Chapter 5: Disillusionment 1948 - 50
So began a period of disillusion. All the romance was gone. I had sold my soul for a pair of gumboots. At the age of 18 -19 I regarded my life as over. I was no longer a star . On an old bicycle I dragged around Sussex farms to whomsoever asked for me. It was here I met with German prisoners of war. They were sent to work on farms and kept in camps. We were a bit scared of them at first but they were all so goodlooking and mannerly we were won over by the Kurts, Karls, Horsts and Erics who wanted nothing more than to be sent back to their own homes.
At least I got to use a milking machine. This is four rubber tubes in metal cups. A pulsator apes the sucking of a calf, all very impersonal. I stuck this for the prescribed length of time then decided to go home to take stock.
At this time my Father retired from the Civil Service and put forward a plan. We; Mother, Father and I would throw our lot in together and maybe get a small holding of our own one day. Meanwhile I should find a job with a 'tied' cottage. This is a dwelling owned by a farmer in which his worker lives rent-free as part of his wages. In such a cottage we could all live en famille. Various relatives pointed out the folly of this enterprise to no avail. The dye was cast.
There followed a period of packing up and winding down of my parents affairs. Meanwhile I cast around for a stop-gap job. Idleness was certainly not to be countenanced. Then I happened to bump into my first boss. He had noticed me at a bus-stop, stopped his car to enquire about my situation and, there and then, offered me a job as sole herdswoman to a small dairy herd at Lower Bevendean. This would be until a permanent man could be found.
At Lower Bevendean was a herd of about 15 cows and their spouse, a massive brown bull who ran with the herd. There was a food store, dairy and a cowshed. Quite a little kingdom. I was to lodge with one of the farm workers and his wife, but the least said about them the better. I never used to take much notice of my domestic situation but this place was pretty dire. One night I took a cup of cocoa to bed. I was woken by a strange ruffling of my hair. I thought at first it was a draught but getting up to investigate found mice scampering over my pillow to get at the dregs of cocoa.
Also on this area of the farm lived the old Father of the present boss with his wife and daughter. They had a lovely old farmhouse. One of my cows was a Jersey who's milk went exclusively to them and I had to deliver it every day. The daughter was very nice to me and told me of the horrendous jobs she had had to do as a young girl. The old Father was priceless. He liked to watch me work. He would shuffle out to the cowshed in his carpet slippers with a soggy fag end in his mouth and a giant dewdrop dangled from his nose to the cigarette and swung gaily from the end. I was usually singing and whistling. He used to remark "A whistling woman and a crowing hen is good for neither God nor man". I privately thought "They haven't been very good to me either".
The work was the usual grind of washing, milking and mucking out. A lorry came every morning to collect my full churns and another to deliver loads of brewer's grains. This was a nourishing by-product from the brewery after the barley grains had yielded their malt. The cows relished them and consumed them by the bushel. It was very heavy work but that was the job. It was dawn -to-dusk heaving, lifting and shoving of hundredweight loads of cattle feed and milk churns.
The only novelty here was to be in sole charge of a gigantic bull. I had to untie his neck chain in the morning and let him trot out after the cows then drive them all up the lane to the pasture land.
As it happened the builders had been busy erecting a row of neat suburban houses up the side of this lane and they were all newly occupied. My dear cows relished the lobelias and french marigolds planted in the front gardens, unfenced please note, and made short work of them. Not only that but the bull chose this very spot to consummate his wedding vows with noisy abandon.
The newcomers were shrill in their condemnation "Get out, you're disgusting" they yelled. "Oh, shut up" said I, "How do you people think you get your milk on your doorstep. Anyway we were here first". I like to think I won the day. Nowadays similar little spats happen more and more as townies move to the countryside expecting it to be all sanitised and brightly lit at night. I have even heard of yuppies complaining about the cock crow.
In my dealings with this bull I needed to screw my courage to its sticking point. One day when fetching the herd in for afternoon milking I saw, to my consternation, someone had turned a crowd of nubile young heifers into the field next to mine. My bull decided to transfer his affections from the old cows to these attractive youngsters. It was my job to drive him away and back to his boring old wives. He was charging up and down the fence getting more and more frustrated and bellowing fiercely. I waved a stick at him and shouted. He knelt down and began to rip up the turf with his thick, sharp horns a sure sign that it was my turn next. Anyway I yelled with all my might and twanged the barbed wire and thank goodness he gave up and slunk back to his wives.
Eventually a proper herdsman was found and I returned home and found a milking job, with cottage, at Laughton in East Sussex. My parents, were still set on exchanging the comfort of a modern house for my muddy milieu, so off we all went.
At Laughton I was one of a gang of four. What characters they were. One had no teeth and the other one stuttered, so communication was a hit or miss affair. One of my jobs was calf rearing. I've mentioned before about the heartbreaking business of the calves. If a bull calf is born he is bundled into a sack at a few days old and sent to market to end up as veal. The heifers or 'girls' are kept all together in a shed and have to be fed milk supplement from a bucket several times a day. The poor little things are desperate to suck so it is quite easy to let them suck your finger and then lower it gradually into the bucket. It soon becomes possible to withdraw the finger and let them drink at will. When they are old enough they are weaned and fed normally until they too must face Ferdinand and all that entails. I would like to say here how glad I am that I was never in a position to own a farm. I'm sure I'd lack the hard-heartedness required.
After I'd been working on that farm for about a year fate stepped in. A family of Ma, Pa and son came to visit us. We weren't related but were on 'Uncle and Auntie' terms, our parents having been bosom buddies since the son and I were babes in arms. They were tenant farmers and had a dairy farm at Mayfield. I used to spend summer holidays with them and he stayed with us at Brighton to enjoy the seaside. Seeing our situation Uncle suggested that it would make more sense if we were to move to his cottage and I work for him. My good fairy must have been absent then because my parents agreed to the plan and we decamped to a grim little cottage whose only water supply was a well up the garden.
The air of bonhomie, which we assumed would continue was swiftly knocked on the head by 'Auntie'. She showed herself to be a nasty, bitter old witch and for the first time I experienced snobbery from the receiving end and realised that to be a farm labourer was to put oneself down amongst the lowest of the low. Hitherto I had always been proud of my work as jolly hard and virtuous but useful and worthwhile, whereas I now had the chance to experience the feelings of a serf. In fairness 'Uncle' treated me with a surreptitious kindness but both he and the son were scared of the old woman and allowed her to govern their behaviour.
They had a dairy herd and pigs, a tractor and a horse called Prince. It was a beautiful place to look at. The house was 16th century and the fields and woods enfolded the River Rother all completely unspoilt. My cottage was three fields and a deep wood away from the farm and I enjoyed the walk to work in the early dawn through lush green grass.Then to harsh reality. My first duty was to bang on the empty milk churns outside the son's room to wake him up. He used to hide behind his curtains and shoot at me with an air rifle. The pellets ricocheted off the milk churns. He never actually hit me but the thought was there.
I then started up the cranky old compressor which provided the vacuum for the milking machines, let the poor cows in, tied them up, washed them all and did the milking. Every gallon had to be carried through the mud up to the dairy. I suppose the men were doing something. To save time walking back to my cottage for breakfast and back again they told me to get my food at the house. I went to the door assuming a place at the table for porridge and eggs. Instead I found a thick mug of tea and crust of bread and margarine sitting in the mud on the back doorstep. Unbelievable. After this bounty came a day of hard work in the fields.
In those days fields were divided by hedges and ditches. From a practical point of view providing drainage and shelter for the animals while aesthetically they were beyond compare. It was necessary to keep the hedges trimmed and the ditches cleared, a job I liked very much. A razor sharp sickle and hooked stick were all the tools one needed. With a practised swipe and wrist action one could clear overgrown bits leaving a nice neat hedge and sweetly rounded ditch but best of all was coming face to face with the many small creatures in this, their world. Grass snakes, field mice, voles, toads, hedgehogs etc. and carefully ensure their safety, a consideration certainly not countenanced by the young squire who seemed to enjoy killing everything. Nowadays what hedges there are suffer the horrible flail machines used to keep them in trim.
Once, when 'Uncle' was giving me my day's orders the 'Aunt' flung open a window and yelled at us"Gas, gas, gas that's all you ever do". All this reminded me of when I used to stay there as a child. At the time they employed a poor unfortunate boy and he had to lodge with them, I never saw him at the family table, perhaps he ate on the back doorstep too. In the long winter evenings I shall always remember him sitting at the kitchen table in the candlelight staring into space like a horse tied up in the stable while the exalted family enjoyed the fireside comfort of their lounge.
Perhaps 'Auntie' was afraid her son would form an alliance with me. She was quite safe, he was a brute: hitting the cows, castrating little pigs, shooting any wild creature, rabbits, birds etc. that dared to cross his path. I shall always remember one cold, wet day, the harvest sheaves had all blown down and we had to stand them up again. I was suffering from particularly bad period pain and he relieved the tedium of the job by hitting me hard in the face with the wet sheaves.
My parents realised the shameful state of things and there was a big falling out and we were off again. The tied cottage system means that a person loses his roof along with his job. To be fair, a fanner must have his workers on hand. My clever Daddy found us a 'free' cottage and the look of outrage on the face of my tormentor when he heard that we were leaving to a cottage of our own was delicious. Whoever took over my position there has my deepest sympathy.
Our next cottage was the height of luxury after some of the very down-market hovels we'd been used to up till now. It even had an inside loo and electric light. I quickly got a job as tractor driver on a nearby farm. Not much of interest to say about that except that I met the art of silage making for the first time. This is a different way of preserving grass. It is mown and carted while still green and lush. A long, shallow trench is dug and the grass spread along it. You drive the tractor to and fro over to compress it, spray it with raw molasses and so on until the whole crop is contained therein. A heavy plastic sheet goes over the lot and is weighed down by tractor tyres . Thus preserved, this nourishing food will fester away happily until required later on in the winter. When the time comes to roll back the cover a reeking brown sludge is exposed. Fortunately the cows like it but the smell takes a lot of getting used to pervading as it does the whole farm. It even wrinkles the noses of passing motorists, you may have noticed it yourself.
The farmer here was a humane chap. There were a few other men one of whom suffered from diabetes. He would often mess up his insulin dose and pass out in the most awkward places. Then one would shove a lump of sugar in his mouth and all would be well. He got me interested in motor bikes and at about that time I spent my savings on a 350 B.S.A. Talk about the terror of the road.
This was Freshcombe Lodge. It was lovely standing as it did on top of the Downs. To the north lay the Sussex Weald like a patchwork covering many counties and to the South the sea. The air was wonderful, rolling over the hills scented by wild thyme. A man from the Min of Ag and Fish used to keep an official eye on us and in the deep winter would remark "It's pretty fresh up the coombes today".
My brief was to plough up a great area of virgin ground. With hindsight from the turn of a new environmentally aware millennium this seems a shameful enterprise but then the need to grow more grain was paramount. I set off every morning on a Fordson Major tractor with an hydraulic plough carrying on board a saw, axe, and length of chain. I hacked and dragged out gorse bushes and scrub and ploughed up the cleared ground. Men from the Min. of Ag. used to gather round, smirk and scribble things on their clipboards. I wish now it hadn't been done. Just look at the once beautiful Downs. Not wilderness any more but AONB's and museum farms.
On the cleared land we grew great crops of grain and sugar beet. Lots of backbreaking hoeing. At this point a combine harvester made its first appearance. Very primitive by today's standards. I think it must have been a secondhand heap because, before we could use it, a completely new set of driving chains had to be got from somewhere. Mr. Boss surfed the telephone book and found a firm in Wokingham who supplied them. Delivery service? Oh no. So I was sent on my motor bike to collect them.
Now, at my advanced age, I get in a state if I have to negotiate a roundabout but then I charged off with no map, no crash helmet, just a vague address. I imagined the chains would fit into the pannier bags but they turned out to be a great heap on the ground with enormous heavy links. The garage men shook their heads and sucked in their breath but in the end took pity and we looped all the smaller chains round the petrol tank and over the handlebars.The main chain I wore draped around my person and I set off weaving along the road. This odd vehicle made steady progress until I simply had to obey a call of nature and find a hedge. I clanked along like Jacob Marley with the ponderous weight. Afterwards, when I tried to stand up again I simply couldn't make it being pinned to the ground by that awful weight. However I found a stout tree and managed to stand by going hand over hand up the trunk. I arrived back at Freshcombe after dark looking like something out of Mad Max. 'Mad' about says it. Now we had a viable machine at any rate.
Nowadays the corn is piped straight from the harvester to vast trailers and taken to a grain silo untouched by human hand, but this one still used those dreadfully heavy sacks which were dumped straight onto the ground to be gathered up with great labour, not mine thank goodness although I did once carry one on my back into the barn just to show off, stupid cow. Well I'm paying for it now. The screws hurt something terrible.
We had an ancient Fordson tractor which ran on tank tracks. I needed it one day and turned the crank handle. It backfired violently and smashed my arm badly but after a quick plastering in the hospital I was soon back on the tractor seat.
Hitherto my social life was non-existent but now I had a motor bike I thundered off to the pictures with a rash swain on the pillion. Heady with the novelty of it all I charged along the seafront at enormous speed. The police used bells then and gave chase. I was finally caught and booked. "You're brave mate" said the policeman to my passenger. When the case came to court the headline in the paper read: "Police car couldn't catch her". Nothing to be proud of I know.
It was during this period that I heard this remarkable sheepdog story. On a neighbouring farm lived a lone chap. He ran sheep and bullocks on his hill. He was a rough character and always wore an old army greatcoat tied round the middle with binder twine. He had a large black mongrel called Jack. One day he needed to get his sheep down from the tops. "Goo get 'em" he growled to Jack who raced up the hill. When he reached the flock he rounded them up along with the bullocks and soon the whole lot were stampeding down the hill. "Jack, Jack you bloody idiot, let they bullocks abide" shouted the old boy. Jack stopped, did a rethink, then he cut the bullocks out and brought the sheep safely down alone.
I quite enjoyed life there but the parents couldn't stand it any more and went their separate ways, very sad. My Mother got a marvellous job house-keeping for two masters at Eton College no less and I decided to join the Women's Royal Air Force and train to be a nurse. So many people had pointed out to me the "no future" aspect of being a farmworker and I lacked feminine wiles necessary to ensnare a farmer and thank goodness for that.