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There is always something magical about Christmas on a farm, in a beautiful old farmhouse like ours at Bemborough, where my family has lived since my dad Joe Henson took over the tenancy in 1962. His parents weren’t farmers, but he got the bug in his childhood and passed it down to me.
The stone building lends itself to all the traditions of Christmas. Bedecked with holly and large bunches of mistletoe, and with the wonderful smells of the traditional feast filtering from the kitchen, I feel especially connected to the generations of farmers who have gone before me, marking Christmas in much the same way through the centuries.
I think with age I’ve become softer and more sentimental. Since the arrival of my children, the death of my parents, and something that rocked our family to its core in recent years, which I’ll share with you later, Christmas has become ever more loaded with meaning.
As a farmer, it’s a rare chance to slow down and think about how far we’ve come in the year and where to go next, but it’s also about old traditions. When we celebrate in ways our parents did, we’re keeping them alive.
Here are some of my fondest memories of Christmas on the farm…
Presents under the tree may have varied, but the need to look after the farm and to celebrate the break is unchanged.
I may be a familiar face from my various TV programmes, most notably Countryfile, but first and foremost I am a farmer, involved in the day-to-day running of this farm in the beautiful, green Cotswold countryside, and I am lucky enough to have lived here all my life.
Unlike the ancestors who worked the land before us, many farmers up and down the country today – including me – do not have to work the whole of Christmas Day. Instead, I can settle down to Christmas dinner, my favourite meal, knowing I can fall asleep after if I wish!
There is nothing on that steaming plate I don’t love: turkey, Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips, roast potatoes, stuffing, gravy. It’s particularly wonderful for me, and many other farmers, because we can look at the food in front of us and know where it has come from. I have experience of growing and raising some of the contents of the dinner plate, and have met many farmers who take care of the other ingredients, so I know first-hand what has gone into it.
When I was a child, going to get the Christmas tree with my dad was always a big adventure. We lived close to a wood with mixed species of trees, including pines and firs.
With the landlord’s permission, Dad made an annual expedition into the plantation with my three older sisters and me, wrapped up in knitted jumpers and scarves. One year I got to choose the tree and Dad sawed it down with a handsaw while my sisters and I looked on ready to shout ‘Timber!’, then we helped drag it back to the farmhouse.
It was always, always too tall, and every year Mum would ask why we couldn’t just choose one to fit instead of having to chop a lump off the top. I never knew whether Dad did it deliberately!
I received my first puppy, Nita, for Christmas in 1974, aged seven. As my sisters ripped the wrapping paper off their toys until there were no more gaudy packages under the tree, I began to feel forgotten. Why was I the only one without a present?
Then Mum said: “Look over there.” In the corner of the living room was an old, battered tea chest with a piece of Christmas paper stuck across the top instead of a lid. “Open it,” she said, smiling, and she and Dad came to stand by me as I tore off the red paper.
There, looking up at me, was a small liver and white springer spaniel. She stared at me with her big, brown eyes as I gazed down at her, and in that moment an incredible bond was formed, one that would last all her long life. Tears sprang to my eyes, I was so moved by the sight of her.
She was exactly what I had wished for. I wasn’t tall enough to reach down to her, so Dad gently lifted her and placed her in my arms. Immediately she snuggled into my chest, turning her head up and gently licking my face.
She grew to be the most wonderful, devoted dog any boy could ever own. That Christmas Day was, and still is, one of the best days ever in my memory.
Christmas 2021 was very special. It was the best Christmas of my life, because it was the one that Charlie and I feared could be her last. Thankfully she survived to see it.
The year had started as the worst of my life. Charlie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the most feared cancers of all. With symptoms so difficult to spot, the disease has usually taken hold by the time treatment starts, with a survival rate of only around 5%.
But by Christmas 2021 [Adam and Charlie got married on 9 September and two days later she had a successful operation], Charlie was getting better and stronger all the time. We had some, if not all, of our precious family around us. It felt wonderful to end the year in our home, steeped in memories of many happy Christmases, celebrating for the first time as husband and wife.
Our Christmas routine nowadays is only slightly different from my childhood memories of the big day. The food is traditional, much the same as Mum, who we lost in 2019, would have served.
As we get into bed at the end of the day, far too full and feeling contented, the house I’ve grown up in creaks like a human being breathing, the odd grumble in a pipe the equivalent of one of my snores. It’s nice to think that future generations will share the magic of this time of year on Bemborough Farm.