a load of kids -and I loved it. It’s strange because when we recite the poems or sing in Morris dancing, which isn’t in front of that many people, I think “Oh, I don’t know if I fancy doing this”. But on a stage in front of hundreds of people, I’m fine. Jenny says she doesn’t know where I get it from. There’s no one else in my family really like it. I am an extrovert on the stage.

New doors are always opening for me. I’m gardening now, I travel; and being with Jenny I’ve got two new grown up sons and a teenage daughter. So I’m going back over that teenage stage again. But even though I’ve done it before, it’s totally different because she’s a different person.  I’m very proud of all my children.

Jenny and I have been on three holidays already this year.  One to Majorca; walking in the mountains - it’s beautiful there, we ought to go back; one to France, walking in the Pyrenees; and to Cornwall.  I went abroad for the first time recently and now I’m hooked. I love travelling and I love flying.

There’s so many places Jenny and I have got to go and see.  I hope we’ll get round to it all.  I love the walking in the mountains and the clean air and being in Nature, because it does us both so much good.

2

A self-portrait

My priorities have changed. I used to have to impress others sometimes by boasting and being caught out when telling untruths and trying to be better than I was. Now I live to be me and for others to accept me as I am. I aim to get more out of life for me and to stop faking on what I can’t deliver.

I enjoy conversations with women as I can express feelings, joys, hates, that I could not possibly do with a man. I’m quite an emotional person and like to talk. I wish I had been given more chances when growing up, i.e. encouragement from parents to learn musical instruments, save money, gain new friends and to make them welcome at the family home. Also to be shown how to grow up properly without having to be dominant over others.

Loneliness comes from not being part of a family or group of others and not being understood for what I am, or from not being able to be with the person/s I love and care for. I wish more people could love one another and not just materialistic things. I always find Christmas a very lonely time and New Years Eve. To get over loneliness, and it’s hard in my career as I work on my own so much, I do try to talk to others whenever possible and listen to music when working as this cheers me up. I also buy some new clothes, as retail therapy is always good for me.

Some love is true and meaningful and honest and is shared with someone who respects you for who and what you are, who is your friend, lover and someone who lets you do what is good and right for you as the individual. I have learnt that some love is controlling, especially by others who only want what is good for them. Love is also there to make you feel good about yourself and to give you the strength to carry on your goals no matter what gets in the way. But I have also learnt that love can be a falsehood by people with evil and bad intentions to make you feel good, but also to make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. Good love can come from your own strength of mind to do what is right. So many things can influence this, music, nature and a strong will to do what is right.

I know that I don’t have to be one of the herd and follow trends but have various tastes and not agree with say a conversation leader, and stick up for who I am. I used to think that being an extrovert was best, but really to be happy as me is more important. I go have my haircut as I please, wear the clothes I want to be seen in and be much more tolerant of others and their opinions, and try to get others to understand it’s not what you look like it’s who you are. I cultivate my senses by trying new things whenever possible, having my own opinion but understanding new ones. My sixth sense is knowing when to stop, sit back and understand what is happening and saying is it good for me.

I have much respect and time for women as I hate the way this country is male dominated and how women are still treated as second rate to men. I don’t like the way some men are not so courteous and don’t use proper manners to women in every day life. Women are equal in all ways and should be treated as such. Not enough men care for and about themselves and also don’t do enough homecare and basic living skills.

I have been motivated to search for respect as I was quite shy as a child and found it hard to make friends and as I grew up to have confidence in meeting and talking to women. By moving into my new career in gardening the increase in money has come as a wonderful and exciting new thing in my life and has given me the realisation that I should be paid for my hard work that I do every day and to attain a better standard of living. I’ve also found that if I like something and want it again then I should go for it as life’s too short to put things off.

I have led as a scout leader, been chairman or head or just served on committees, bell-ringing tower captain, Morris Squire and have been the main lead in the yearly Panto. My work has brought me satisfaction in that I love going to work, no matter what day of the week, weather conditions or time of year, it was the same in farming, although now it is perfect to be my own boss. I wish I had done it years ago.

I used to hate and fear heights but now that has almost gone since a trip on the London Eye. I actually don’t fear anything, age is not a problem for me. I wish I knew more about my job, nature and how to play music and what makes people tick. I have lots of friends. New jobs sometimes feel too challenging but nearly always work out ok and if I find I can’t or won’t be able to finish them then I get help. I do run away from bad people, as I know they will eventually do me no good. I wish I could be more positive about the value of my work, and have the courage to say no when I too readily say yes to things which over commit me socially and work-wise. I have a very compassionate nature and I like to help whenever I can and I do try to be as understanding as possible. My limits are my time, which at times seems endless but in truth can only go so far.

I have only been to Austria, French Pyrenees, Majorca and Holland and loved every country in its turn and as before female company is where I feel most relaxed. At times it’s nice to have your own space. As I must give others the right to their views and behaviour I hope they would mine. I actually found it more exciting to be abroad and being among the native people of each country rather than being with English people when abroad. We all have our own ideas on life and we should all respect them. Travel has given me a better understanding of how other races lead their ordinary lives and I wish I had paid more attention at school about geography. I still wish to travel in the future as often as financially possible. Travelling has also given me greater understanding of how the world lives it’s life, not just the people, but also an insight into how much better it can be. To breathe in the beauty and tranquillity of it’s scenery, so majestic in it’s mountains and yet so peaceful in its lakes and meadows; and to be able to participate in the wondrous plant and animal life that abounds elsewhere in the world, gives me memories that will last me a life time. Travel makes me humble, to make me want to preserve this world in all its glory.

I love retail therapy especially clothes and I do buy things that perhaps I don’t really need but at the same time when buying for work it’s only the best. But I’m saving now, something that has not been at the top of my list for quite a few years. I would like all people to love one another, to get the world to care for itself for the future, and not just to live for today and as cheaply as possible, but to realise that we are here to make a difference for everyone. The only real thing that money cannot buy is total happiness for everyone. I can only pray for it and also total good health as well, especially for my Jenny whom I do love more than life itself.

I have made some very good friendships. All I expect from friends is honesty, faithfulness and truth, being there if and when you need them and hoping for the same in return. I find it hard when others misinterpret friendship for something else, especially between opposite sexes.

I live each day as it comes, what happens, happens. If it rains or gales or is hot or cold I just get on with it. I would like a cleaner, healthier planet to live on and hope world leaders will see the same. I hate violence and war and find fighting and aggressive behaviour hard to accept. I can’t worry about tomorrow. I only hope that whatever I do in the future is for the good of me, my friends, loved ones and all of those who I have yet to meet. And if by smiling at everyone the world can be a better place.

I can’t put into a time zone how much time I’ve wasted in my life, we all have things we wish we should have done and regret, but my life had been my choice, perhaps not always the right one but there you go. I now live each day to its fullest, loving every moment and trying to get the most out of what I do.

My worst moments with my parents are not being able to be truthful to them about who I am and how I feel/felt and what I really wanted to be/do. Although in the some way there was never a real closeness between us so I felt as if I was always having to prove myself, which was hard at times, and not fair to a young person growing up. My better times are I suppose now not being with them and only speaking to them on the phone and seeing them about once a year. But I also found it hard when they let a family member down so they could lead a quieter life.

I have two wonderful, loving children, Kate, 25 and Andrew, 22. Seeing them grow up into the wonderful and hardworking adults they are now I never regret having them. I put them through the experience of their mother and I divorcing, which was hard for them and in hindsight if I had got out of the relationship before they were born life would have been different, but then I wouldn’t have such wonderful people to love in my life. I can’t find anything that was missing and we all make mistakes and although no one gives you a book on how to bring up children when they’re born you just try your best and hopefully all goes well. They tell me they are happy so that’s good enough for me and I will always be there for them whenever they want me. The only way you can avoid make the wrong decisions in bringing up children is not to have them in the first place. I wish more young people would really look at if they want children and not be swayed by their parents or other friends by, “oh haven’t you started a family yet” and “a marriage isn’t complete without the patter of tiny feet”. I am very glad I’ve got mine.

My first 30 years of work was chosen as I wanted to work with animals and outside, so that’s how I came into farming. I wish in hindsight I had looked at other ideas, safari parks, zoos and others, so that perhaps I might have gained more excitement in my career. Gardening came form being made redundant for the third time and finding that it was more rewarding both physically and mentally, and of course finally coming to the conclusion I should have done it for my whole career. But saying that, I do have a creative flair so perhaps a dancer, actor or even a hairdresser could have been my vocation.

My careers have chosen my direction in life but not always. I do have a flamboyant, entertaining side of me trying to get out so, wanting me to express myself in more of an artistic way. I still feel the need to be different so my expectations will never be realised for as long as I live. I must keep trying new things like perhaps dying my hair and having a second earring. I have had a ponytail that didn’t work out but it was good fun at the time. If something else came up now and challenged me enough to try something different I think that I would give it a go - ideas anyone!!

What do I need to make my life complete?  My Jenny beating cancer and being completely well and back to her old self again and our lives back to where they were. Being able to speak to my children in the same place i.e. where I’m living now. Being more assertive about my life, work and play with others instead of always saying yes and having more time to reflect on things before a decision is made. Being more positive and not worrying about what others might think of me, and doing what I want, when I want to. I have tried too much in the past to always fit in with other people and please them first before myself. I would like to meet anyone, especially those with a fun loving extrovert and pleasing nature. I also want to get the most out of life. I would like a bigger house and especially a bigger garden so that I could keep ducks, chickens, a pig, a few sheep and of course a dog or dogs and a cat, and have lots of space to enjoy it in. It could be abroad, perhaps France, a nice country, nice people, not too hot in places. Although I do like England as well and especially have grown to love Oxford and feel very at home here. I would like to live in Theodore’s garden as it is the nicest and most tranquil that I have had the pleasure to work in.