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U3A Writing: A Country Lad's Tale

Bill Garton recalls with immense delight the teenage days that he spent working on a farm.

1950 was an excellent year. It began with the second term of my first year in the sixth form. The “School Certificate” exam was months in the past and the “GCE Advanced Level” (to replace the Higher School Certificate – the only thing constant in education is that it is always changing!) was over a year ahead.

All those boring subjects, like History, Geography and French were forgotten and Maths and Science ruled. We had small classes, dedicated teachers and, seemingly, plenty of time to get through the curriculum and to pursue lots of extra-curricular interests. The world of atomic physics was particularly interesting because a lot of work was emerging from the secrets lists and being published in books and journals.

Less academic extra-curricular activities were also becoming interesting. In the lower forms boys and girls had sat on opposite sides of the classroom and interactions were confined mainly to teasing, practical jokes and generally proving how superior “we” were. How different now, with a sixth form common room and occasional evening social events! And how much some of those other beings had changed in such a short time!

Returning home after evening social events was a bit of an adventure. School was in the county town, about three miles from home, and the evening functions finished long after the last bus to my village, so I had to take a bus to another village and then walk about ¾ mile up an unlit country lane, through woods. On a clear night it was beautiful – with none of today’s light pollution one had a marvellous view of the stars. On a dark night it was very difficult – one had to feel the way along the hedges, and it was rather spooky too!

I spent most of my spare time working on a near-by farm. It was a dairy farm of about 100 acres and about 70 cows, which was considered large in that area and at that time. The farmer had attended agricultural college and was keen to use up-to-date methods and equipment. The cows were pedigree Friesian and we kept very careful records of ancestry, age, health and milk yields, in order to improve our own herd and maximise the value of the calves for sale. We knew all the cows by name – no numbers or ear-tags – and they all knew their places in the shippon. Milking was by hand, which was hard but quite pleasant work. Sometimes I would milk up to 14 in one session and my forearms would feel like bursting, but many of the adults could do more.

Every calf had to be registered in the “herd book”, with name, date of birth, names of parents and three sketches showing the black and white markings for unique identification, one head-on view and one from each side. I enjoyed doing the sketches; the outlines were pre-printed in the book, so one just had to draw the black areas. But it wasn’t so easy because one was drawing a moving target!

One of the attractions on a farm, to a 14/15-year-old, was being treated as a man, with few concessions. I drove the tractors, and sometimes the old car, even on the public roads. The village policeman sometimes mentioned to the farmer that this law-breaking was becoming “too blatant” (quote), and I would then be banned from the roads for a few days, but there was never any serious complaint. We delivered milk to the village, by tractor and trailer. Most of the milk was delivered in bottles (do you remember the noisy metal crates and the cardboard disc bottle stoppers?) but many of the older customers still opted to have it ladled from a churn into their jug, not only because they had always had it that way but also because they got a more generous measure. The milk was not pasteurised but I am not aware of this causing any health problems. On the farm we sometimes drank the milk fresh from the cow, without even cooling, and sometimes ate raw eggs, all without ill effect as far as I am aware.

We had two tractors: a huge “International” that was used for the heaviest work, and a smaller “Ferguson”, which at that time was considered very modern, being the first tractor with electric starting and hydraulic power-tools. Ploughing with the big tractor was particularly enjoyable and required a fair degree of skill. Although the effectiveness of the ploughing was not dependent on the straightness of the furrows, nevertheless straight furrows were the tradition and many of the fields could be seen from the bus-route, so one would be complimented, or otherwise, by other farmers, on the appearance of the finished job. We used a 4-blade plough, towed behind the tractor. The angle of the plough-shares could be adjusted during the ploughing by the driver’s leaning back and winding a handle and this adjustment could be used to correct any imperfections in the line of the furrows. So, at the start of each new row of furrows one would take a line of sight along the previous row and note where any adjustments were needed. On a sunny day, in the fresh air, with no other person in sight and the birds following the plough, there was a no more satisfying job.

Harvesting, by contrast, was a gregarious activity, involving everyone on the farm and often help from other farms as well. Combine harvesters were not in common use so the corn was cut and tied into sheaves by a machine called a “binder”, which was towed by a tractor. The sheaves were then picked up by hand and arranged in “stooks”, each stook comprising 6 sheaves stood on end and leaning together for support. Wheat sheaves were usually easy to handle but oats sheaves were usually tall and heavy and often full of thistles. The stooks were left to dry for 2 to 3 days – but if it rained the sheaves had to be turned and re-stooked. When dry, the sheaves were loaded onto large trailers and taken to barns. It was vital to take advantage of good weather so if a good day was expected we would start the milking of the cows at about 6 am in order to complete delivery of the milk by mid-morning and then start work in the fields. We would then continue until dusk (2 or 3 people going off to do the afternoon milking and then returning) and, if there was a harvest moon, we might work even later. One learnt to work at a steady pace that could be maintained all day, with appropriate pauses for very ample refreshment. Rotating jobs within the team also helped to relieve tiredness. The threshing of the corn, i.e. the separation of the grain from the straw and chaff, was usually a winter activity and was done by a stationary threshing machine, belt driven from a tractor.

As well as cows, we kept a few pigs and hens and, of course, we had dogs and cats, so one learned a great deal about animal behaviour and welfare. Conception, birth, life and death all had to be managed. Attendance of the “vet” was always interesting (one quickly learned not to be squeamish) and we also had to do quite a lot of veterinary work ourselves (dosing, injections, dressings, etc.). Slaughtering was never pleasant, especially if the animal was well-known and loved, but it was necessary and one came to terms with it.
Overall, farming was excellent all-round experience: the combination of animal and machinery care and the need for good teamwork. It seems different today: the animals are numbers, there is much less teamwork, and much too much regulation and bureaucracy, but I feel sure that it is still very satisfying.

My other strong memory of 50 years ago, which is so very different from today, is of Sunday activities. Of course, on the farm, we had to milk, clean and, where appropriate, feed the animals, but we would do little else. Almost everyone in the village would go to church or chapel at least once and usually twice or more. At first I was a choirboy and then I became a bell-ringer so multiple attendance was the norm. And we always wore our “Sunday Best” to attend!

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