Chapter 6 - The word HARVEST stood out.
The word HARVEST stood out in all our minds in block capitals. It was a goal toward which the farming community had been struggling for months, ever since the seed corn had been planted. If all conversation did not consist entirely of harvests past and present, they all held some reference to it, and not just between farming folk, but the butcher, the baker and the postman too.
“The barley is looking well this year.”
“Will the fine weather hold?”
“Barnham’s don’t look like being fit for another fortnight.” So it went on.
‘Twas a matter for congratulation to be the farmer who started cutting first, but to be the last to finish was a disgrace too great to be borne. Everyone worked like mad to get the last stook to the last stack, then they could say triumphantly, “We’ve finished, all is safely gathered in.”
Preparations were made for a smooth start. Scythes were made razor sharp, the sailer-reaper was dragged from a dark corner of the barn and all moving parts liberally smeared with cart grease. This came in a large can and looked and smelt like dirty lard, which I suppose it was as it was one of the products of the knacker’s yard.
The kitchen came into its fair share of activity too. Home brewed beer would be in great demand from the thirsty men in the fields. I remember one day Mother got out a large bread pot. It was the colour of mellow bricks, rough on the outside with a smooth glaze on the inside. In this she placed a muslin bag of malt and hops and poured on a quantity of boiling water. Yeast had to be added, but not till the liquid had cooled somewhat. Mother was in a hurry, so she decided to hasten the cooling process. She drew two pails of water from the well and fetching down the zinc bath that hung on the outside wall near the back door, placed it on the kitchen floor and poured in the icy water from the well, then lifted the heavy bread pot and its contents and placed it gently into the bath. Almost immediately there was a sharp report. We watched helplessly as the pot slowly parted in two and golden liquid mingled with clear water. It was no laughing matter at the time, all that lovely beer wasted and a good pot broken.
‘Twas a colourful scene. The sky was bright blue, without a cotton wool cloud in sight. Trees darkened into the distance, and the cornfield was a biscuit coloured sea that quivered gently in the heat. Here and there was a flash of scarlet as a poppy shone through.
Everyone carries in their mind, what to them is, ‘The most perfect picture.’ It could be a rose, a sunset, or a bird in flight. (I could go on for ever.) But to me a field of standing corn is the most beautiful sight in the world.
At last the wheat was declared fit to cut.
The fields had to be ‘opened’ which meant that they had to be mown round by hand to give passage to the sailer-reaper.
Father had taken his scythe and made a wide path round the field, mowing with rythmic motion. Like all things done well, it looked so easy to the spectator. Every so often he had to pause to sharpen his scythe. He would take a carborundum, or rub, as we called it from his pocket and with every swing of his arm, it bit into the steel blade, making a sharp swish, swish, that could be heard fields away. Then once more he bent to his task and the corn fell before him like a defeated army.
All was ready for the sailer-reaper. No ship on her maiden voyage was ever launched with more excitement than was felt for that well worn machine as it sailed through the gateway to cut our first field of corn. Two horses pulled it round the field with Harold sitting on a very uncomfortable looking seat, while the cut corn spewed out behind them in a never ending ribbon.
Father gathered the cut corn into sheaves with his hands and making a kind of rope with a twist of straw, gave a deft tug, tied a knot and threw down a neat bundle that was a sheaf of corn. This he continued to do round the field. His shirt was dark with sweat and his hair clung to his head in damp curls. Jack and Sidney then stood the sheaves up in stooks or shocks as we called them, to dry in the sun. A shock was two rows of sheaves, about ten in all, standing head on to form an archway.
A harvest scene
This made a lovely little tent for a child to play in if there were no thistles in that part of the corn field. Little girls didn’t wear slacks in those days which was a great pity.
Mother arrived with a large basket which contained the fourses. A very welcome break. We all sat down in the shade of a hedge with the exception of my brother Harold who was still seated on the reaper.
I was glad to sit on an old sack by the wooden stand where the cutter bar was sharpened. The stubble was cruel to my short legs and they were red with scratches.
Dozens of tiny flowers were exposed to view now the corn was down, scarlet pimpernels, blue bird’s eyes and of course, plenty of poppies and white cockle. There were patches of thistles on the headland, these must have been very unpleasant for the men handling the sheaves.
Mother handed out food from her basket. Shiny golden brown home made bread, spread with farm house butter, apple rolls sweetened generously with brown sugar and thick short cakes. Everything tasted wonderful. Gyp sat as close as he dared, watching with anxious eyes for fear he should be left out of the feast.
A ladybird crawled over my boot. I studied it with great interest. Its scarlet wings with tiny black spots shone in the sunshine.
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone!” No, I didn’t care for that old rhyme.
Tell me when your wedding be.
If it be tomorrow day,
Take your wings and fly away.”
That was much better, it held happier implications. But the little insect didn’t fly away, but crawled under the sack to join its relations.
Mother picked up the empty basket and went home to collect the eggs.
The men continued to work in the corn field with the reaper going round in ever decreasing circles. There were cries of excitement as a terrified rabbit rushed out and made for the shelter of the hedge. Harold on the reaper could clearly see several more as the area of standing corn got smaller and smaller. His shouts could be heard over the clack, clack of the machine.
Then all at once the frightened creatures made a bolt for safety. It was the best thing they could do, for the enemy couldn’t attack them all at the same time. But several met their deaths from blows from sticks. The bag was about a dozen rabbits and a hare.
Mother and I hadn’t the stomach for this kind of sport, so we were usually absent when the last rounds were cut.
My father and brothers came home tired and dirty, but the horses had to be fed and the pigs were shrieking their heads off. All the animals had a belated meal that night.
Father hulked the rabbits, giving the guts to the ferrets. The cats and dogs helped themselves, there was plenty for all and to spare.
The rabbits were laid on the cold dairy floor, all were in good condition, but wouldn’t fetch much money as rabbits were plentiful when farmers were at harvest.
The harvesters drank their cocoa and were so tired they almost fell asleep before their heads touched their pillows, to awake next morning to another day of toil.
The fine weather continued and each field fell to the reaper blade. Of course there were occasional stops for repairs, with Jack crawling under the machine with a spanner making the necessary adjustments. Jack was the mechanic of the family and was at his happiest with machinery he could take to pieces and with luck, put together again.
The waggon was pulled out of its resting place, the ladders put on its sides and as the corn ripened on the shock it was carted into the stack yard to await the thatcher and the threshing tackle.
A ride in an empty waggon was a thrill. I was lifted into it as it left the stack yard and returned to the corn field for another load. The waggon bumped over the rough ground and I bumped with it, standing on the floor of the waggon with chaff and grains of corn shuffling under my feet. The harness creaked as the horses plodded on and the dry smell of straw prevaded my nostrils. Father sometimes put me on Beauty’s back but I didn’t like it much, I was so far off the ground and the horse’s back was hard and damp with sweat.
Sidney was the boy who hollered “Hold Gee” He sat on the horse’s back as it pulled the waggon from shock to shock. There was one man on the ground passing sheaves of corn with a pitch fork to another man on the load and as each shock was gathered up, Sidney called out, “Hold Gee,” to the man on the top of the waggon to let him know they were moving on, for he was in a very precarious position as the load got higher and higher and could have fallen off if caught unawares as the horse started with a jolt to get to the next row of sheaves.
And so the harvest was gathered in as a brilliant August made way for a golden September.
Wheat and barley realized about 16/- a coomb that year.
Chapter 5 / Chapter 7