Chapter 4: Further Education
When I was 16 my Mother arranged for me to attend the East Sussex School of Agriculture at Plumpton. To me this seemed an eminently boring and cushy period. Apart from playing around with light jobs on the model farm we slumbered in the lecture hall learning about milk production, dairy hygiene, the finer points of a dairy cow, and of a cart horse, bee-keeping and soil analysis.
While I was there the war ended.
It was decided that I should use my new knowledge and enter the world of dairy farming. After all the income from a herd of cows, a regular cheque from the Milk Marketing Board, was the lynch pin of most farms. I presented myself full of hope and enthusiasm to a small dairy farm at South Chailey. I soon discovered the difference between theory and practice. My Waterloo was met at the grass roots, a bucket, wooden stool and the udder of a large Shorthorn cow.
All modesty aside I was, at 17, a sconcy little baggage. The farm was a small family concern, Dad, his son and the son's wife. Father and son were quite nice to me but wifey was not, she had a squint and this combined with her general air of dislike of me I found disconcerting. This was echoed by the farmer's wife so, you see, I didn't stand much chance of a happy work situation. I had the misfortune to lodge with these delightful souls. In the evenings they often drove off to the pub and on the first occasion I assumed I would join them but no, they let me follow them outside, they locked all the doors of the house, slammed the car doors and drove off. "You can wait outside till we get back" said the squint triumphantly. I can remember tramping the damp hedgerows for hours until their return.
As if all this wasn't bad enough I found hand milking was not a skill that falls to one naturally. With a bucket clenched between the knees and sitting on a low three legged stool you grasp the teat and pull. If you are lucky Daisy, who has seen milkmaids come and go, chews her cud and resigns herself to the indignity with statuesque fortitude. If you are not lucky you get Flora who waits till you get within range, aims a hefty kick and you find yourself sliding down the cowshed wall much to the delight of you know who. Anyway back to the mighty teat. Simply pulling on it wasn't enough you have to expel the milk from top to bottom. I suppose it is a bit like a five finger exercise on the piano but you have to squeeze with all your might. Like all athletic activity the muscles need thorough training to be efficient. My kind employers were not prepared to wait that long and expelled me with ignominy.
My Mother wrote to a Gentleman farmer with herds at Lewes and all down the Ouse valley. She told him of her daughter who was 'frightfully keen' on dairy farming and could he offer her something. He was an amiable person and set me up with a job at Rise Farm near Lewes. Here was a herd of Guernseys, golden coloured cows giving rich creamy yellow milk. I seem to remember there were some Friesians as well. Milk must reach a standard butterfat content and Guernseys give this in spades while the virtue of the great black and white Friesian is the quantity of her yield. So it was a popular notion to combine the two breeds to satisfy the Men from the Ministry.
At Rise Farm there was Tom, head cowman, Arthur, undercowman and Win, milker in three tied cottages. I lodged with Tom and his wife, Arthur had a very lazy, feckless wife and dear old Win lived with her ancient mother. The farm bailiff lived in a superior dwelling a bit removed from ours. He was a jolly, brisk young chap with golden blonde curls and corduroys. Tom was an ace herdsman and generous with his knowledge. I explained about my lamentable milking ability and he gave me invaluable training in the art. Your cow must be washed gently and brushed. She must be treated with respect and spoken to softly. Only when she is happily munching her dinner with her udder all clean, pink and receptive, do you sit quietly by her side, rub Vaseline into your hands and start milking. My old friend rhythm plays a part here and under this kind tutelage I quickly became proficient.
Our Friesians could yield 10 gallons a day and I used to enjoy settling down with my head buried in Cowslip's warm flank and send powerful streams into the steel bucket. It was like making music. The first spurts were high pitched little screams which sounded deeper and deeper the fuller the bucket which brimmed with a cloud of deep foam. One cow usually filled two buckets, give or take we usually milked about 10 cows apiece before breakfast. Warm milk is perfect as a breeding ground for bacteria so as soon as it is out of the cow it must be cooled down. It is first filtered and then tipped over a metal cooler. This is rather like a stainless steel radiator with icy water running through it. The cooled milk is funnelled into a 10 gallon churn which is put out onto a ramp to await the milk lorry along with nine others. This lorry always turned up at 8 a.m. which meant we had to start milking at 5.a.m. But in the summer when the cows spent their nights in the fields we needed to start at 4.30 am. That was a pleasure, to walk through the dewy grasses in the magical, fresh dawn to hunt for our ladies and then to see them like phantoms rising out of the mist. "Come on then" one calls and they plod slowly to the milking shed. By 8.30 we go indoors for our breakfast.This cottage had only a cold water pump over the kitchen sink for our ablutions and if anyone needed to ablute we did spattered as we were with milk and other substances.
After breakfast came the herculean task of mucking out and scrubbing out every trace of cow. At the back of the cowshed lay an enormous heap of f. y.m. a wooden plank balanced precariously along its length. One loaded a great metal wheelbarrow full, trundled it up the plank and tipped it off the end while trying not to imagine what it would be like to fall off. What a horrible way to go.
In winter time the cows had to be fed with hay and greenstuff.
The hay was in a large stack in the yard and the drill was to cut slices from the top down as if it was a cake so as to expose as little as possible of the precious hay to the elements. For this you need a hay knife, a 2ft long and ft. wide approximately, thick, heavy blade. It must be honed to a keen sharpness with every use. You climb the ladder to the platform left by the previous cut, grasp the knife handle and push down along the edge of the slice with all your might, a knack which comes with practice. Now you have a slice of hay compact enough to put on the end of a pitchfork and teeter down the ladder with. This amount of hay completely smothered the carrier and passing townies would laugh pityingly at a great pile of hay apparently walking along on two disembodied feet.
Now, as to the cows themselves. You would be surprised how many people do not realise that a cow must have a baby in order to give us milk, cream, butter, cheese etc. So sex must rear its ugly head in the form of a great bull. On some farms the bull ran with the herd which made for hit or miss conception. However, on this farm it was all recorded and organised. When a cow became receptive to love brave Tom grabbed the bull by the ring in his nose and led him towards his bride of the day who was tethered in the yard. Intercourse took place amid much bellowing and in due course an adorable bambi-like creature lay on the ground being licked by its proud mother. They were allowed a brief period together, all too short though. Mothers milk must go into the great British cup of tea, and a heartbreaking separation is forced. The poor Mother is frantic and her pitiful cries ring out all over the farm.
The lactation period is several months and a cow's life is measured by the number of gallons in the bucket. As she gets older she is still impregnated every year and so on until her yield is no longer large enough and she is loaded on to a cattle truck and sent to the abattoir. How could I have chosen this life? I suppose I was shielded from the harsher facts at that time.
Light relief time. As I mentioned before, Arthur our second cowman, a dour, rather unhappy fellow, had a lazy, feckless wife. Tom's wife was a rolypoly little body who took pride in feeding us as well as possible, notwithstanding rationing. Tom used to rub his hands together in eager anticipation at breakfast time.
Poor old Arthur said, "Its all right for you, my missus won't even get up in time for breakfast".
"If my old woman didn't have my breakfast on the table she'd get a bucket of water over her in bed" said Tom.
"I bet you wouldn't" said I.
"Oh yes I would" said Tom
"I shall stay in bed tomorrow morning and I bet you won't" said I.
Next morning Tom banged on my door at 4.30 as usual.
"Time to get up" he said.
"I'm not getting up" said I .
"Right" said Tom.
I heard him clattering a bucket into the horse trough in the yard, this was mid-winter mind you, heavy footsteps on the stairs, my door flung open.
"Are you getting up?"
"No" I said and gasped as a shower of
icy water hit me. I thought this a marvellous jape but poor Mrs. Tom with water dripping through her kitchen ceiling and a soaking bed to deal with was pretty cross and who could blame her.
A pretty Land Army girl was seconded to us. She was much more glamorous than I and always looked so clean in her smart uniform. So, that's for me I thought and applied to join simply to get the free gear. Greatcoat, breeches, jumpers, shirts, gumboots, shoes, porkpie hat, badge and an arm band with W.L.A. on. Didn't I swagger in front of the parents. However, I didn't realise that the smart breeches came with a downside. The Land Army had been in existence through most of the war and I suppose, with a lot of girls who didn't know one end of a bull from another it was necessary to have a protecting body to dole out suitable jobs and farmers willing to take them on. Many of them lived in hostels, or if in digs, invariably in pairs.
The downside I mentioned was the 'jolly hockey sticks' element. County ladies joyfully exercised their organising ability and set about rooting me out of my happy peasant life at which I felt I had a worthwhile contribution to make. One day I was summoned, along with all the local land girls, away from the cowshed, to take part in a rally. This took place in a station yard in Lewes. We had to change into our best uniforms and were coerced into serried ranks where we waited with mild curiosity. A makeshift dais was erected and eventually a clutch of ladies in tweed suits and brogues mounted the platform led by a tall, imposing woman carrying a clipboard and talking through a mouthful of plums. In a high pitched screech she told us of the terrible responsibility which had been thrust upon her. Her closing sentence has echoed down the years in my memory. "Aim relaying on yoo, meambers of the Weamen's Leand Armeay to see me through". I've a horrible feeling we had to give her three cheers but I couldn't swear to it. Subsequently one of them had a brain wave of providing relief milkers so that overworked herdsmen could have a day off once a week. So they proceeded to find all the competent milkers and send them hither and yon to anyone who wanted them. As if any self-respecting herdsman would leave his precious charges to some little tart in a uniform. However, various teams of ordinary milkers availed themselves and I found myself in a billet with another smart land girl. She was a bit precious and not really interested in agriculture.