Fergal Keane on his Return to Forgotten Britain

"Whether they were shipyard workers in a threatened industry, hill farmers hoping for better prices or unemployed teenagers applying for jobs, their resilience was striking"

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Fergal Keane on his Return to Forgotten Britain
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Fergal Keane

Coming down the path on this Cornish farm I felt a stab of unease. After all these years what would the Baileys say? Would they be angry over the way they had been portrayed on TV 12 years ago? I remembered that Ben Bailey did not suffer fools. With the cameras running, I began to dread an onscreen drubbing.

The last time I came to this spot on the Roseland Peninsula, Ben and his wife Jackie were in dire straits. I wrote for RT about their plight and that of others in the country who were struggling. Back then, the Baileys had been forced to sell off their herd of dairy cows to pay bank loans. “At the moment I’m just bitter, fed up, exhausted, defeated,” Ben told me.

British farming was in crisis after a perfect storm of BSE, foot and mouth and falling commodity prices. In the decade since I last visited Cornwall, half the dairy farmers in the UK have gone out of business.

Arriving at the Baileys back door I kept to the country tradition: knock once, announce yourself and walk in. I needn’t have been fearful. There were warm handshakes and much laughter.

That night I sat with Ben, Jackie and their 24-year-old daughter Alice and watched the old film. All three had tears in their eyes as the grim days of 12 years ago unfolded on screen. There was a momentary silence at the end. Then Jackie spoke up: “I found that quite upsetting.”

Alice chipped in: “I think it was good… you’re still here. You were strong then and you’re even stronger now.” And then she told her parents that she was proud of them.

Over the next few days I learnt exactly why. After I’d said goodbye 12 years ago Ben and Jackie threw themselves feverishly into work. They were determined to get back into dairy farming. At one point, Ben was holding down five different jobs, while Jackie also found work away from the farm. Eventually they saved enough to buy cattle and started rebuilding the herd. Rising food prices helped restore their finances.

Nearly 400 miles away in north Wales, the Roberts family lived on the side of a lonely mountain and were facing financial collapse when I first met them. Driving along the narrow roads of Cwmpenanner, the visitor is tempted to believe the words of the Welsh poet RS Thomas: “There is no present in Wales, And no future; There is only the past, Brittle with relics…”

A few minutes in the boisterous kitchen of Gwlithyn and Arwyn Roberts soon dispelled my pessimism. The three girls I remembered as small children - Alaw, Mali and Nêst - are fast becoming young women. And there is an addition to the brood, an impish boy named Cai who is seven. All four want to live in the area and work in farming.

When I last met Gwlithyn she was depressed and isolated, marooned on the farm with three small children and a husband who worked all hours.

“I have good days, I have bad days and I have very bad days. I just cry, really, really cry all the time,” she told me then. But, like the Baileys, the Roberts cut spending to the bone. They worked and worked and saved. Lamb prices rose and the farm became viable. There were other more personal changes. Gwlithyn went out and got a job. “In work, I’m not anybody’s wife, sister, mother, daughter. I’m just me there,” she says now.

In Cornwall and Wales, I had expected to return and find defeat - but I was confounded. Yes, there were still huge challenges facing both families. Milk prices were under threat and bovine TB was threatening Ben’s herd. The Roberts live in a Welsh-speaking community whose identity is under threat as more young people leave for the towns. Tenant farmers will never be rich.

But the journey back taught me a larger lesson about Britain today. I spent weeks travelling not only in Wales and Cornwall but in deprived urban landscapes in Glasgow and Leeds. While the politicians fretted over a so-called “Broken Britain”, the people I met got on with raising families and contributing to communities.

Whether they were shipyard workers in a threatened industry, hill farmers hoping for better prices or unemployed teenagers applying for jobs, their resilience was striking. This is not to idealise the characters who appear in this series or to underestimate the scale of the challenges they face - viewers will quickly see how tough their lives continue to be. But they will also meet people who simply won’t settle for being forgotten.

Return to Forgotten Britain is on tonight at 8:00pm on BBC2

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