At around midnight on Monday night, a Shaftesbury family’s world was shattered when arsonists burned down the barn on their treasured smallholding. John Massey and Sophie Forward told ThisIsAlfred why their initial desperation has been replaced with a feeling of thankfulness.
Keri Jones met the family at the scene of Monday night’s fire.
A gaggle of geese announced my arrival at ’The Field’ on Gascoigne’s Lane. This small plot of land, sloping up the hillside towards a ridge of trees, is shared with chickens, guinea fowl, peacocks, goats, pigs, Dexter cattle, donkeys and horses too. And whilst the birds warn their fellow feathered friends of a potential threat, John Massey told me they were ‘all noise’ and not likely to defend their ground. They won’t deter burglars or arsonists, sadly.
John has been wracking his brain for answers to the simple question about the arson attack. Why? “We don’t have any enemies,” said John.
It’s human nature to question why some unknown people would want to set personal property on fire. “There might be one or two people who are jealous because we had a lovely set up but it’s not a business. This is what we have built up for the children, for our kids and grandkids. And for our friends and their kids. They spend hours and hours here with the ponies, horses and donkeys. It is our playground,” said John.
He pulled back the corrugated iron door of the barn, the location of a blaze. There was a metallic screech, louder than the geese. I could see that everything inside the barn space was charred to a cinder. Shards of scorched metalwork, frames and wires rose up out of the inches of burnt wood littering the floor. The heavy, smoky smell lingered. Small pieces of ash, dislodged when the door opened, drifted down on us like blackened snowflakes.
The layer of burnt material on the floor is all that remains of the mezzanine level which came crashing down during the fire. John pointed out marks on the walls that reveal where the supports for the first floor and stairs once were. “You can almost see the slope where the staircase was to get up to the top. It was railed at the top so nobody would fall out. That was full of stuff. There was nothing salvageable. Everything is gone. All the rugs. All the feed. There were seven or eight saddles and girths and all the tack. Everything we used. Not just for the horses but the pigs, cattle, the chickens, the geese, the peacock breeding, the incubators. It’s all gone.”
I could see that John was getting upset. He was starting to tear up. “Over fifteen years you accumulate a lot of things. Every time we try and list what is missing, the list is endless and then you remember other things. It’s just terrible,” he said.
John has rationalised an irrational event. He thinks he’s worked out what the intruders wanted. “There was a ladder set parked just the other side of that beam over there,” said John, as he pointed towards a charred smudge on the shed wall. “They went. They are the only obvious things that we can see that they stole. There might be other things, but we won’t know until we sift through. My thought is that because there weren’t machines, chainsaws and the usual stuff that is quickly resalable they were fed up, so they torched it. We’ll never know unless they catch them.”
John says that there is always that hope but he is, perhaps, more realistic. “That seems a bit unlikely,” he said, raising a gentle smile.
The events of Monday night are fresh in John’s memory and are understandably raw. “A neighbour across the way said they heard and saw activity at the bottom of the field, and they rang us. He had already called the police and told them there was activity down there. He told me, ‘I think I have disturbed them, and they have gone’,” recounted John, who is not certain whether the police responded to the call out. “And then (our neighbour) called us at quarter to midnight and said, ‘Your barn is on fire’.”
John drove from town along French Mill Lane and Gascoigne’s Lane to the field, uncertain what would meet him. He couldn’t see signs of a blaze until he pulled off the dark, unlit lane. “I couldn’t really see for sure until I turned into the gate and I could see there was no way that was going to get put out. It was glowing red. The fire engines arrived soon afterwards and although they couldn’t salvage anything inside, they slowed down the burning and probably rescued the main structure. A policeman came and said somebody else will be in touch. They have not yet. I’m a bit concerned that if they leave it too long any trail that is around will go cold. There isn’t an awful lot of evidence to be had to be honest,” said John.
When he arrived at the field the gate was still closed, which makes him think that the arsonists got away on foot. They would be unlikely to take the time to close the gate if leaving in a vehicle, with the barn ablaze.
John is now counting the cost. “I reckon to repair the barn and replace everything you are talking up to £40,000. It wasn’t insured. You don’t tend to insure that sort of thing. It’s too expensive to get that insurance going but you would never expect anyone to do this,” John said.
This smallholding is a labour of love, not a business. The family generate a paltry income, from their poultry, selling free-range eggs. In the summer, they make and sell sausages from their own drove of pigs. And many families enjoy visiting to spot the seven peacocks and pet the donkeys and horses.
Looking after animals brings expense and requires John’s family to make sacrifices. “We don’t have holidays and we don’t spend money on other things,” he said. John, his stepdaughter Sophie and his wife Carol love animals. Sophie is a veterinary nurse. John served an equestrian apprenticeship as a trainer and jockey in Andover with Toby Balding, whose horses won two Grand Nationals.
“I’ve been all over the country with various trainers and spent a couple of years in Germany trying to make the best out of it. You don’t make a fortune unless you are in the top thirty jockeys,” said John.
He pointed out horses that live on this smallholding have often been ‘acquired,’ rather than bought. “People either can’t afford them or don’t want them, or they’ve grown out of them or lost interest. We take them on.”
It’s hard to imagine the range of emotions that the family must be experiencing. Days ago, John posted on Facebook that he was ‘devastated’. But thanks to social media, the family now know how much they are appreciated. Overwhelming sadness has, in part, been replaced by a feeling of gratefulness that the family live in a kind-hearted community
“We were overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness that happened so quickly. On the morning of the fire my phone was out of battery in ten minutes with the number of messages that I got from people who are offering to do just anything,” said Sophie Forward, John’s stepdaughter. “Shaftesbury people know what this field is. This smallholding is like ‘The Good Life’. People know how much it means to us as a family and how devastating it is. No one deserves a theft let alone arson. They didn’t leave us with anything,” said Sophie.
Good Samaritan Jayne-Marie Dawson has set up a Facebook fundraising page. Sophie has been moved by this generosity shown by somebody she doesn’t even know. “A complete stranger. It’s very kind. That’s the power of Facebook,” Sophie said. The fundraising target is £1,000. “That was set by the lady who set it up. We were shocked to see people donating. It’s unbelievable.” added Sophie.
The support has bolstered John’s resolve. “I will do my damnedest to prepare what I can and get it going again but I will never get it as lovely as it was. My wife spent hours,” he said, as he referred to how the barn was decorated and organised. “She is so fastidious.”
Over the past four days, twelve people have donated £383. “That’s going to help,” said John. “Very simple things, like to get a skip here, will cost nearly £400. It’s a big lump that will be hard to find and this funding page will help. Lots of other people have donated tack, saddles, girths and bridles. We can’t thank them enough,” John said.
Sophie says the kindness the family has been shown is typical. “That’s the horse community for you. They are there when you need them. They all understand that we do it for the animals. It’s a lifestyle and it takes years to get everything. Here, every horse has its wardrobe. It can’t just be replaced,” she explained.
If you have horse equipment that you don’t need any more, the family would be grateful for it. “If they have some tack that they don’t want any more or if they are giving up horses and it is just sitting around doing nothing, we would be very grateful to take it on. We’ll sift through it, use what we want and if we get an excess of stuff over the top of what we want it will find another good home,” said Sophie.
If you want to help or you want to contact John and his family and you are not on Facebook, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll pass on your message.