Agriculture in the 1940's was nudging into technology, urged along by the familiar cry "There's a war on". On big farms the need to plough up more land sprouted brightly coloured American tractors, while on smaller holdings it was all done by hard labour. It was cold, heavy and it hurt but as a young evacuee in the wild Yorkshire Dales I was seduced by the beauty and rhythm of it all and decided to make it my life's work. Not a good career move, but there you are.
A bus had decanted us, a chastened little group mostly crying for their mummies, at intervals up Littondale. I and two other girls found ourselves standing in the road in a small hamlet, four farmhouses and six cottages, no church, pub or shop, a place called Hawkswick. I was borne into a neat farm-house and enveloped in kindness by a childless couple, Alice and Harry Booth. I shall never forget their sweetness and forbearance in taking on this harum-scarum little tough as I was then.
|Hawkswick, North Yorkshire|
There was an errand boy's bike with a large carrier on the front. The hens' dinner was potatoes cooked in a copper, mixed with meal and decanted into great buckets. I had to balance these precariously in my carrier, pedal away and, like a sort of chicken's WVS meals-on-wheels woman deliver a share to each henhouse and fill their water troughs from the sparkling beck which ran down from the tops into the river. By the by, I used to love laying down on the grass and drinking straight from this beck thinking how shocked the parents would be.
After school I'd pedal back to collect bucketfuls of eggs and wash and pack them all. Somewhat of a chore but then came haymaking time. Two acres had been allowed to grow a waving mass of grasses, clovers and cornflowers. Quite beautiful. John Booth, Harry's brother, shouldered his glittering scythe and strode along the river to the field. I followed along like an acolyte, bearing his whetstone, our lunch and a sickle. Nowadays this small crop would be mown, tossed and baled in about half an hour by a soft youth lounging in the tractor cab with earmuffs to protect his delicate ears. It took us a lot longer. While he put a razor edge to his blade with skilled strokes of the whetstone I cleared the edge of the field with my sickle. Then the cutting began.
|With the Booths.1940|
The scythe is a long curved shaft with a 3 foot tempered blade fixed at right angles to the business end. Also at right angles are two short handholds. With legs braced and arms outstretched the man swings the scythe in a 180 degree arc gathering and slicing a bunch of grass to within an inch of the ground and laying it in a neat swathe to his left. His whole body comes into play here, swinging and slicing, all done at a walking pace stopping only to hone the blade. I would dearly loved to have tried it but I think the skill is jealously guarded.
The scent of cut grass, flowers and hot man ought to be bottled. It was a very hot day and the wind sweeping down from the moors dried our hay beautifully and it was time to turn the wilted top half of the swathe to expose the damp strands underneath. Hay must be absolutely dry before stacking. If wet it can spontaneously combust and actually burst into flames. One way of testing for this was to shove a long metal prong into the heart of the stack. If it came out red hot one was in big trouble; well, not this one, because I never actually saw it done.
Anyway at last I could take a real part, I was given a wooden hay rake and soon got the knack of flipping the swathe upside down to expose the damp bit. This was also done at a walking pace. Between us John and I soon had the field finished and the hay was shining and ruffling in neat rows. Enter Billy the chunky little work horse. He was harnessed to a haywain and plodded along the rows while we loaded this picturesque vehicle with our pitchforks. This was quite a small hay crop compared with some farms, as we had no cattle to feed during the winter. Just the horse, and bedding for the hens, so it could all be contained in the hayloft of the small flint barn. Jolly hard work flinging pitchforks full high up in the roof and then tramping it all down. I was very flattered to be known in the village as 'Booth's Irishman'. During the war there were many charming Paddys and Patricks' to be seen on British farms, sent over from their own country to help out with the war effort. I was not fully conversant with the politics involved but I did feel they had a raw deal being generally looked down on.
Before and after work I attended a small school in the next village of Arncliffe. The lady teacher who came with us from Brighton could not stand the primeval abluting facilities and hied herself back home leaving us to gather what pearls of wisdom we might from the resident headmistress. This was a formidable dame with a grey bun and long black frock. She had been known to wash a small boy's mouth out with soap for the crime of saying "f*ck".
We also explored the magical moors. One day, excited by tales of cathedral-like caverns down a pot hole called Sleat's Cave, my friend Betty and I set off down a small slit in the rock. We were slithering down the steep bank of loose scree when two spoilsports in climbing boots and woolly hats dragged us back, certainly saving our lives.
By now my Mother realised all this wasn't getting me anywhere so she and my Auntie travelled up to Yorkshire to drag me kicking and screaming back to civilisation, covered in ringworm but still determined to go a-farming.