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About A Week: Autumn

Peter Hinchliffe recalls the days when , still a schoolboy, he toiled in a damp field, gathering in the potato harvest.

Autumn. Season of wet sacks, aching backs and cold blue hands. Well they would have been blue if you could have seen through the layers of muck caked on fingers and thumbs.

In my schooldays this October half-term holiday was known as Potato Picking. We village lads ensured that the week was accurately named. We tramped to the fields in all weathers, earning a few bob by helping to bring in the potato harvest.

Hard work it was too. No time for poetic thoughts of mellow fruitfulness when you are bent double with your hands in wet earth.

A spinner dragged by an ancient tractor travelled back and forth across the field, opening up and scattering the rows of tubers. Our task was to gather the fresh-turned potatoes into buckets, then empty the buckets into sacks.

Each lad had an allotted section to clear before the spinner returned on the next leg of its relentless crisscross journey.

Work began around 8.30 am. By 9 o’clock you were wishing it was dinner time. Come 11 o’clock you had forgotten what day it was. The only thing to keep a schoolboy going was a fear of being jeered by his mates if he duffed out.

On fine days, with the first hint of frost in the early-morning air, it was good to be outdoors. But when the clouds hung low and a Pennine drizzle dripped searchingly onto your shoulders all you dreamed of day-long was a warm fire and a dry shirt.

No weatherproof clothing then. No cagoules or anoraks to thumb their noses at the rain. We draped empty sacks around us while we bent and picked.

At midday there was warmth. A small shed with an iron coke stove which put out enough heat to make the air quiver. Steam rose from our shoulders as we sat around it eating sandwiches packed by caring mothers.

For me, cheese in home-baked bread, followed by a couple of apples from our own garden. And this long before the time when pubs got the cute idea of serving ploughman’s lunches.

More than a dozen farm cats shared the shed with us. One of the farmhands would bet a new lad three pence that he couldn’t pick up a tiny kitten. The lad would end up with a scratched hand, injured pride, and three pence worse off.

At the end of the day, with aches in muscles I didn’t know I possessed, it was home to a warm tea and two generous helpings of mother’s autumn special - an all-in fruit pie. Dad, an enthusiastic gardener, tended a variety of berry-bearing bushes.

Red, black and white currants, strawberries and raspberries, blackberries and loganberries, any or all of which could end up as companions beneath the same delectable golden-brown crust.

The other day I was tucking into a generous plate of roast pork in the Hare and Hounds pub, close to my home village. In mid-meal I paused, gazed through the window, then grinned happily as memories flowered.. I was looking out on the field where I once toiled under a damp sack.

By the way, they serve delicious deserts at the Hare and Hounds. None of them though could match mother’s all-in pie.


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