Remembering Buckfast

As Monday mornings go, this isn’t a bad one. There is a chill in the air which seems only right given the time of year, but the sun is shining and I am settling down to write something for my humble wee blog. Well, it’s a bee blog actually, but it’s also wee, and it occupies a quiet, rarely visited corner of the web. There are no tumbleweeds rolling past in this part of the internet, just graphs of visitor stats which stay stubbornly flat. When I worked for General Electric they were obsessed with “double digit growth”. You won’t find any of that here, although I suppose “0.0” is double digits, sort of? Oh well.

This weekend we had a visitation from our Kent relatives which was very pleasant. I took them to see my apiary yesterday and was pleased to see some of my bees still flying and bringing in pollen. I saw one live wasp so I will keep the wasp traps out for a while longer. I saw hundreds of dead wasps too, drowned in the sweet liquid at the bottom of the traps. I don’t hate wasps at all, but a walrus must defend his bees.

I have been running over the interview I had with David Kemp back in August. He is a bit of a legend, having worked alongside Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey from 1964 to 1974, and then on to becoming a bee inspector for many years. He has spent a lifetime with bees and has been a part of the history of beekeeping in this country. He kindly let me have some photographs of his time at Buckfast which will be in my forthcoming book. They still need a bit of tidying up in photoshop to remove specks of dust and the odd blemish, but they offer a fascinating insight to a bygone age. Many thanks to Andy Wattam for doing the digital scans and sending them over to me. Andy was the National Bee Inspector until a few years ago, and also spent time at Buckfast Abbey, but back in the 1980s David Kemp was his boss.

One thing I immediately noticed about Mr Kemp was that he can talk. This is a good thing because in our interview I had very little to do, apart from check on the battery levels of my recording device. He does, however, rarely answer a question directly. It was probably because my questions were rubbish, or maybe because they triggered memories, so he would go off on tangents down memory lanes. That was fine by me; all I wanted to do was enjoy my time with him and listen to his stories.

David_kemp_Aug2017
David Kemp Aug 2017

We were in a pub called The Fox in Kelham, on the River Trent near Newark. I had arrived at 11:50 with a bursting bladder, having driven over the penines in the walrus wagon, and was shocked to discover that the pub would not open its doors until midday. Ten minutes may not sound long, but alas, it was longer than my waterworks could cope with, so I had to sneak to a quiet area by a hedge and have a relieving wee (the other kind of wee). I suppose I could have been arrested for “hedge poisoning” or something but I was not discovered.

Here is a small extract of my interview with David:

DK But after coming back from the moors they would be picked up and weighed on scales, and if they needed it they would be fed using a large tray feeder. They lifted the hive up and because they knew the weight of the hive they could work out what stores were needed. The honey was taken off on the moors. We used to go up with a team of men on a lorry. The beekeepers would take the supers off the hives – they’d been left on bee escapes over the weekend – and we stacked the supers up on the lorry, and move on to the next apiary.

He was brilliant at organisation, was Adam. It was spot on, typical German.

SD Were you one of many helping out or…

DK No. When I first went there the advert said “Beekeeping Assistant required for Buckfast Abbey” and I’d kept bees since I was 9 years old, and had this fascination about how bees worked. I had dabbled by buying bees from France and the Isle of Wight from Douglas Roberts, and could see the crosses. Douglas Roberts’ bees were fantastic, not only were they quiet but they used to bring a lot of honey in. The French bees were vicious.

SD Were they?

DK Oh…they do well, but sting? When I was a gamekeeper I had some French bees, and my Labrador came along and got stung all round his lips and ears. He left me for the first time, he went back to the house

SD Can’t blame him really

DK Whenever I went to the beehives after that he would stay back about 25 yards away. But the French bees I had were nasty. You could deal with them on a very good day but the slightest indication of rain or thunder or anything like that…and if they were confined for a long period they would just take it out on the beekeeper.

Whilst I was at Buckfast you never wore gloves. No suits like people wear now because they weren’t about.

SD Just a veil?

DK I had an African Rifles hat from the second world war and a black net veil, and an apron. The tape of the apron held your veil down, and the apron protected you from getting messed up with sticky honey.

But going back to the staff, when I arrived there and met Brother Adam for the first time, one Saturday morning, he came over with his hands drawn into his sleeves and his hood up…he looked like something out of MacBeth. He took me down to the bee department where Brother Pascal was working, who was also an excellent beekeeper – he’d been on the bees for 25 years – he was really good…

SD Yeah

DK So there was Brother Adam, Brother Pascal and myself who worked on the bees. Brother Bernard did the mail and stuff like that; posting honey off for Christmas – it used to go to Fortnum & Masons and a couple of stores in London, and a lot used to go privately in small boxes to various people. So we ran along like that for quite a number of years.

SD So you were in quite a privileged position

DK Yes, and looking back, how do these things happen? Why did I apply for a job at Buckfast Abbey? Although gamekeeping, which I was on for the previous six years, I could see that was all going to change. All the shooting was going to money. When I applied for the beekeeping job one of the old gamekeepers said it was the best thing I’d done and that all the shooting was going over to money.

It might not be everybody’s cup of tea but I very much enjoyed my 4 hours chatting and I’m pleased with some of the stories I got. Just think, when he first went to Buckfast there was no varroa, no oilseed rape, and there were vast meadows white with clover. They had to deal with the often foul weather around Dartmoor, and much later on with foul brood, but for a while it must have been an idyllic place to keep bees and to learn from Brother Adam, who was “a man ahead of his time” according to David Kemp.

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