SPECIAL REPORT: Farmer Hughie Batchelor - a life remembered
Friday 17th November 2017
THE death of Maidstone farmer Hughie Batchelor, aged 90, provided many with an opportunity to reflect on the life of a controversial character who, quite literally, changed the landscape of the North Downs.
Once a multi-millionaire farmer and landowner, he lived for about 20 years at the impressive Thurnham Court before moving near Ashford and a quieter life. At the height of his career, he and his son Richard were farming 5,500 acres from Thurnham to Harrietsham, concentrating on wheat, rape, peas and oats production.
At the same time, Mr Batchelor speculated on about 2,500 acres of land in other parts of Kent, boasting, with his signature smile: “I never made a loss on one of these deals”.
However, his arable activities attracted keen interest as did his insistence to expand the business, no matter what the cost, which led him into brushes with environmentalists, local communities – and the law. In the 1980s, when he ignored tree preservation orders, his court appearances became a regular feature of his working life and on local TV, coupled with stiff fines – even three months in Pentonville Prison.
At the time, he responded by praising the judge for delaying his sentence until after the harvest and vigorously defended his action of “clearing scrub trees and hedgerows to economically manage his farmland”.
However, Mr Batchelor’s critics were many, not least those who witnessed the clearing of woodland and hedges that had dressed the Downs for centuries in his quest for “horizon to horizon combining”.
And after his borrowing rose and the business experienced financial problems with land investments and nervousness from his bank, the farm went into receivership, prompting another appearance in the media when he tried to kidnap a receiver at gunpoint, for which he was given a suspended prison sentence.
The farmer, who wore a grin as well as a flat cloth cap, then took his leave of the area – losing the title he bought himself of Lord of the Manor of Thurnham – in the sale of his farming empire by the liquidators, heading for life near Ashford with his wife Grace.
In an exclusive interview he gave Downs Mail at the time, then aged 73, he described his retirement as “less exciting”, but one with few regrets, blaming the demise of his business empire on his bank and poor timing. He said: “I think the business fortune deserted me at two important times; once when I was short of buying 300 acres at Swanley, which would have made me very sound, and again on the problems over the Grove Green deal.”
He undoubtedly enjoyed the challenge of getting the most from his land and confessed to hoping for a lottery win to give him a fresh chance to invest in land.
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