“When as a youth I dreamed and talked, Time walked”
There was a time, in Charles Kingsley’s words, when all the world was young and all the trees
were green. The first sound of Spring for me in those days was the gentle metallic ring of the
field roller, the roller drawn by one horse, the driver walking behind. Backwards and forwards
they went, the whole length of the field, flattening all the humps and bumps of winter, leaving
its characteristic plain and pearl pattern. The discs had the ring of a distant angelus, as it were
summoning the new season.
Just as the whistling boy evolves into the responsible family man, so, in due season, the new
grass matured into hay and in June or July the mower would come to harvest it. The mowing
machine was drawn by two horses, the driver sitting on an iron seat, usually made more
comfortable with a folded sack.
The field ran along by the river which divided one farm from another. We often called it “the
long field” because of its being some ½ mile in length. Probably, in ancient history, it was the
site of the village butts, where the villagers would have practiced their archery. Before the
invention of firearms, the long bow had been the main weapon of warfare for 30 – some say 50
– thousand years. Historians say its invention ranks in importance as a cultural development,
with the discovery of the art of making fire. For the English it has its place of honour in our
history because of Agincourt and all that. And in the previous century, in the little town of Crecy,
the English bowmen, for the first time in Continental warfare, established established the
country as a great military power. Is this when the seed of the English belief in their superiority
over all things European was sown, and which they displayed for the next 600 years ?
Because of the length of the field and the uncertain weather (ideally they needed five fine
days) it was cut and made in three parts. When the mower had finished cutting and the
uppermost side of the swathes were dug, the swathe-turner would turn the swathes. This was
a one-horse machine with the driver riding. If the weather held, the hay could now be hauled; if
not, it had to be made up into large mounds known as cocks for further drying. When the
wagons came to haul the crop, the hay was pitched up on pitch-forks by men each side, to the
man building up the load on top. Rope lines were thrown round the loaded wagon, and on one
of these the top man would slide down.
To haul this heavy load to the farm, a trace horse was harnessed in tandem with the shaft
horse. The skilful bit was to drive with as much momentum as possible up the steep slope
through the 10 ft wide gate, and rein the lead horse round before it got to the ditch on the far
side of the road. This was a manoeuvre I liked to watch. The wagons were trundled up through
the village on iron tyres and into the rickyard where the hay had now to be pitchforked off into
the barns. The shaft horse could enjoy an ad lib feed of new hay, and a boy (or a girl) would
lead or ride the trace horse back to the field to provide the same service for the next load.
All this hard work is now done in a day or two with large tractors and trailers. Silage making
has obviated all the anxieties about the weather. But no wagons in summer days and evenings
rumble through the village from farm to field, loaded with excited children. Just recently, an
octogenarian lady recalled how the farmer would lift some of the small ones into the wagon,
and how she could remember the smell of the horse and the rhythm of its great haunches. Nor
are bread and cheese and cider lunches enjoyed in the hay now. The story goes that two farm
workers having such a meal behind the wagon were overheard to say “What you think of this
cider, George ?” “Oh, I don’t know, Tom, I don’t knows. I s’pose if ‘t’ad been any better boss
would’n’a give it to us.” “If ‘twas any wuss, George, we couldn’a drunk it.”
Some of the men who helped to get the hay in, and worked ‘til dark had already done a day’s
manual work, but turned out after tea these summer evenings mainly for the cider or a load of
dung in the autumn, and, though they wouldn’t admit it, partly for the sweet, unforgettable smell
of new-mown grass.
The field above the hay field, which, unlike its neighbour, could now suffer the annual
inundations of the brown floods of January and February, was the “plough field”. Here, in
Rupert Brooke’s words were the “strong, wet ploughlands scarred for certain grain.” There
were occasional rotations of roots which we didn’t like, but usually it was wheat which grew
very tall on the long straw of those days.
The ploughing was done by a man and two-horse team. On wet days the ploughman would
drape a sack over his shoulders for extra protection. Unlike the vast prairie lands of
Saskatchewan under the plough, whose appalling size meant that a man and horses could
plough only four furrows a day, here in our much more modest acreage of up hill and down
dale, and dragging the plough round it every turn, it was even more physical. It was a good day
to complete an acre, and that meant walking eleven miles. I once said to a man who had done
some ploughing, that when I retired I would like to acquire a pair of horses and have a go at it.
He said “Thee hast better retire now then !”