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U3A Writing: Women's Land Army -1940

...And so began a delightful day up on the Downs, our first job being to bring down a cow and her newly born calf from the meadow on the lower slopes. Then we went further up to where the sheep grazed and had our first lesson in sheep herding. We learned how to move hurdles and spent some time putting cake in the trough as a dietary extra...

Veronica Grainger remembers with affection her wartime Land Army days.

I was asked to report to an agricultural college in June 1940 for a month's training in the rudiments of work on the land.

After a hair-raising wartime journey, not improved by the fact that the railway warrant didn't come in time for me to catch the early train, I arrived at my objective a few hours late. There was another girl waiting outside the station looking lost. I asked her if she was for the college. She was, having missed the right train for same reason as myself. We teamed up for the rest of the journey, catching a bus for the remaining few miles.

"You must be the last", said the Cockney conductor. "Been taking 'em down all day. Lovely lot they were too. Cor, I could drink their barf water!"

The last we certainly were, for tea was long over by the time we reached the gate. Most of the girls were outside. There was a very large house next to the college. Empty for a good many years, it had been taken over by the Army. Friendly relations had already been established, for there was a long line of girls on one side of the dividing fence and soldiers on the other. Places of origin were being discovered amid shouts of "'Ere, he's from 'Ackney, would you believe it?" greeted us as we hove into view.

They broke off when they saw us and began to rib us as to the reason for our late arrival, but ignoring them we plodded on to the front door intent only on our stomachs which, after our long journey, were very empty.

We were soon seated in the dining room and my companion kept marvelling about the bill of fare. "Ham and jam," she kept saying. Apparently, she had never had both for tea before, only one or t' other. Deciding that a breath of air was indicated after our long day on the trains, we made our way outside. The soldiers and girls had all paired off and disappeared down the country lanes.

The college nestled at the foot of the South Downs, and it was to the top of these that we now made our way. There were innumerable bridle paths and masses of honeysuckle and wild raspberries. My companion held all this in the same awe as the ham and jam. "Imagine them all growing wild," she kept saying, gobbling away at the fruit.

Making our way to the summit, from where we could see the sea and the coastline from the white cliffs to Newhaven, we walked for miles before setting off down again. So different was the air to that of Manchester that we were slightly drunk before we found the small thatched pub called the Half Moon, where one glass of the very potent local cider sent us reeling back to the college.

Feeling very exhausted, I got into bed in my small single room, even though it was still daylight. From the pillow I could see the top of the Downs, and I hoped that the Germans would have the decency not to invade or bomb us before I had the chance to enjoy it all for a few weeks.

It was marvellous to wake up early the following morning and, lying in bed, feast my eyes on the Downs again. Things were a bit lax on that first day so we had a chance to get to know each other. We were, as the newspapers said, "culled from all walks of life" (debutantes, society girls, girls straight from expensive finishing schools, university students, teachers, factory workers, shop assistants, domestic servants, artists and artists models, and some who didn't fit into any category).

We were told to muster in the yard at 10 am. On arrival we were greeted by about a dozen staff members and a formidable army of working tools. I blanched at the sight of the wicked-looking two-pronged forks used in haymaking. Some of the girls were of Amazonian proportions, just right for the jobs ahead. Others of us were not so lucky, being medium or slightly built.

With all those tools in mind I began to hedge my way to the back, hoping that both jobs and tools would have been given out by the time they got to me. I was not alone in this conjecture, for I was joined by several other small girls and we cowered there until the danger passed.

I was right in my guess for the bailiff had clearly run out of jobs by the time he got to us. Just then the shepherd, who had been a student at the college, came into the yard, which solved the bailiff’s problem for. We were told to go with him.

And so began a delightful day up on the Downs, our first job being to bring down a cow and her newly born calf from the meadow on the lower slopes. Then we went further up to where the sheep grazed and had our first lesson in sheep herding. We learned how to move hurdles and spent some time putting cake in the trough as a dietary extra.

The sun shone down from a cloudless sky and a lovely breeze blew in from the ocean, bringing with it the scent of honeysuckle, wild flowers and grass. It was a heady mixture for those only used to city air and for those whose first experience it was of outdoor life in the country.

Taking a bright red lipstick from his pocket, the shepherd proceeded to write with it. At that time, lipstick was in very short supply and had to be reserved for special occasions. Six pale-lipped females had to stand by and watch as the bright red tally went up on the hut walls. "Sadistic sod," we muttered amongst
ourselves. The morning had passed very quickly and soon it was time to go down for a midday meal.

When we reached the dining room, it sounded like the Tower of Babel as everybody tried to describe their first taste of unaccustomed labour. There was much massaging of affected parts, and groans as muscles, never treated this way before, reacted in protest. Some of them hobbled out of the dining room like old ladies and collapsed on chairs in the common room.

"Never mind girls," said the houseman (a leftover from the days of all-male students). "Six months from now you'll all have muscles of iron - if you manage to survive that is."

We were back up on the Downs again after dinner, this time to help mend fences, which is an important and time-consuming part of farming. We replaced rotting stakes and mended or renewed barbed wire.

The afternoon passed peacefully enough except for the dog-fights going on overhead. We kept hearing screaming planes. "We get a lot of fights over here," said the shepherd, "That's Dover," pointing to the left. It was at the height of the battle of Britain. A handful of trained pilots with a few old planes were keeping at bay the formidable German air force.

It was hard to believe that at any moment, a plane could come hurtling down out of the sky, and a German one at that. When we pointed this out to the shepherd, he said: "Wouldn't give much for his chances, especially if he came down in the hayfield amongst all those girls with forks! Bet they could deal with the Germans better than they're doing with the hay judging by the look of it."

Nobody got shot down nearby and we made our way back to the college to get ready for tea. "Don't think you'll have it so easy all the time," said the shepherd, "Work will start in earnest tomorrow."

When we got back, the work rota was up on the notice board with all the girls clustering eagerly around it. This included early morning chores at which we all took our turn - the cowsheds for milking and cleaning out, the dairy for sterilising, pasteurising and bottling of milk and utensils, the piggeries for the feeding and mucking out.

We had to boil all the swill collected from the kitchen and add meal and skimmed milk to it. The mixture didn't half pong, but the pigs loved it and waxed fat. The only part of pigsty duty I liked were the piglets, which were fascinating.

Stable duty, on the other hand, was my favourite. We had some lovely old shire horses. We had to feed and groom them and put on the harness ready for whatever job was at hand. I saw that my name was down for milking, which meant that I had to be on duty at 5.30am.

The bailiff was feeling smug as he leaned over the garden gate, enjoying his last pipe of the day. He got over the first hurdle of trying to teach a fresh bunch of girls instead of men. He'd had little enough to do with females in his working life. His wife hardly counted, being more like an extension of himself. They were as alike as two peas in a pod. There was that blonde girl now, he ruminated, what was she? Artist's model, that was it, and no wonder. He wouldn't mind getting to know her better.

Just then his friend the vet came down the lane, ostensibly out for a stroll but really to find out how the bailiff had fared. He still had his ordeal to go through when he would have to deliver his first lecture to these new females.

"Well," said his friend, "’t weren't so bad at all, some o' they maidens be strong, hefty uns and should shape up - once they get a bit of practice that is."

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