Tatworth Village/Over the garden gate
Chapter V: Over the garden gate
Within the time allotted for lambing, the first green tender points of new grass began to show. It was getting on for late April when it was time to move the ewes and their youngsters down to the meadows. Still the ground was penned to allow the new grass to have a chance to grow. Within two or three weeks, the whole field could be opened up. By May, there was an abundance of clover, vetches, pea, old dredge corn, and wild rye, to feast upon. Haymaking time was fast approaching…
The ploughman would quickly follow on after lambing, if not done previously, or with the harrow - to break-up furrows - to prepare the surface ready for sowing. Whereas the harrow only cuts up the top, the plough digs and moves the soil in a certain direction. The ploughman considers how to turn over the soil – to prepare it for the winter’s action, composting the previous year’s stubble and root systems whilst allowing air to circulate; all the time giving thought to proper surface drainage making sure ditches were kept clear - without causing erosion or a series of hollows. It was normal working practice to plough furrows along he contours of the land. There were only a few reversible mouldboards and these were not always successful… so ploughing ‘up’ and ‘down’ was done a certain distance apart – into ‘gathers’. These strip of ploughing kept the field in its original state consciously allowing the ploughshear to skate upon the surface, at the turn of each row. Finally, the whole field was circled anti or clockwise to set the direction of the soil needed. Ploughing was performed soon after the stooks had been removed to the rick, and the wastage burnt off.
It was almost a race to see which farm started work first… making sure all was ready for the first frosts to break the turf. Old ricks were broken down, and together with chaff, spread over the field to be ploughed in. The ploughed fields in autumn allow the winter’s weather to break down the clods, which together with the rains exposed the flints and stones… These were picked up and removed to the edge of the field by children - to swell the heaps of many generations of labour. Steam powered engines worked the land operated by contractors using sets of cultivating equipment … these became less used at the start of WWII. However, threshing and barn work still carried on with steam power as did road repairs using steamrollers.
At the beginning of the thirties, just after the General Strike ended, the agricultural community was in tatters. Generations of farm workers suddenly found themselves out of work – all their hard won skills unwanted. Many found work in factories, like the butter factory or lace mill. Some turned their hand to building, being somewhat allied to farm maintenance work. This increase in building work was to be seen and felt all over England, particularly along the railways lines, and towns. It was fortunate that the lace factory continued to produce net for curtaining. However, none of this happened without a great deal of anxiety and worry.
Boys left school aware of local customs and work habits. Within a short space of time, they absorbed a number of different skills - all to do with building and farm work. These skills they picked up watching their elders and listening to their conversation. The tractor driver knew a thing or two about machinery and its maintenance. The ploughman could repair a fence, weave a hurdle and dig a ditch and the dairyman could become a shepherd - if needs be! No different for their wives and girl friends - it was a matter of being versatile, for jobs were rare and times were hard. Not one of them does the same job… day in and day out… throughout the year. They may like to, but circumstance dictate they have to turn their hand to anything that needs doing.
At the start of the Second World War when the government were forced to make the country ‘as self sufficient as possible’ farming began a series of transformations. As much land as possible was quickly brought into cultivation - some neither economic nor practical. More tractors and harvesters brought into use to cope with difficult terrain, larger fields: lack of skilled ploughmen, insufficient casual and migrant labour, and conscription of The Women’s Land Army. The country was at total war it was no good having too many scruples about maintaining parks and gardens or maintaining small fields and non-negotiable gateways. From the time when I was old, enough to take notice until well into the 1950s when rationing still in force, self-sufficiency was the governments aim. The farmer was as much fighting the war as the soldier; if not cooperative, he was forced to comply with The Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery’s strictures or removed from his land. It was a difficult time; the seasons dictated the speed of progress towards the government’s diktats… it was not many years before, that flails were used to thrash out the corn.
In the winter of 1939 there was enormous activity on the land… two million extra acres were to be sown in preparation for war. There was not enough equipment including horses – only fifty-five thousand tractors were available, in all of Britain. Winter starts in mid November when the last leaves blown off the trees - by the harsh cold wind. It does not take long for the Technicolor picture of summer to fade and the cold hard reality of winter about to descend… The icy blasts harden the furrow’s ridge turned up by the plough’s mould-board as the field is prepared for the winter sowing of wheat. Over the hedge the field of Swedes were dug up for market, and the remainder placed in clamps, next to the potatoes and mangold-wurzels. The carrots and beetroots taken inside the barn and put into tubs of dried peat.
Soon the onetime rain-filled clods are frozen rock hard. The dry twigs - lifeless rumpled leaves, and remnants of half-eaten acorn, and chestnut, crackle underfoot. Everything covered in the rime of hoarfrost… the countryside, glistens in the sparkling winter sunlight. On the allotment garden it is the month of digging and planting, making sure the beds are ready for next years potatoes, broad beans, cabbages, and onions. The occasional flurry of snow showers are chased hither and thither by the north wind. The last of the leaves drop at the beginning of December… the bare trees show their deformities to the windward side as the chilling wind dries up the last remaining moisture. Wheat sowing continues unabated as the last field are ploughed for oats. Whilst the hedgehog, dormice and bat hibernate, other animals lie still - conserving energy… Not all animals are retiring though… for the fox and weasel are on the prowl.
It is time for grandad to prune the fruit trees and take cuttings from the currants. There is little time for the birds to feed… grandma puts out an enamel plate, on the grass, full of table scraps… it is not long before the plate is bare! The gorse on the common and the winter-toadstool in the wood, give the only colour to an otherwise grey scene. Pairs of hooting tawny owls begin their courtship feeding… not giving the foraging mouse and scurrying vole time to linger! The wind begins to be noticeably colder – it is now bitterly cold with clear skies. Walking about close to the stream, the dead leaves were now frosted and sparkled in the morning light. The mistletoe in the lime trees looked like airy nests against the sky. The ditches are checked to ensure they are free and not blocked and the manure is taken to the remaining field that have so far escaped ploughing. Any good day is taken up spreading lime on fields for the brassicas.
The edges of the stream freezes… it is only the swift flow of the water in the centre that keeps it free from ice. The snowstorm fulfils the promise of the dark, heavy clouds… the lanes and fields merge: it is truly, a bleak mid winter scene. The wind swirls the snow about creating banks against the hedges. It is just as well that the workers in the butter factory can walk to work - for trying to cycle is impossible! Some dried reeds disguised the fact that the young growth had started to show through the frost-covered ground, as a lonely bulrush nods its bedraggled head at the strength of the wind. It starts to rain and the light fades fast… The sheep begin to move towards the sheltered side of the field… A patch of dead flag iris cropped down by the sheep displays new growth - just visible under trampled leaves. A flock of lapwings fly overhead as a startled partridge races away.
Grandad spends his time in the greenhouse studying the seed catalogues the trays bearing the seed potatoes are under the shelf starting to sprout. Back in the cottage, the fire in the parlour range heats the room and casts a cheery glow. Outside hardly a sound disturbs the snow-bound village… The family gather round the fire comforted by the crackling, hissing sap, as it bubbles out of the burning wood; the occasional crack heralds another flying ember... the nearest target extinguishes the glowing missile whilst grandma serves out the next round of cooked chestnuts… passing them in turn round the ring of fire lit faces. They do not linger… the offered nut is far too hot – is tossed from hand to hand…
The snow gives way to slush and the banks of the stream overflow. The bridged, one time ford, holds back the flow… the water creates a pool that dissipates towards the reed bed. A weak sun and drying wind soon returns the fields to a furrowed brown. At last, time to break up the spade turned soil - in preparation for outside sowing. February is the month to sow parsnips – the first vegetable to begin the cycle all over again. It will not be long before the purple orchid graces the woodland glade, to be followed by the pansy and violet.
There was talk about a mole that had been busy in the garden making a series of mounds across the grass under the apple trees… it is just as well that the mole is not distracted in its digging by the sodden ground. The snowdrops are a pitiable sight, dipping and bending under the weight of water. The rain continues to fall… Will it ever be possible to be warm again, and to run barefooted over the grass?
As soon as the scattered primroses line the ditches, the bees begin to fly. Now, at last, spring is in the air - to last from March to the end of April. Throughout England in the thirties, and at other times - after tillage, farmers would sow their seed to coincide with their area’s weather and ground temperature - knowing that spring is a period of instability. It is time now to attend to fattening and breeding stock.
Therefore, it would be wrong to say that on the first day of spring the corn was cast… wheat was sown in February, oats in March and barley in April. What decided the issue would be how the suns rays had warmed the ground - the local meteorological forecast for future sun, and the access of machinery… not on the amount of rain or wind. The sown seed is then promoted into life by dampness and decaying plant acting as an insulator from the cold night air. Usually after the warmth of the March sun just as the blackthorn comes into bloom - plant growth is triggered - when the ground temperature is 43ºF. The early potatoes are planted and the summer carrots pricked out… early dwarf peas and summer spinach sown in succession. The onion sets are given their regimental rows, together with the shallots. There is so much to do that it is late before granddad settles down in front of the fire.
The buds on the oak tree noticeably green peeps out. At last, winter is over… Along Perry Street, the ivy leaves on the walls are bright and shiny and opposite the church, the Jubilee Tree outlined against the pale blue sky. There is talk about some snow; forecast for the afternoon… the news does not interest the cock blackbirds who watch their hens battle it out on the grass. The wind now is blowing quite hard a few drops of rain fall - shaken out of the trees… The rooks are repairing their nests. It is a time of great activity in the field, hedge and tree. The invaders migrating from abroad challenge competition between breeding birds for what food is available. The dawn chorus proclaims each individual’s territory, beginning well before sunrise. Now the swallows begin to arrive… just before the cuckoo’s call.
Down by he stream the willow’s twigs and branches show more colour and buds have started to form on the ash. At last, spring is beginning to show itself… the hawthorn buds are green and the pussy willow worth collecting. Those blackbirds have started rowing again as they chase each other, making such a racket. The work on the farm increases in intensity, the machinery shaken out and oiled. Before sowing can take place the farrows had to be levelled off and the clods reduced. Harrowing with drag harrows with iron teeth reduced the soil to a fine tilth. Rolling could be used alternately to further reduce the lumps of soil. It was always beneficial to cover sowed seed to prevent birds for destroying the field. Sowing was still partly done by hand but quickly died out in the early thirties except awkward corners and small fields. A good sower of seed could cover an acre field using just three pounds of seed.
Mechanical drilling was often done with two horses and would take an hour to cover an acre field. A trickle of grain fell down the funnel into the small furrow from the box. The roller followed the seed-drill, in many places drawn by horses. Mangelworzels, spread over the next field by hand, or from the back of a horse drawn cart, this gave the sheep something to crunch on, particularly at lambing times; this fertilized the field, although the mangols were difficult to pull out of the frozen ground.
It was the schoolchildren’s job to scare away the rooks using battered pans and rattles. The high branches of the elms hold the rookery - the nests made out of twigs laced together hold firm against the swaying of their homes. They are there surviving the winter storms to be rethatched the following spring. The rook’s cries… filled the air. In the houses and cottages, the start of spring heralded Spring-cleaning. All the rag, wool hand-stitched loose rugs would be taken out of the house to be beaten. As the cottage door was left open on most days – not only to air the living room but allow the smoke filled atmosphere to clear, the rugs would be damp… having to be hung on the washing line to dry before house-work started.
In the garden, it is the month of almost continual weeding, transplanting and thinning out. The greenhouse is taken up with pots of this and that sprouting up… The sweet peas are taken out to be planted and summer cabbage given another row. We start having rhubarb tart for starters…
The stream seems to know winter is over - that new life forming… It bubbles and chatters over the rounded stones on the streambed in celebration, sparkling brightly - in the morning sun. The catkins hang down from the hazel as a new growth of bramble entwines round the stem. At the base a patch of assorted primroses, some white, others pink, vie with the violets to brighten up the riverbank, mainly colourless in its winter coat… I wonder who is going to hear the first cuckoo… The cows from the farm start to enter the field… over the hedge there is a great deal of lowing. The milking is still done by hand in many areas - especially small farms, 100 million gallons a year was transported to London by rail in the thirties using special milk vans. Field crops were planted by hand every potato sown by gangs of local women and children all paid just four shillings a day, the same rate for stone gathering. However much the land around is finding new life the farming people still are challenged by the daily grind.
The swallow whirl overhead… they swoop round the eaves darting here and there just for the fun of it. If only they would be still – just for a moment. The reeds, once flattened and bedraggled, standing upright, resplendent in green. The hoverfly staggers by as he hurries home carrying his sacks of pollen. Now it is the turn of the wagtails to dart amongst the now active undergrowth wagging their tails vigorously on landing. There is no doubting the advent of summer, as the May buds start to open… All along the bank, the riversides bestiritself. The flash of orange-red and turquoise startles them as the kingfisher, showing off, dashes by…
Early May sees the birth of summer… the weather makes a perceptible improvement. The trees spread their canopies giving shade… filtering the sunlight onto the ground. Now the insects start to home in on their particular source of food. The open countryside starts to change colour as each fruit starts to ripen. The birds start to quieten when the lazy days of summer herald school holidays and another harvest, about to be planned.
The splendid horse-chestnut tree in the next field now has bright green leaves and a few sticky buds are opening… it will not be long before the flowers open… At last, summer is just around the corner…, it has taken so long. All the winter rains and chill winds seem an age away. The hawthorn blossom is such a delicate thing but the most prolific flowing tree - which starts the race - for all the other blooms to follow. In the field, the first buttercups give voice to early summer suns. The cuckoo call seems to echo, bouncing off the trees in the wood.
Down by the stream the early summer sun warms up the cow-parsley the myriad small white flowers give off a scent that is slightly sour - hangs in the air. Close to the riverbank, the cow’s foot weed. It appears as if a larger version of the watercress, or giant clover; whose flower has to wait two or three days before its ball is fully open. Is it any wonder that it is such a favourite of the bee… who unfortunately has to be content with nectar from the comfrey? It is just as well that the bee is such an active insect – life would soon come to a halt without its labour. Little do that pair of tufted ducks care about such esoteric thoughts, they are far too busy - concerned about their nest and the batch of speckled eggs it contains… In the deeper stretches of the river a pair of swans continue their patrol - first this way and then that. No river scene is complete without their graceful presence. Dusk begins - soon after tea; the evening stroll requires the welcoming comfort of a coat. A turn up the road, over the bridge… a glance over the hedge shows the mist is beginning to raise… the reed bed is now a distant outline.
A second sowing of French beans is tackled first thing after breakfast on Saturday, quickly followed by the potatoes being earthed-up. The kitchen garden is now almost fully planted with neat orderly rows stretching across all the gardens. Nothing is left to chance for it is most important that the garden produce all that the family needs.
Tinkers still visited the villages in the thirties… and on into the early war years, their carts rattling over the stones… the men about to set up their braziers to heat the pots and pans. They would grind and sharpen the gardening tools, household scissors and kitchen knives. Their call of, ‘scissors to grind’, an oft-heard cry, as they spun the grindstone wheel. The tramps too made their way along Perry Street with their loads of clothing tied in bundles. It was not unusual to find one setting up his pot over a fire or making his lean-to tent. They never seemed to be thin… perhaps it was the amount of clothing they wore that fattened then out? They were in the main successful beggars, housewives giving them a crust or drink of milk to make them go away. For hamlets and outlying villages – away from the main highways, where the population was sparse the Tinkers and Hawkers took the place of small shopkeepers – they were an essential part of the countryside – a much relied on source of communication as well as suppliers of essential goods.
Pedlars and Knife-grinders also had a place in rural life… they plied their trade too. In those days the Pedlar was called the Chapman and was very welcomed… he passed on news and gossip to outlandish places in a similar way to the Tinker carrying an amazing variety of goods in his carpetbag – pins, needles, vests, caps, girdles, laces, gloves, knives, glasses, tapes, dusters and much else besides. He sold clothes for babies, cleaning materials for the kitchen and floor. Lengths of material, aprons, ribbons, and thread, for the dressmakers, and wool for the knitters. All were very handy for those unable to get out - to the shops in town. The Pedlars had their rounds and were expected to provide the same produce summer and winter… for they were relied on… His round was passed on - from father to son - jealously guarded. No tradesman’s cart invaded his preserves… for in some instances, he worked conspiring with a local town’s, general store - which provided his merchandise. It has been known for Tinkers to set up shop within the village, and in time to be accepted and integrated into the running of the village co-operative. There was no other means of obtaining these articles for who else would travel on rutted tracks in all weathers and in all seasons.
The proud gypsies, with their dogs, still wandered the lanes of England, most staying within their locality where they knew the habits of the workers and the farming community. Some stayed in town during the winter only travelling during the summer months to sell what they had traditionally made; others worked picking the summer crops. The women sold wooden pegs, woven baskets and bunch of ‘lucky’ heather whilst the men picked the fruit, helped with the harvest and planted the seed. In winter, they sold scrap metal and made-up their stock. The traditional highly coloured bow-topped van, with its decorated sides and neat, stepped, glazed door - displaying gaily painted cans and boxes, all pulled by a single horse. Often there a convoy of gypsy caravans which passed by heading for an old familiar campsite? Underneath the cart, a cage was to be seen carrying a clutch of hens. The rabbit catching lurcher loped along ready at a call to find a rabbit for the pot. The families would all meet up at the same site to pick fruit or vegetables in season… re-establishing past friendships - cementing family links.
The Spanish onion seller on his bike operated from coast to hinterland. Having his own route cycled year after year, with his strings draped over every part of the bike so that it looked like a travelling stack on wheels. It is the time of year when the sky shows a saturated blue above the new, fresh foliage of the nearby elms. The sky’s colour, so intense that it creates a lightening vignette - halo, around the skyline branches. This distortion or adjacency is purely an action of poor eyesight not actual. It is unlikely for a human being not to be uplifted by natures allure. At last all the trees are in full foliage although still not fully formed and the sunlight reaches the ground below allowing under plantings to flourish.
Early summer mornings in June are heralded by the cocks crowing in all the chicken runs - at the bottom of the garden. This would be the start to one’s day, quickly followed by the dawn chorus and the chatter of swallows in the eaves. There being no traffic as such only the clip-clop of the milkman’s horse and cart, resplendent in its coloured paint outlining its panels… the open back, made it look like a chariot, swayed as the milkman descended to deliver the days supply. The welcoming chink of his bottles and clank of his churns was another reminder…
Along the roadside dense thickets of blackthorn covered in early morning dew, sharp smelling and alive with bees feasting off the white blossom. In the fields, the chirping grasshoppers fidgeted and the ever-buzzing insects flew about with a purposeful beat to their wings. Along the lane the mighty stag beetle worked his way over the rotting wood, his, was only a very short life, whilst the ants formed up one behind each other carrying their scrap of leaf, to who know where? No phones rang, no planes flew overhead and no dust was disturbed on the lanes. There was always plenty of time and the tranquil scene remained unspoilt even through the war years. Down stream, from the bridge, there are two workmen cutting the weeds and dragging it to the side of the bank. Quantities of weed escape the attention of the men and drift down river becoming entangled in the trailing willow branches. It is late afternoon and the warm light highlight the heads of the marsh orchid amongst the waist height reeds. The swans paddle by now accompanied by their young, little grey-brown bundles of downy feathers. It is getting late and the background hum of insect life quietens the evening strollers, as they start up the road towards the Poppe Inn.
The end of each day was announced by the screech of owls in the neighbouring trees, the local cats fighting for territory, and the bark of foxes in the copse. Pathetic crying… another victim would follow the occasional fluttering, scuffles and rustles... The countryside was not always sleeping!
Most villages were self-supporting in that they had a shop, a butchers and bakers. The fields and gardens provided the rest. Many folk had a bicycle - adequate for getting to work or shop - there was always the carrier to cart the extra purchases. Village life carried on with the help of small businesses - passed on from generation to generation. Because families were large most of the children, on leaving school, left home to take up employment in the nearest town, which was in this case Chard. At least one boy always followed the father’s occupation and one of the girls looked after the aging grandparents. Later on, the same daughter looked after the parents. Other girls within the family provided help in wealthier homes, close to the family home. Those children left at home after the parents had died usually took over the tenancy. Although it was difficult to travel about there was a lot of visiting of families, friends and relations, which closely bonded the community. Most of the village and local industry served the farmers - their farms and country estates. There was, throughout the year, a general working up towards harvesting time – getting all the machinery into working order.
It was not often that my grandma went shopping to Chard. The lack of money being the chief reason but distance and time made it a chore not an enjoyment. The children going to school, then to work, had to be looked after. Still, there were times when a visit had to be made, and more often than not, for clothing. Only working class mothers inhabited the shops. Nobody who wished to be thought of as middle class would be seen in such places. The workers manners, clothes and speech would embarrass the shop girls of high-class establishments. The formidable shop-walker, in black jacket and striped trousers - who’s job it was to provide security and to stop shop-lifting, would soon hover close to unfamiliar faces as soon as they came through the door enquiring if he could direct you…?
The shop windows would be dressed very conservatively. The plaster models and designer sets represented daily scenes, most of the produce was kept in glass fronted drawers or cupboards – not in a position where the customer able to handle the goods. The shop assistant would be told the item to be assessed and they would have to fetch it and point out its suitability. If the article was large then the shop’s carrier called to either see the client to the door or to take the item out and place it in the dogcart or carriage. It was possible to take the item on approval. Then the carrier would take the clients name, address, and list the goods taken. No deposit was required and the client departed.
Tills or cash registers were not on the counters. The cashier sat in a glass sided cubicle at the back of the shop. The shop assistant took the cash to the cashier - who placed it and the price tag in a metal container that was taken by cord and air pressure along a tube to the office. The receipt and change returned by the same route. If the change included a farthing, this was used to buy pins or some other small item. The penny bazaar was a favourite place to visit, especially for children to spend their savings. Such places had an open front and display counters presenting all their produce to open view. They were always well attended the crowd shuffled through at a snails pace as… the excited children stared in wonderment. This was the forerunner of Woolworth’s ‘thrupenny and sixpenny’ store. The shops stayed open late on Saturdays particularly those in the street or market place. It was the place to buy cheap meat for the weekend roast, at the end of the working day. On market days, the place was alive with people, with stallholders all shouting - declaring their wares. It was always colourful and exciting with the one-man-band playing, jugglers and the occasional beggar… all demanding attention.
Grandma was careful, that whenever buying any material - it was carefully examined. The material was rubbed to see if the cloth was full of ‘dressing’ - which would wash out leaving the garment thin and limp. Clothes for her children were always bought too large, so that they could be worn for the longest possible time and then handed down. Invariably the colour was white, in that way they could be repeatedly washed - without wondering if the colour was going to last, and being the same colour as sheets, pillowcases and towels they could all be washed together. All bed linen was white, which allowed girls, about to be married, to sew on lace edging… similarly the towels, flannels and tray cloths – embroidered then laid in tissue paper in the lowest drawer. Each daughter reserved this drawer for her private things – for her ‘bottom drawer’, items kept aside for when she became married. On rainy days this drawer was carefully turned out – relined, and then refilled. Keeping a bottom drawer was started at a very young age and used to condition girls - to seek a husband and start their own home. It was also used to keep the girls occupied. If they left home to be ‘in-service’, they ‘lived in’ - treated as one of the family, under the control of the housekeeper. In that case, the bottom drawer stayed where it was; ready for the day she left home for good. Household items were bought to last a lifetime. Good saucepans and frying pans were very heavy - made of iron, and carefully treated with oil, which eventually became burnt-on and black. This was never washed or scoured off, but left – being just wiped out. For boiling vegetables, plain white enamel was thought to be suitable.