Modern life struggles told in history project inspired by Orwell As part of the Road to Wigan Pier 2017 project, 80 years on from the publication, farmer Mike Gorton tells how 27 dairy farms in his local area, including his own, became none
ADAIRY farmer whose business became unsustainable over milk prices has shared his story for a history project inspired by George Orwell.
In 1937, ‘ The Road to Wigan Pier’ an essay by George Orwell – which included a trip through Macclesfield – shocked the country with its depiction of poverty in the north.
In the modern revisiting of the project, Macclesfield farmer Mike Gorton, tells how 27 dairy farms in the area became none.
On his father’s 86th birthday, Mike sold the herd of cows which had been the family’s livelihood for four decades. “It broke his heart,” says Mike. “He didn’t speak to me for three weeks.”
But Mike says carrying on would have ended in bankruptcy. “Loading the lorry up was horrendous. There were heifers I’d raised since they were calves, and watched them have their own calves. Animals you’ve had to pull out at 4am, taking them from the brink of death into life.”
When Mike’s family moved to Cheshire from the Midlands to become tenant farmers in 1976, his neighbours were all farmers. Now they are footballers.
“That’s the Rooneys’ land up there,” Mike says, nodding towards Prestbury. “The farm worker’s cottage next door just sold to a goalkeeper.”
Cheshire might appear to have been one of the more affluent stops on Orwell’s journey, yet farmers here were also weathering hard times in the depression of the mid1930s, when this farm lay empty.
When he was forced to sell his herd in 2015, Mike was earning 15p a litre for milk it was costing him 25p a litre to produce. Now he looks after cows for a new owner.
He said: “I can no longer call myself a farmer. I’ve basically joined the service industry.”
In 2017, in rural Britain, farmers are being forced from the precious land that they love.
Mike, who is on the Dairy Board of the National Farmers Union, says: “There used to be 27 working dairy farms in this area, now there are none.
“There’s a whole nation of farmers in my position up and down the country.”
The huge gulf between the haves and have-nots in Macclesfield has been highlighted as part of a history project inspired by George Orwell.
It is just one more worry for farmers, who already have the highest suicide rates of any profession, with one farmer a week taking their own life. Isolation, money worries, gruelling hours and no holidays can be overwhelming and recent studies suggest a quarter of farmers live below the poverty line.
Mike said he was moved by messages from the public after he spoke out about losing his herd, begging him to keep going. He says: “It did keep me going, to know that people do care.
“The worst thing is thinking that no-one gives a toss. If your self-worth disappears, you’re a goner.”
Orwell’s route also takes in the Prince of Wales pub in Macclesfield town centre. At 47, landlord John Hitchener is just old enough to have worked in the silk mills that brought the town its prosperity.
He says: “I wish we could have held on to our heritage as a town.
“There used to be silk, cotton. A lot of the men in here will be old enough to remember the knockeruppers who ran round getting people up for work.
“There were houses for workers. Now young people can’t get on the ladder and working opportunities aren’t there.”
A short walk away, in a gym below a bathroom shop, the Macclesfield Boys’ Boxing Club is in full flow.
In Orwell’s day, Macclesfield had a proud boxing record, and for 14 years the club has drawn on that to help tackle social exclusion.
Here, boys and girls box for £1 a session.
Head coach Kevin Bradbury, 49, says: “We’ve had some great wins, but it’s not about that.
“It’s about turning kids’ lives around. You can’t save them all. But you try.”
Co-founder Gary White, 51, says all the kids look forward to the annual Blackpool trip.
He says: “Last summer, one of the boys saw the sea and said, ‘What’s that?’. He ran right the way down the beach, into the water. You could see him licking his lips. He’d never tasted salt water before.”
On nearby Moss Rose estate, many of the kids come from families where the maths of daily life doesn’t add up.
“People here are stressed and struggling,” says Rev Rob Wardle, 59, from the Cre-8 project run by St Barnabas church. “Parents are working longer hours for less, living with zero hours contracts and austerity and that impacts on their kids. There’s a lot of in-work poverty here, a lot of latchkey kids.
“There are modern day Fagins around.
“They use young lads to help with criminal activity, it’s a kind of grooming. Young people are vulnerable but don’t always realise it.”
“When I finish here, it’ll never be a farm again,” Mike says.
“My kids don’t want to be farmers – they’ve seen what we’ve gone through. This will be a house with fields, like most of our neighbours.”
His parting words hang in the air with the pollen haze floating above his neatly-mown fields.
“We need to really think what we want from our countryside,” he says.
“Lots of big houses, or food production?
“If the hill-farmers go to the wall after Brexit, we’re really facing the end of the countryside as we know it.”
To read more about the project go to mirror.co. uk/wiganpier2017.
If you would like to share experiences of living on a low income or struggling with welfare cuts, contact realbritain@ trinitymirror.com.
Coach Kevin Bradbury at Macclesfield Boys’ Boxing Club
Farmer Mike Gorton and, below, the dairy farm his family has run for more than 40 years
George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier depicted poverty in the north in the 1930s