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By the summer of 1955 I had a second sister. That summer was unusually warm, or that is how I remember it. The baby spent her days lying in a pram in the shade of the laburnam tree whilst I worked in the garden.
By now I had begun to worry that, were my mother to marry her suitor, I might have to leave the boarding school because I would no longer be eligible under the foundation’s rules, now having in practical effect, two parents. At the Easter holidays in 1956, with still no sign of a divorce or a new home in the village, I came to believe, with no real evidence, that my mother was pregnant again. This made me inexplicably angry. It was a purely emotional reaction that I did not understand then, nor do I now. My intuition proved correct, however; by the summer holidays her condition was obvious. And, now at last, a house move was in prospect.
The end house of a block of three on a hill just outside the village, originally the property of the trustees of the Baptist Church, had come on the market. My mother’s future husband’s employers had agreed to loan him the purchase price and an offer had been made. The aim was to move during the summer holidays so that I would be around to assist with the heavy lifting. As things turned out, I had to take the first week of term off because the legal documents were not sorted out until well into September.
I was due to return to school the day after the move. Many years before we had been given a collie-cross puppy. Fed entirley on scraps and the occasional dish of dog biscuits softened with tea, Bruce had become a loved family pet who was, by now, becoming quite elderly. My mother’s suitor, in addition to his full time employment as a council road maintenance man, carried out a number of specialist tasks on a casual basis for local farmers. These included rabit catching for which he used a wire-haired terrier as a working dog. There would not be space for two dogs in our new home.
Since the working dog would have to stay, the family pet would have to be sacrificed. My mother gave me a half crown and told me to go to the home of our landlord’s son who farmed the next property on our side of the lane. He cut hair for his male neighbours. “Get your hair cut. And take Bruce with you and ask him to put him down.”
I remember struggling to hold back the tears as my hair was cut. Job done, I sobbed out my mother’s instruction. “No, no, I can’t do that,” came the welcome response. Of course, I pleaded with him but he, no doubt well aware of my distress, was adamant.
Bruce was saved for a few days – until my mother’s suitor made the necessary arrangements days after I was back at school. Years later that incident was the inspiration for my book “Summer Day” in which a boy runs away with his sick dog, determined to prevent his father shooting it.
Four small meadows surrounded the cottage we lived in when I was a child. Each summer these fields provided a hay harvest. My earliest memory of the process is of using wooden rakes and twin-tined pitchforks, or pikes as they were called, to gather the hay into piles called cocks. A horse drawn cart would then arrive and hay from the cocks was lifted with the pikes onto the cart. The final destination for the hay was the dutch barn in a corner of the meadow closest to the cottage. In later years the cart would be drawn by a small Fordson tractor. Behind the cart a mechanical loader lifted hay from the swathes and deposited it onto the cart.
Once we moved to the former Manse I would spend Easter and summer school holidays doing casual labour on a large farm a mile to the north-west of the village. These days it is common to see young men and women from Eastern Europe doing farm work in England. It might surprise some to learn that, on this particular farm on the border between England and Wales, in the late 1950s, there was a Polish refugee working alongside a German former prisoner of war. They, and their English wives and children, lived in adjacent farm cottages.
I remember picking potatoes, cutting thistles, and something called ‘rogueing’. This involved walking through a field of wheat, pulling out wild oats. These ‘rogues’ were stuffed into sacks and carried to the field entrance. I also remember more hay-making, this time using a pitchfork to lift bales onto a cart, then, later, arranging the bales in the barn. The higher the stack became, the closer to the corrugated steel roof one worked. The heat and dust became over-powering.
Although I have always been physically small, never weighing much more than 130lbs, I enjoyed physical labour. I still do. Your back might ache, your muscles burn, your hands smart, sweat stream from every pore. Nevertheless there is something exhillerating about the experience, unmatched by anything else.
By far the most unpleasant task I had to perform took place one Easter holiday. I had to assist the fellow who had been engaged to castrate and dock the tails of that year’s new lambs. We worked in a small enclosure constructed from straw bales. My job was to capture the untreated lambs, one by one. I would then sit on a bale facing the contractor, holding the lamb against my body with the animal’s tail and genitals exposed to the man opposite. This gentleman would then use a sharpened pen-knife to cut through the tail, cauterising the wound with an iron instrument which was kept hot in the flames of a Primus stove. He would then use another specially designed instrument to remove the other appendage. This wound was treated with an ointment that, to me, resembled the grease used on the farm’s machinery. The cries of the lambs and the acrid smell of burned flesh still live with me 60 years later.
I am sure that such tasks continue to be part of the annual cycle of farming practices. I am equally sure that those performing them do so in a much more hygienic and humane manner.
Have you ever worked on a farm? Perhaps you are a farmer, or worked on the land in vacations whilst studying. Do share your experiences in the comments.