Chapter 2: Back to Brighton, 1943-45
There followed two years of 'proper' school in Brighton. We even advanced to decimals. I can particularly remember the headmaster saying, "One decimal point either way doesn't matter in a pigsty does it Froud?" When the time came for me to move on this benevolent gentleman found me a place as farm pupil on a farm on the outskirts of Brighton. He was a friend of the farmer I suppose.
My parents vetted the place but had a townie's romantic notion of farming and of course I suffered from this naivety and was
given no quarter. Interesting to note that the ancient father of this, my first employer, started his empire by carting the flints used for the building of much of Brighton during the late nineteenth century. These were collected from the fields using teams of horses, tip carts and flint spuds. The latter are like an ordinary dung fork but much broader and with about 10 tines. These battered items were still to be seen around the farmyard, I wish I'd taken more interest in this aspect as there were plenty of Old Boys only too keen to reminisce.
Only two great cart horses remained for general carting jobs. This left the ploughing, sowing, reaping and mowing to the aforesaid American tractors. Lease Lend I suppose. There was one Caterpillar, like a tank, one Case from Wisconsin, and a Moline and an Allis Chalmers from Minneapolis. A word here about the horses. As part of my education as farm pupil I got to visit a cattle market where the cows, sheep and pigs are hit and prodded into the auctioneers ring that the delectable flesh on their poor bones could be judged and bid for by magenta faced butchers. At one point in these proceedings a beautiful dappled grey shire horse was led in. The gentle nobility of this lovely creature contrasted oddly with the rough ugliness of the punters. "Now gentlemen" said the auctioneer, "What am I bid for this? No load too heavy, no hill too steep" What a future that conjures up.
Nowadays Shire horses can be seen at shows and rallies as museum pieces wearing brightly polished harness and jangling brasses, being patted and fondled by nervous members of the public and it is good that there are people interested in keeping them. However, back to grim reality. The two big horses on this farm were Boxer and Darling. They were always well fed and cared for but the work was hard. Their harness was of dull leather occasionally treated to a desultory application of saddle soap. It was so heavy and took all my strength to lift it up onto that high spine and round the great arched neck.. There was the collar to pull, saddle to bear the weight of the load and breeching straps to hold the load back going downhill.
One day a large waggon loaded with sacks of potatoes needed to be taken from a field in the valley up a steep hill to the farmyard. It had been raining and the ground was slippery with mud. A tractor was chained to the waggon but floundered helplessly. Boxer and Darling were brought and hitched up, Darling in the shafts and Boxer in the traces, meaning two chains were fastened either side of his collar at one end and the other to the waggon. I had the honour of being in charge of this heroic effort. "Boxer, Darling come on then" I shouted. They threw themselves with all their might into the task. The iron clad wheels of the cart sunk deeply into the mud but by a series of jerks the whole thing moved sluggishly up the hill. They needed no urging but put their whole heart and soul into the nigh impossible task. They clawed their way up that dreadful hill by desparate, leaping, scrambles their chests and bellies grazing the mud. We entered the farmyard in triumph but the noble horses were accorded no more regard than the useless tractor. I took the harness off, fed and watered them, their muscles quivering with strain under the soaked skin.
There was a large dairy herd and a lot of the milk was sold on a round serving the citizens of Woodingdean. Milk floats, saucy lasses and two ponies saw to all this. In the stable lived these ponies; Boxer, Darling, a frisky Percheron, and a very showy bay riding horse for the boss man. This last was reputed to be the grandson of a Derby winner. We also had a large piggery, a flock of sheep and an assortment of farm labourers, dairy men, cowmen, tractor drivers, a carter and two marvellous ancients skilled in all the old crafts.
There were also several 'boys' from a funny farm.These were harmless enough and absolutely asking to be teased by the brighter lads, for instance smoking cigarettes of dried cows dung and driving a cart up the lane to get a load of post holes. In a way I was on a par with these poor mavericks, a pretty, insolent 15 year old with a burning desire to be as tough and able to tackle the heaviest, nastiest, coldest jobs as any of them. The wives hated me and the men treated me with a sort of suspicious contempt unwilling to allow that such as I was capable of doing their work. There was the other aspect but more of that later. What a stupid girl I was, I remember a lady teacher wrote in my book 'success comes not by wishing but by hard work nobly done'. I don't think she had muck-spreading in mind but I thought she did.
It was a dairy and arable farm. A lot of the work was growing cattle feed, mangolds and marrow stem kale. My arrival coincided with seed time. The seed drill was a large metal container with a small aperture on the floor blocked by a cog which was activated and turned by steel wheels being dragged through the ground by a horse. I had to lead this animal, the vicious, frisky, Percheron doing it's best to kick me in a dead straight line, at a near canter.
When the seedlings were about 2 inches high they had to be singled, acres of them. With a swan necked hoe one chooses the most robust plant and chops away' it's neighbours leaving room for growth. This job must also be done at a walking pace. The backache is formidable. When the mangolds are as big as melons and all yellow and succulent they are gathered and put into clamps for storage until needed. That was my job too.
Early in the morning before milking was over I'd harness Darling to a cart, load up with these cow treats and while Darling ambled willy nilly over the pasture I rode atop the load flinging the mangolds out with my pitchfork leaving a tempting trail of goodies for the cows. One day those blighters in the dairy let the bull out first. Now this bull was one ton of Friesian passion. He galloped gaily over to me and my cart. I thought he would be tempted by the food but no, he had a maddening itch on his shoulder blades so he knelt down low enough to scratch himself on the axle of my cart. He lifted the whole lot off the ground and there I was being waved around like a rag doll and poor Darling was pushed bodily down the hill. Fortunately the cows and pretty heifers arrived providing an alternative attraction. We bumped back to earth and got out quick amid coarse laughter from the Yokels.
About this time came the mucking out of the cod's winter quarters. This is a large Dutch barn. Buttercup, Daisy, Muriel and all their friends spent the cold winter months there between milking cosily bedded down with generous .tractor loads of straw piled on each day, this with their copious do's formed a fragrant, steaming insulation against the cold-concrete floor. It was one of life's rare pleasures to lean on a gatepost and a them finally let out onto the balmy April sward. after the long winter was over. They were like a group of teenagers off clubbing after 6 Bacardi breezers. Now it all had to be `mucked out' and you can imagine what that involved.
Now cows, feeding as they do on sweet hay and greenstuff, leave behind them a wholesome manure not at all revolting to the peasant's nose but there was an awful lot of it, enough to enrich the whole farm. Nowadays it is spread as a liquid 'slurry' and before that a mechanical spreader was used. A horse and cart is best, trust me. You load up the cart, take it out to the field, take the tailboard out grasp your dung rake and drag out a generous heap. Make a clicking noise to your horse, he will amble on for about six yards, you shout 'whoa' another heap and so on until the field resembles a chequer board. Some of my more sophisticated colleagues preferred to use a tractor for this job but then you have to climb up and jump down over and over.
There was a bit of a lull between all this and harvest time. The lads were put to repairing implements and generally. putting things to rights after the ravages of the winter. I had no skills to offer in that direction so I was put to tidying up the sheds, tool, seed, tractor, harness etc. This meant grubbing around in some dark smelly corner amongst the spiders and scuttling rats, breathing in centuries of dust which settled on the throat like a nest of prickles but I wanted to do it, no one to blame but myself.
When I was allowed out again into the sweet air the great fields which had lain green and tranquil were now waving, golden oceans of wheat, oats and barley. There was much overhauling of the reaper/binder. Before this ingenious machine was invented the corn harvest was extremely labour intensive. A team of men with scythes would move over the corn field in formation cutting and laying the crop in long loose rows. These were then bundled into sheaves, a large armful to be tied with a strong rope fashioned from the materials to hand - the corn itself. You take a handful of the golden straw in either hand with the ears at the top, plait these together rather like a crude corn dolly and you have a rope of surprising strength well capable of containing a sheaf of heaviest wheat when tied round with a twisted knot.
This was a process much romanticised by the Victorian painters and, I hazard a guess, no picnic when you have to do it. Then the wives and daughters were obliged to pitch in . I can't imagine where these poor girls found the energy to perform the.`Haymaker's Dance' after slaving away like this, literally from dawn to dusk. I have a mental picture of them 'homeward plodding their weary way' [apologies to Mr Gray] to a dark, dank cottage where they must set to and get water from the well, light a fire under a cooking pot in which they probably put turnips from the sheep pen and a wild rabbit poached from the corn field . You and I, [well I] would want nothing more than a relaxing evening with the soaps after a hot bath and a takeaway, while our great grannies had the well in the garden and just the cessation of labour.
Now the binder is manhandled out of the implement shed. It's reciprocating parts well greased and the cutting blades honed . This is a 5ft. long metal rod on to which is riveted-a row of triangular little blades. The rod is fitted to a sleeve which goes to and fro with a scissor action.An edifice of revolving horizontal slats pushes the cut corn onto a moving canvas belt. A series of spikes shuffles the corn like a card dealer into a thick, neat sheaf. When it is thick enough a long curved needle threaded with binder twine [much favoured as a belt to keep the trousers up by the dandies amongst us] encircles the sheaf, ties a knot, cuts the twine then another set of prongs expels the sheaf onto the ground. Pretty clever stuff eh? I think so anyway. The rest of the harvesting, until the advent of the mighty combine harvester many years later was still done by hand.
Like hay the corn needed to be thoroughly dry before stacking so everyone on the farm was brought-into the job of stooking. A corn sheaf in those days was so pretty. A bouquet of golden corn, scarlet poppies, deep blue corn flowers, pink campion and yellow toadflax. Nowadays hefty doses of poison put paid to all that nonsense. Six sheaves were stood on end, ears upwards and propped against each other. The cut straw end slotted into the stubble from whence it came, rather like two hairbrushes and you have a little stook capable of withstanding most winds. However if you get a gale force wind and rain the whole lot is scattered and has to be done again. This is when I learned my most colourful expletives, but with reasonable luck sun and wind do their work and our sheaves, hundreds and hundreds of them are ready to be stacked.
Now every cart and trailer on the farm and every horse and tractor have their finest hour. As I remember, we built two corn stacks side by side in each field with enough space between to get the threshing machine. Our two old boys measured out a foundation of thick straw and the harvest home began. You have one person on the cart and several pitching on the sheaves.
Now I always regarded being the loader on the cart as the most thankless task. You must lay the sheaves with careful precision not easy when the pitchers fling them up at you with gay abandon doing their best to land you a stinging blow in the face. With the ears inwards you must lay them in an interlocking pattern taking great care to keep the sides of the load straight and equal either side. The cart is going to pitch and roll over the field to the stacks and any failure on your part will see the load slither joyfully to the ground much to everyone's delight and you are shown up for the amateur you are. The old boys doing the stacking have a fearsome responsibility. The result of their work, a shining corn stack, is the focus of every critical eye and unless it is a miracle of symmetry it stands in mute reproach until threshing time. However a perfectly fashioned corn stack is a thing of beauty, transient because it is just a holding station until the threshing starts. You may wonder why bother when it is all going to be threshed anyway but market availability and when the contractor could bring on his machine had to be considered and the corn safely in the stack dry and protected was the best way.
But, it, the stack, must be thatched. Long wheat straw was best for this job and a special stack from last year provided it. A large tractor load was dumped by the stack and the thatcher,one
of the old men and his mate, yours truly collected their tools. i.e.. rick spars, long pointed sticks, carrying hod, twine, ladder,shears and a seventeen gallon churn of water. First of all you soak the straw. Then carefully draw out strands into a long straight row, shuffle and push them until uniform and make blocks about a foot wide. Load 6 of these onto a carrying hod and climb up the ladder to deliver the whole lot to the waiting thatcher. He lays each block of straw carefully in line around the eaves of the rick securing each one with a spar driven hard into the rick and tied with twine and so on round and round the roof of the rick tapering to the apex. Each row overlapping the one below making a surprisingly water proof covering for the precious corn. The whole lot is trimmed and a neater bit of work you never saw. I didn't like it much because, (a) I wasn't allowed to try thatching and (b) one was alone all day long in the sultry late August sun among the heady scent of grain and drying wild flowers and a male person.
I shall now touch on the vexed question of sexual harassment. My dear old maiden Auntie once asked me, "What is all this nowadays about sexual harassment?" "Well" I said "When you were a pretty young girl I expect there were men who wanted to brush up against you". "There was a man who used to push me up against a table, I could never understand why" said she. Now, haystacks, cornstacks, tractor wheels, barn doors and stable doors, you name it, I was pushed up against it, it was a fact of life. I used to pretend they were joking and, believe it or not managed to escape more or less unscathed.
A word here about hours of work. We started at 7.30 in the morning and, during harvesting and other jobs that had to be done fast before the weather broke, kept going until dark. Also, of course, the war was on. Lots of aircraft activity overhead. Once, an army deserter joined us in the field. He was ragged and very rough and offered to work for a bite to eat. He was gnawing on a mangold. "I want food in my flicking guts he said". Our kind governor let him help us and allowed him the dubious hospitality of the 'billy shed'. This was a noisome room next to the dairy . It had a dirt floor and housed an old boiler for sterilising the milking equipment. There were old sacks on the floor which acted as sofas on which the peasants could take their ease while enjoying their elevensies. Hardly Habitat but at least it was warm. Our illicit guest settled himself into this haven end sat there glaring malevolently at everyone who walked past. In the late evening at dusk guess who had to take him a plate of food. I gingerly entered the billy shed, it was dark and there was a snuffling noise coming from the furthest corner I felt like Frankenstein's assistant and plonked the plate down and fled. Can't remember what happened to the poor chap. The farmer's wife got extra rations for harvest time: buttcr, sugar, jam etc. All we saw was hunks of bread and margarine and tea.
Now it was our turn for the threshing machine. This monster was owned and run by an oil impregnated character called Les. The thresher itself is a wooden box-like edifice as big as a large caravan. It is towed along by a steam engine. Both these run on great metal wheels and you can imagine the racket they made clattering over our flint lane. This impressive parade chugged majestically over the fields to the ricks where the stage was set which would transform two great corn stacks into sacks of wheat to make the daily bread for the people. Les and his mate fussed over their machines like mother hens while the rest of us collected together all the required paraphernalia i.e. an elevator for the straw, pitchforks, chaff forks, scales and weights, wheat sacks, sacking needle and a sharp binder knife. The steam engine had a top up with water and the coal fire raging in its tummy was fanned to a roar. A great driving belt was looped from its fly wheel to the main pulley on the thresher from whence were looped lesser belts to power shakers and beaters. Our thatch, so carefully applied, was unceremoniously pitched onto the ground and we all took our places for the drama about to unfold. Two on the straw, two pitchers on the stack, a very strong man on the corn sacks two atop the thresher one to cut string and an old boy to feed the monster and someone to clear away the cavings etc. Enter stage left Les. With a flourish he engaged a long lever on his traction engine. with a great gout of smoke and explosive cough the huge flywheel turned and all was a dusty, noisy mayhem.
Old Pete was the only person on the farm who could be trusted to feed the sheaves in without risk of mortal injury. There was an aperture about a yard wide on the roof It gave on to a metal
cylinder, hollow and with twisted iron bars along the side. As the machine is thrown into gear this very cylinder turns at enormous speed. Pete carefully lowered in his sheaves and with a deafening screaming whine we were away. You can imagine the dangers here if one is careless.I have heard tales of very nasty accidents indeed. Soon great streams of lovely wheat were pouring out of one end of the thresher, straw from the back end and all the dusty rubbish fell out of the bottom. Frank, on the corn sacks, weighed them when full, stitched the tops and manhandled them to one side. These weighed two and a quarter hundred weight, That's 364 pounds. Don't know about kilos. Only the strongest amongst us could carry them on their shoulders up the steps into the barn. Some of the younger lads used to try and got crushed in the process amid much contempt. What a profession. There was dear old Ted on the straw stack leaving the job nobody wanted, the raking out of the rubbishy bits underneath. Yes, gentle reader, it was I. It was a horrible job. The noise was deafening and it was hard to breathe in the thick clouds of dust and one had to work very hard to keep the great gouts of muck away from the working parts. One did earn the accolade of 'game kid' but one got a good ticking off from ones landlady for the bits of straw on ones bedroom floor. Also magweed, a sort of daisy, found its way under one's vest and caused great painful blisters to form all over one's back.
However, one day, towards the end of the season, an extraordinary thing happened. The whole lot caught fire. I was gloomily minding my own business when the call went up. "We're afire!" and sure enough the corn stacks were ablaze. When you consider the obvious danger of spitting coals in close proximity to tons of tinder dry straw I suppose it was bound to happen. We tried to save all we could but the whole lot was soon reduced to the metal wheels. Nobody seemed particularly upset I suppose there was fire insurance in those days. The Autumn now closed in, the fields lay bare and it was time to prepare for the next crop. That's one of the things I loved about farming, the inexorable march of the seasons.
The next major job was ploughing. I would dearly have loved to try my hand at horse ploughing but the farmer said he had more respect for his horses. Anyway with our large acreage tractors with their three furrow ploughs had to be used. Much to the affrontery of the men I was given the great Case tractor and a crash course into the craft of the plough. When you are 'given' a tractor you are responsible for it's running maintenance. Nowadays, according to `Emmerdale', you simply climb into a cosy cab, press the self-starter and away you go. In our day the machine ran on paraffin but, as this needs a high temperature to vaporise properly, petrol was also used to start from cold and if you switch over too soon it stalls and oils up the plugs. Then you get sworn at and have to start from scratch, after cleaning all the plugs. Ten gallons of fuel is carried to the tractor shed in 5 gallon drums one in each hand, time and motion you see, one gallon of petrol goes in its own tank, oil in the engine and gearbox, moving parts greased and away you go with any luck. Those crank handles were very hard to turn and if you weren't on the ball the engine would backfire in which case you leap for safety. On a subsequent farm I got a badly smashed arm this way. As I said, you start off on petrol and when you judge the engine hot enough, switch over to paraffin and hope for the best.
The object of ploughing is to bury the herbage on the surface about six inches under exposing the soil to the sun and wind. A furrow is roughly a foot wide. It is of supreme importance to mark a straight furrow and a field is carefully measured out with markers first. The ploughperson must drive from one marker to the next with no deviation as the first furrow in a new piece of work sets the standard of the whole field. If you allow your clumsy equipage an iota away from the dead straight your sin stays for all to see until the harrows rub it all out. Nowadays with hydraulic ploughs it is a piece of cake but we had the old trailer furrows which jump about all over the place. When you start with a plough the curved furrow moulders, called a mould board, are all rusty from their long sojourn in the implement shed or, knowing that lot, in a bed of nettles from when it was last used. however, after a turn or two the passage through the good earth polishes them to a bright silver, glinting in the sunshine. The plough shares or arrow like tips of the mouldboards very quickly wear away and you have to carry plenty of spares. Once I'd mastered the technique I began to enjoy myself. The throbbing power at ones command, the wholesome scent and sight of the freshly turned earth, a snowy following of seagulls after worms and the amazed admiration on certain faces was heady stuff. Of course, a chimpanzee could do it really, they were fond of telling me.
After ploughing various harrows are used to slice and tease the soil into a fine tilth, fine enough to enfold the seeds of the next harvest. A seed drill is a long wooden box in the floor of which is a row of 12 cogs these are joined to flexible metal tubes leading to 'shims', as I think they were called. They were like the prow of a ship. The drill is dragged through the fine soil and these shims part it just like a bow wave. The grain seeds drop into the chasm and are tenderly enfolded by the wake to germinate quietly in the good earth. I used to like being on the seed drill. Your brief was to make sure each tube was flowing freely and that's about all. The tractor driver must keep the drill dead straight which meant keeping his eye always on the wheel mark of the previous row.
When the seedlings burst forth they show up a bright green against the brown earth and again the work comes under the critical scrutiny of idle bystanders, men from county hall, neighbouring farmers and members of the rambling club, these last got short shrift from our boss. Of course in this case missed bits and crooked lines shout to all and sundry "look at me" until mercifully obscured by harvest activity in four to five months time.