Shovelling My Way Through Hell

The Worst Job I've Ever Had

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS

Peter Pickering

4/11/20248 min read

Peter Pickering was 17, and full of youthful optimism when he took a job as a tractor driver for Ted Edgar on his farm near Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield, opposite Charlecote Park. Little did he know, he was stepping into what would become the worst job of his life.

Ted was a distinguished gentleman farmer, brimming with countryside savvy. He was always kind and generous towards me, which made a lasting impression. Interestingly, he shared a name and familial ties with another Ted Edgar, a relative and luminary in the realm of British show jumping. This other Ted Edgar was not just a triumphant competitor; he was also a highly esteemed trainer and horse dealer who left an indelible mark on the sport in the UK.

Driving a tractor with a potato spinner attached to it might sound simple enough, but it was far from it. I was responsible for unearthing the potatoes, which would then be picked up by a team of seasoned women and placed into tubs. These tubs would eventually make their way to a massive storage barn, where the potatoes were piled at least 10-15 feet high.

Ted was always pushing me to go faster, but when he wasn't around, the women would urge me to slow down. I was caught in a tug-of-war between two conflicting demands, and it was intimidating. These women were much older than me, and they didn't hesitate to make threats. They'd even said they'd attack and strip me if I didn't comply, and I believed they would.

The true ordeal kicked in a few months down the line, as winter's cold began to bite. Our barn turned into a vast temple of potatoes, where my task was to feed them into a sorter, one heaped forkful at a time. The sorter was manned by a team of former pickers. Ted, ever the taskmaster, appointed his son John to keep watch. John took to his role with a harshness that would rival the most unforgiving overseer on a penal colony—utterly without empathy.

The job was relentlessly dull, physically devastating, and thoroughly exhausting. The schedule was brutal: we kicked off at 8 AM, aiming to clock in 8 hours of work. By the time we wrapped up at 5 PM, we'd squeezed in a 15-minute break in both the morning and afternoon, along with a 30-minute pause for lunch to recharge. This gruelling routine dragged on for weeks until we had somehow managed to sort and bag the colossal heap of potatoes.

New crop of potatoes in the furrow
New crop of potatoes in the furrow

In theory, shovelling the spuds should have been made somewhat less burdensome by the design of our potato fork. Unlike the standard, sharply pointed tines, ours were designed for the task and had rounded beads at the end. This detail was crucial; pointed tines would often pierce through the potatoes, requiring us to remove them by hand, a tedious process that drastically slowed down the shovelling. The rounded beads were meant to prevent this, allowing us to shovel and toss without hindrance.

However, in practice, this didn’t always work out as smoothly as intended. Every so often, a rogue spud would stubbornly impale itself onto a tine, defying the supposed ingenuity of our specialised fork. Whenever this happened, a surge of frustration would wash over me. It wasn’t just the interruption to the rhythm I had painstakingly built up over the hours; it was also the knowledge that John was lurking nearby, ever eager to catch me in a moment of delay.

His presence loomed like a shadow over my shoulder, waiting for any opportunity to pounce on any sign of slowing down, especially for something as seemingly trivial as clearing a potato from a fork. This aspect of the job, dealing with the rogue spuds, became a source of intense irritation. Not only did it disrupt the flow of work, but it also put me squarely in John's sights, giving him the ammunition he needed to justify his relentless drive for speed and efficiency. The constant pressure and scrutiny made these moments especially galling, adding a layer of stress to an already backbreaking task.

In the midst of the monotonous toil, I devised a personal challenge to stave off the crippling boredom: to discover and set aside the largest potato of each shift for myself. This little game became a beacon of light in an otherwise dreary routine. Each day, as I shovelled endless mounds of potatoes into the sorting machine, my eyes would scan the sea of tubers for that one colossal specimen. Finding the biggest potato became a mission, a small victory in the vastness of our potato cathedral.

I had developed quite the taste for oven-baked potatoes, especially when they were cooked in their jackets to perfection, their skins crispy and insides fluffy. Topped with a generous dollop of butter and a hearty helping of melted cheese, they transformed into a comforting feast. This simple culinary delight was my reward after a long, hard day's work. It was a motivation, a small treat to look forward to, and in some ways, it helped me keep my sanity amidst the relentless cycle of work.

Each potato saved felt like a trophy, a tangible result of my perseverance through the tedium. This peculiar ritual of mine injected a dose of much-needed amusement into my days, making the grueling work slightly more bearable. It was these small moments of joy, these little victories against the backdrop of endless labour, that helped me find the strength to endure.

Surviving that period was nothing short of miraculous. The work was so demanding that I would often find myself in a trance-like state, my body mechanically moving just to make it through another day. There was no delight to be found in the work, only the bleak relief of the tea and lunch breaks. But even that small comfort was tainted by the constant, cruel jabs from Ted's son, John—a bully of a man who seemed to find twisted joy in tormenting me.

Amidst the relentless cycle of shovelling spuds, a flicker of hope sparked one day when Ted made an unexpected announcement. Instead of the usual bagging of potatoes, we were to participate in a pheasant shoot. The mere thought of a day off, a break from the monotony, sent waves of joy through me. It felt like a breath of fresh air, a much-needed respite from the backbreaking labour. I was practically over the moon at the prospect of stepping away from the potato shed.

My excitement was fuelled by a deep-seated passion for shooting. Ted, with his notable social connections, frequently received invites to local pheasant shoots, and the idea of joining one was thrilling. I fantasised about being among the shooters, perhaps even outshining them with a remarkable tally of pheasants by the day’s end.

Pheasant taking flight from a wood in England
Pheasant taking flight from a wood in England

However, my enthusiasm was swiftly deflated when Ted outlined my actual duties for the day. I wouldn’t be wielding a shotgun and participating in the thrill of the shoot with the gentry as I had imagined. Instead, my role was to be a humble 'beater,' tasked with navigating the underbrush, making noise, and agitating the bushes to flush the pheasants out towards the waiting guns of the shooters.

This revelation stung deeply, adding a layer of disappointment to my already bruised pride. The idea of being so close to the action, yet relegated to a supporting role, felt both humiliating and bitterly ironic. The thought of trudging through the woods, stick in hand, while others enjoyed the prestige of the shoot, was a harsh reminder of my place in Ted’s world. It was a painful pill to swallow, especially given my eagerness and anticipation for the shoot.

This early brush with being underestimated and confined to a role far beneath my aspirations might very well have been the spark that ignited my deep-seated desire for a different, more fulfilling life. For someone with neurodiversity, such experiences of feeling boxed in by societal expectations can be intensely frustrating. The conventional world often doesn’t flex to accommodate different ways of thinking and being, making these barriers not just physical but deeply psychological. Yet, it was these very challenges that paradoxically propelled me forward, igniting a drive within me to rise above.

English country manor house in landscaped grounds
English country manor house in landscaped grounds

Seeing DeVere's story at Grantleigh Manor unfold, I found not only validation for my past struggles but also a renewed conviction for my dreams. It articulated the desires I’d harboured long before leaving England, especially after being humbled as a mere 'beater.' It reaffirmed my resolve to elevate myself, to return to England one day and live out that dream of ascension and acceptance.

Thus, my experiences, viewed through the lens of neurodiversity, became not just hurdles but stepping stones. They fostered in me a resolve to carve a niche for myself, proving that the circumstances of my origins are but a chapter, not the entirety, of my story. This vision of transcending my beginnings and achieving a place within higher tiers of society became more than a mere fantasy; it was a direction, a source of hope, and a blueprint for overcoming obstacles and defying the odds laid against me.

Reflecting on the entire journey, from the laborious days spent shovelling endless mounds of potatoes in the cold embrace of the barn to the humbling role of a beater at a pheasant shoot, it's clear this period was rife with challenges and moments of introspection. The relentless monotony of the task, the physical toll it took, and the complex dynamics with individuals like John, who seemed to revel in authority, all contributed to a chapter in my life that felt both limiting and exhausting. Yet, amidst the struggle, there were glimpses of humanity and kindness that offered solace. Ted, for all the demands of the job, showed unexpected generosity. The renovation of an old farm cottage into a home for my family and the thoughtful provision of an old WWII minibike during my transportation woes were acts of kindness that provided a much-needed buffer against the harshness of the daily grind.

Freshly dug potatoes
Freshly dug potatoes

This story is one of resilience, a testament to enduring through seemingly insurmountable odds. Surviving the mountain of potatoes, the gruelling hours, and navigating difficult relationships marked a period of my life that tested me to my limits. It was, arguably, the most challenging job I've ever undertaken, yet it's a chapter I cannot, and would not, erase. It has shaped me, taught me about my strengths and my capacity to endure and adapt.

In a peculiar twist of fate, this experience, peppered with both hardship and small acts of kindness, has become a cherished part of my narrative. It taught me the value of looking beyond immediate circumstances towards a future filled with potential and dreams. The vision of a different life, one of significance and fulfillment, like the journey of Richard DeVere in "To The Manor Born," provided not just an escape but a goal—a beacon of hope that guided me through the toughest of times.

And so, as I stand today, far removed from the potato sheds and the pheasant fields, I carry with me not just the memories but also the lessons learned. I am a testament to the belief that one's beginnings do not define their end. My journey from the depths of those challenging days to achieving a life that once seemed a mere fantasy speaks to the resilience and determination that was forged in those trying times. And through it all, my love for potatoes remains unscathed—a humorous reminder of where I've been and how far I've come.