Chapter 3 - It was a perfect May morning.
It was a perfect May morning. The air was heavy with the scent of blossom, apple trees hung with pink and white clouds and swallows, with swift purposeful flight, were busy building their semi-detached little homes. The cuckoo sang from early morning till dusk and his call, that so delighted us a month ago, ceased to register on our minds.
Baby chicks and ducks were everywhere. Almost every day another setting of eggs was hatched. These were put in a coop with the mother hen, so she could keep a watchful eye on them and were easy to bring up, they just had to be fed and watered at regular intervals, for the hen kept them warm under her sheltering wings.
The incubators were in use again and had to be given a lot of attention. They were housed in a back room that smelt of paraffin and dried egg shells, the lamps were filled and trimmed every day and the eggs turned over. I loved to go in with Mother and watch as she pulled open a drawer that the day before had held eggs and see dozens of damp little living creatures all struggling for a place in the wide world.
These ducklings or chicks were given a start in life in the warm kitchen, fed on chopped hard boiled egg and breadcrumbs. A sheet of newspaper was placed on the floor and an inverted cup and saucer put down and filled with water. I was very careful where I put my feet, for those little balls of yellow fluff could make disconcerting darts in all directions.
After they had eaten a little food and made a lot of mess, they were put back in boxes; as they grew stronger, other accommodation was found and more took their place. The animals were our friends and companions. There was Ting-a-Ling and Gyp the dogs, numerous cats and Blanch the white heifer calf, with her reproachful eyes. Daisy the cow was lofty and remote, while the two new cart horses, Smart and Beauty, (which had been bought the week before for £12 each) were too large and overwhelming to be treated with anything but respect.
The animal on the farm that I feared and disliked was the ferret. He had pink eyes, wore a dirty white coat and his body was long and sinuous. He lived in a cage with a wire netting front and stunk to high heaven. I have no doubt some people are fond of ferrets and will say, ‘If their cages are kept clean they will always smell sweet.’ That may be so, but this one didn’t. Due probably to the fact that one of my elder brothers frequently threw a rabbit he had just shot into the cage without first removing the remains of the previous one. I must hasten to add the rabbit was not fit for human consumption.
Father came in with a pail of milk when Harold called his attention to a pen of two week old ducklings a short distance from the house. Father hurried out again, first setting the pail of milk on the kitchen table. Picking up a stout stick, he saw to his horror a heap of dead ducklings, where a short while ago there had been fifty little feeding yellow birds.
As he looked a wicked head raised from the centre of the pile. It was the ferret. A few seconds later that ferret was a mess of broken bones. Father was white with anger, sparks seemed to fly from his blue eyes. I wept, more from the shock of seeing him so angry than the mass murder of the ducklings, for he was never angry with us children. We picked up forty one dead and the rest of the morning we were all steeped in dispair.
Country children soon learn that life isn’t all gambolling lambs and daisy chains. Nettles grow abundantly and we receive our full quota of tears as well as laughter. But when the sun shines and the world is young, who can be unhappy for long?
Jack had been hand hoeing turnips all morning and Sidney followed behind singling the plants for he always liked to help, but finding this self imposed task tiring for his small back, decided to help Father in the afternoon. I followed him into the barn to see the new cake crusher at work. New secondhand it was. Before we had this latest machine all the cake had to be smashed with a large hammer. The cotton and linseed cake came in huge slabs and always made me think of gigantic blocks of chocolate. When placed into the top of the crusher, the handle was turned and small pieces fell from the bottom into a bushel skep. This was a very large wicker basket with a handle each side. There was also a turnip grinder, this fascinating machine cut roots into chips when the handle was turned. This fodder was mixed with chaff and fed to cattle. (Such progress, I wonder what they will think of next.) I loved the smell of the barn; the combined odours of linseed cake, mangolds, chaff and warm animals.
Sidney offered to show me a nest he had found in the Little Meadow that morning. Hedges surrounded every field and meadow, so there was plenty of shelter for all kinds of wildlife. There was just time before tea if we hurried, so off we ran. As we reached the spot a small brown bird flew off. We both gazed breathlessly into a nest lined with moss and hair, inside lay four eggs; each one so intensely blue it was almost impossible to believe they were the product of such a drab little bird as a hedge betty. Prehaps an angel had absently dropped them while on some heaven sent errand.
Every house had a little building down the garden path, usually half concealed by a shrub or two; this was generally known as the privey or closet. Ours was no exception. Down our garden path, worn smooth by many pairs of feet, was a small brick erection, half hidden by an elder tree. This was always known to me as ‘across the way.’ Before I went to school or anywhere else for that matter, I was asked by an anxious mother, “Do you want to go across the way?” And I can honestly say for years those three words were one to me. Why the word lavatory wasn’t good enough I don’t know. I think at that time people were often unnecessarily coy and indirect.
Pastel coloured toilet papers were as unheard of as space flight, or television. We had only one newspaper a week, The Thetford and Watton Times, this was supplemented by the Sunday Companion, kindly given to us by a maiden aunt. I felt rather uncomfortable using the Very Rev. So and So’s sermons for such a secular purpose.
One June morning before school, I arrived at acrosstheway to find it engaged. As I paused outside, I noticed the elder tree was covered with frothy bloom, tiny florets fell onto my arms and around my feet, each one a perfect creamy star, and each spray of blooms held hundreds of these within the reach of my hand. I felt I had discovered something no one had ever seen before and stood lost in a sea of blossom. A voice at my elbow said sharply, “Hurry up,” and I realised the object of my journey was vacant.
Miss Newton, the village school mistress, was very keen on the regular attendence of her pupils, so it was deemed prudent to send me to school more often than I would have wished. The long grass was often wet in the mornings and as Mother hated the idea of me sitting all day in wet boots, Jack sometimes pushed me on his bike as far as the road. On more than one occasion he pushed me in a wheelbarrow. This was great fun, for Jack was a light hearted lad and took the bumpy path running and walking alternately.
Seated on a couple of rolled up sacks, I was a princess in a golden coach.
About this time, life was fraught with difficulties, money was very short indeed. Farmers were going through a bad time, in fact several local farmers went bankrupt.
We were almost as self sufficient as ‘The Swiss Family Robinsons.’ Although my family never found a field of sugar cane, or a salt mine, they found wood and tree roots to burn instead of coal, shot innumerable rabbits for our dinners so as to manage without buying butcher’s meat, and of course everything that could be homemade, was. Metaphorically, Father wore many hats, from a barber’s to a cobbler’s.
Food of course had to be bought for the animals, barley meal, supers, kossitos and cake, but they were expected expenditures. There were also a lot of unexpected expenses. The covenant Father had to pay when he hired the farm was £116 18s 9d, plus stamp duty £5 lOs, this took most of his savings.
As we lived so far from the road, nothing was delivered to the farm. Harold often took a load of pigs and sometimes a few chickens in the timbril to sell at Watton on market day, he then brought a load back. There would be feeding stuffs for the animals, a box of groceries from the stores which Mother had ordered previously and occasionally coal and flour, the later came in ten stone sacks, it was cheaper that way. One shilling a stone, and nine and sixpence for ten stone.
Mr Brown the postman, seldom called at our house, for we had few letters. If he had one in his sack addressed to us at Grove Farm and considered it unimportant, he saved it till there was one, which in his opinion was first class mail. Or prehaps he retained our mail until he got the urge to take a nice long walk.
Early one morning Mother heard a commotion outside the backdoor, she opened it, and there lying full length in the muddy yard was Mr Brown. He had tripped over a strip of wirenetting which had been put there to keep little ducks within bounds. Mother was overcome with amusement, but managed to say between gusts of laughter, “I’m so sorry, I do hope you’re not hurt.’ Mr Brown was not hurt physically, but his dignity was badly shaken. He went away muttering, “A man trap that was, a man trap.” He then tramped back along a muddy track across three fields, feeling very much the worse for wear.
One fine morning some weeks later, the postman arrived at our door with a letter from Lloyds Bank. Mother opened it, then hurried out to find Father who was feeding pigs. The bank manager had written to say Father’s and Mother’s joint account was overdrawn by one pound. They were both very shocked.
Father who always worked quickly, fed his pigs at a run that morning. When he had finished, he hurried into the kitchen with more than a little of the pig sty still lingering on his boots. Mother had a boiling kettle on the fire, and a clean shirt hung ready on the back of a chair. He shaved with a cut-throat razor, changed his clothes and was soon bicycling along the turnpike to Watton with a pound in his pocket. It was with great relief he handed his money over to the cashier, and he was solvent again.
Father then went to Tyrell and Byford’s the corn merchants, and saw their representative, Mr John Stokes. To Father’s question Mr Stokes replied, “Why yes George, you can have all the feeding stuff for your animals you want, if you let me have your corn at harvest time.” This was agreed, and Father was so grateful and relieved, that he dealt with Tyrell and Byford for the rest of his life.
I’m sure it would have given him great pleasure if he could have known, that half a century later, his sons and grandsons were still doing business with the same firm.
Chapter 2 / Chapter 4