Farmer John Graham – Master Observer


Here at Trials Guru, we are always looking for something different and original and instead of featuring a rider, we obtained this article about  the unsung heroes of our sport, the observers. Without observers, we would have no events. Trials Guru asked an observers’ daughter to pen us an article, this is the result.


Words and photos provided by Helen Graham:



Following a photograph of a well-known and reliable observer ‘Farmer John’ being featured on social media, a flurry of praise ensued with comments such as: Legend; Respect; “Hope I can do that at his age”; “Dedicated to North East Trials”.

There were also questions raised about the life of this 87 year old man in a flat cap, who braves all weathers to observe at trials throughout the North East and beyond.

John Graham was born on 10th January 1930 in Blanchland, Northumberland and at an early age moved with his parents to a rented farm in Hexhamshire, where he lived until the age of twelve when the family moved to a different farm in Hexhamshire, known as High Raw Green, not far from Whitley Chapel.


John wanted to join the RAF as he wanted a trade, and particularly wished to be a mechanic on aeroplanes.

Sadly this was not to be, as being an only child it was expected that he would work for his father and then take over the tenancy of the farm, which was owned by Northumberland County Council.

Let us not forget that in those days there were few cars or tractors, and work on the farm was by means of four legged ‘horse-power’.  John states his father got the first family car in 1947, and only after that did they get a tractor on the farm.

Farmer John has only ever possessed one motor cycle, a 1950 Ariel 500 with sidecar.  He describes the sidecar as a “wooden box for carrying stuff in”.

John got married to his wife Nancy in 1958, and in 1962 they began farming for themselves at High Raw Green.  Sadly the Ariel 500 and ‘box’ had to be swapped for a wagon chassis to make a trailer to be used on the farm.  Money was scarce and any available was put into the farm.  John is a self-taught engineer and this was not the only trailer that he has built throughout his life.

John and Nancy had a hard life on their dairy farm.  They had a herd of over 40 friesian dairy cows to be milked every morning and evening.  In summer there was hay and silage to harvest.  In winter there were severe snowstorms and John was a well-recognised figure out on his tractor with snow plough fitted to the back, to clear the local roads of snow so that the milk tanker could get to the farms to take the daily production of milk from the farms to the dairy.

John and his younger daughter Anthea began going to motocross every Sunday afternoon.  He described it as “an interest, at weekends”.

In 1991 when he and Nancy retired from farming John started to go to motorcycle trials, and says that Harry Norman “roped him in to observe”, and he has been doing so ever since, for 26 years in fact.

Let us not also forget that since John retired from farming in 1991 he has worked continuously at Hexham Auction Mart as a stock person, a manual job, and starts work there at 7am every Tuesday and Friday, and other days when sheep and cattle or other sales take place.

John has observed at all local trials, plus the Yorkshire and Cumberland main trials, and this year is his 20th year for observing at the Scottish Pre-65.

His elder daughter Helen questioned him closely: What do you enjoy about being an Observer?.

His immediate reply, with a wry smile, was “Authority”!

She asked – Do you want to elaborate on that?, and Farmer John replied “to make sure there’s no rock-shifting”.

She asked him what he thinks about observing in wind and rain and all types of weather and his matter-of-fact reply was “It doesn’t bother me because I’ve been used to it all my life”.

Has he a favourite venue?

FJ: “No, but the Scottish Pre-65 is one I enjoy very much.  It was a one-day effort originally, and I observed at Pollock Hill for 12 years, The Pipeline, twice or thrice at the hotel up on the top. It was Brian Short who ran the Weardale Trial who got me to do it.  They always wanted me to observe at the Scottish Six Days Trial but I declined, it was unfair on anyone that was with me because I would be out from 7am – 7pm.  I’ve seen most of the sections at one time or another.”

Does he have any problems with any of the riders?

FJ: “Some of them didn’t like getting Fives but there’s no arguments nowadays because a Five is a Five! I know most of the riders well now”.

What do you think of the new/young riders who are taking part in trials now?

FJ: “They are progressing well”.

A lot of people are surprised you are so fit and healthy at your age of 87 years.  What do you put that down to? – FJ: “Hard work”.

How long do you intend to continue? – FJ: “Till I Die”.

Well “Farmer John”, let’s hope that’s not for some time yet!!

His daughters just also want to say that behind every good man there is a good woman, and Farmer Johns’ wife Nancy still makes his bag of ‘bait’ every Sunday morning for him, before he heads off to the relevant Trial of the day, and has his cooked meal ready for him when he gets home.

Legend is probably quite fitting, don’t you think?

2017 Pre’65 Scottish Trial – Major Gaff!

When 87 year old Farmer John Graham was asked if he had a favourite venue to observe at he described the Pre’65 Scottish as being ‘The Trial’.

This year, 2017 was to be his twentieth year as an observer at the Pre’65 Scottish Trial.

His daughter Helen has always said that for as long as he wants to observe she will drive him the 225 miles to Kinlochleven from his home town of Hexham, Northumberland.

This duly happened this year, and she drove Farmer John and wife Nancy on a beautiful sunny day from Hexham to what had been a wet day in Kinlochleven.

Farmer John had been given a brand new section to observe at on Friday 28th April 2017, at Man na Gualain. He was most concerned that he had not checked it out.  Helen took him to the meeting of all observers the evening beforehand and once having received his official programme he was keen to check out his section.

2017 Pre-65 and Portpatrick and Mull of Galloway 054 - red
Farmer John Graham (right) gets into position to observe – Photo: Helen Graham, Consett

He was duly at Kinlochleven checking in the following morning and was duly at his section well before he needed to be, so keen is he!

Farmer John was glad to find that the section was harder than what he thought it would be and “riders lost quite a few marks”. He was as ever vigilant that there was no “rock-moving” and he thoroughly enjoyed his day, chatting with entrants and people who were watching the trial.

Saturday was a section he had been at previously, Camas na Muic, and the only blight in his day was the amount of riders who stood on a particular “rock” in the section in an attempt to move it. As ever he was on the ball and fair in his marking.

Unbeknown to him organisers of the Pre-65 Scottish wanted to acknowledge his 20 years of observing at the awards evening on Saturday 29th April. He is not a big social attender but Helen suggested it might be nice to go as he hadn’t been previously, so he obliged.

Farmer John was there presented with an engraved whisky glass and medal acknowledging his 20 years of observing. He was very grateful, albeit very confused when the organisers made a huge and very embarrassing blunder by having the presenter, Graham Archer mention that he was retiring.

2017 Pre-65 and Portpatrick and Mull of Galloway 067 - red
Oops! Graham Archer (right) and Colin Dommett (Centre) received incorrect information that ‘Farmer John’ was retiring, whereas it was actually for recognition of twenty years service for observing! Farmer John accepts his award in his usual shy manner and certainly isn’t retiring – Photo: Helen Graham, Consett

Well, his daughter Helen was very quick to point out, that is the first she had heard of him retiring, and he has made no decision to do so!

As an interesting aside, after his two days observing Farmer John, Nancy and Helen travelled down the west coast to Portpatrick for an overnight stay there. Farmer John and Nancy had stayed there almost fifty-nine years previously on their honeymoon. Farmer John was again in his element with his other interest, seeing the countryside and cattle on the Mull of Galloway and visiting a farm near Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway which belongs to a cattle dealer that is a client at Hexham Auction Mart where Farmer John works.

Roll on your 21st Pre’65 Scottish Trial Farmer John, and never lose your interests.

2017 Pre-65 and Portpatrick and Mull of Galloway 125 - red

Article: Copyright – Trials Guru & Helen Graham 2017

Photos: Helen Graham, Consett

Farmer John (left) with North East riders, Darren Palmer (Centre) and Gavin Brown( Right)

Sadly John Graham passed away on 7th December 2020, aged 90 years.

John Graham was diagnosed with cancer on 19th November 2020. He had been out observing at a motorcycle trial as late as the 12th September. The nurses who treated John told his family they had never known anyone as strong, and they called him “individual”. The sum of £4000 has been raised in donations for Tynedale Hospice at Home. Trials riders followed the funeral cortege around Hexham Auction Mart where John had worked from his retirement from farming in 1991. Around 200 farmers, friends, family and about 30 trials riders on their bikes, in effect his worlds united with mutual respect.

9 thoughts on “Farmer John Graham – Master Observer”

  1. Nice article ,don’t know him personally ,but met a good few times I the line of business!!

  2. Sutty says riding farmer johns section is the highlight of any trial his smile and comments are always appreciated

  3. I like his approach. A very even handed and even tempered gentleman to encounter on a wet hillside across the Border or on our side and invariably worth stopping to talk to.

  4. WOW!! What a man.I would say a true legend.I think he is owed the highest of respect not only for his dedication to the sport,but also for how honestly and hard he has worked his whole life.

  5. Thank you all for your kind words about our Dad! Stand by for an update about Farmer John at the Scottish Pre-65 2017!

  6. John deserves high praise, smashing bloke to spend some time with. Out in all weather and always enjoys a laugh at my riding.

  7. What a lovely story about a real hardworking man who must have really enjoyed his life till the end.
    Great story thanks.

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