written by James Joseph Sheahan in 1860.
Sherrington (sic) is a parish of 1780 acres and about 800 inhabitants. Its rateable value is £2301. The soil is chiefly clay, the sub-soil galt. The Village, which is a large one, is situated about 2 miles North from Newport Pagnell, and about 3 miles South from Olney, and on the road between those two towns. It is divided into two parts - the church, and the greater portion of it being seated on an eminence, the remainder in a hollow. In the latter portion are several good brick houses, some of which are of modern date and in the Gothic style; and these impart an air of respectability to this part of the place. Sherrington Bridge, which crosses the Ouse, is a handsome structure of three large and two small arches. The women and children make pillow-lace in this and the neighbouring parishes. The open fields in Sherrington parish were enclosed under an act passed in 1796."
A Sherington Boy
I wrote these memoirs in the order my head remembered them, which is not necessarily chronologically correct. They cover the decade between 1954 and 1964 from age 6 to 16.
The Sherington I'm writing about was a North Bucks village typical of many others in the area. Newport Pagnell (Newput) was our metropolis, Olney the other local town seemed, somehow, in the wrong direction and even perhaps the preserve of Embertonions. Northampton and Bedford were the county towns of the two counties laying just a few miles to the north east and north west, much much closer than Aylsbury our own county town.
My mother’s family (the Lines and the Wright’s) had deep roots in the area and I had many relatives locally. Indeed, I was born in the same house my mother was born in. Her father had re-built the house from the footings and gables of a stone cottage, a marriage of brick and stone clearly visible to this day.
On the one hand village life made me a naïve, un-worldly and unsophisticated boy, on the other hand it instilled in me a rich vain of rural heritage, imparted independence, common-sense and imagination.
In this idilic setting I was able to do all the things I later warned my children not to.
The village of which I write lies beneath the modern parish and will never resurface, buried forever. Griggs Farm and the orchard beyond have been made habitable and trendy… no pigs or rats now. Cottages have become en-suite and back garden orchards have been felled to make way for houses with patio’s and decking.
I am part of that changed world so must not put modern Sherington down. What I want to do is reflect the incredible warmth and charm Sherington had for me as a growing boy. I left the village in 1969 and have eventually settled in Dingley Dell, on the Northants and Leicestershire border near Market Harborough.
Just before the 1960’s transformed our innocent lives, all us village boys had a limited choice of tonsorial art, indeed you could count the number of available haircuts (styles wasn’t a word used for men or boys) on the fingers of one hand… Short Back and Sides, Square Neck, Feather Neck & Crew Cut.
Short Back and Sides was the standard cut for 90% of the male population and had been around forever as far as I could tell. It left only the crown hair to be individually determined e.g. long - medium – short. For the adult men Brylcream was a must to spruce them up.
Square Neck and Feather Neck where pretty much the same thing, with the finish at the nape of the neck being either squared across with the clippers or feathered. The Square Neck was a Teddy Boy cut, Elvis was the role model with the top usually long and quiff'd. With both these styles the biggest difference from the short back and sides was the tight hairline around your ears.
Crew cuts were about but were really a ‘Yankee’ thing and were few and far between in Sherington. The only bloke in the village with one was Slick Slater.
For me as a boy and young teenager hair cutting had two crucial points associated with it and in truth both were out of my control. 1) Who was going to do it? 2) What was it going to look like?
Dad was the village expert in trimming dogs (his normal occupation was a Butcher). He had a set of clippers and on a Sunday various mutts would arrive for a trim. Some from as far a field as North Crawley and Newport Pagnell. The dogs and Dad would disappear into the tin shed. It was here I learnt that the expression ‘y’bu*ger’ should be used after such doggie commands as ‘sit still’ and ‘get up’. They had to be growled deeply and slowly rather than said, otherwise the dog would obviously not understand.
Boys, Dogs, what’s the difference? Clippers cut hair on whatever creature they were applied to.
All I will say is that you do not need to experience the feel of hand clippers on your hair to empathise with the sitter, just compare cutting paper with sharp scissors and tearing it. Dad knew all about what shape a dog’s coat should be. Boys were different so he adapted and adopted the pudding basin technique. In his case he imagined the bowl on your head as his guideline. All showing below was clipped off as close as possible… and all the hair above the imaginary basin line was now shortened with various utensils, including scissors, razor combs and the clippers. All this was undertaken using the same sit still command described earlier. It really felt like being a dog. What did it look like? Well Dad admitted I never turned out as good as a dog, so I probably looked worse than one. Blood, sweat and tears finally persuaded Mum to relieve Dad of this duty. The blood and tears were mine, the sweat was Dad’s.
I think that having Dad introduce me to the pleasures of the barber’s art was just a cunning ruse. In normal circumstances the thought of Uncle Ben Line (the village carpenter and handyman) cutting my hair would have been bad enough, but given a choice of Dad or an alternative, the alternative had to be better and Uncle Ben did have electric clippers.
Uncle Ben cut hair on a regular basis, he was a bachelor and I guess this was his opportunity to socialise whilst making a few bob on the side. He held court in the kitchen of his cottage and you needed an 'appointment'. That is to say Mum would have made arrangements and then at the last minute, to avoid excuses, she would give me a shilling and send me off with instructions to go strait to Uncle Ben’s.
Uncle Ben had all the gear, a big chair with a 'boy box' to raise you up to men’s height, a mirrors to look at yourself whilst he cut away. Waiting chairs, magazines, comics, Brylcream and ‘Tonic”, which smelled of ladies perfume and which was applied to men upon request.
Uncle Ben would say ‘up y’get air’Alan’ ‘ow d’ y’u want it?’ I would pause and perform some badly acted thought ‘A square neck please Uncle Ben’. Uncle Ben now avoided eye contact and his response would be ‘r y’u sure y’u Mum ses that’s all right air’Alan ?‘. ‘Yep’ I repled, with fingers crossed.
And so the cutting and shaping and questioning about what I was up too would commence. No basin. No razor comb. Just the buzz of the electric clippers and the snipping of sharp scissors. I swear to this day I could feel the cold scissors cutting the square across the nape of my neck. Without any blood, sweat or tears the job was done. I would walk home with the wind whistling around my newly exposed ears feeling like a rock star.
What did it look like when I put a mirror behind my head? (Uncle Ben had not been that silly). I looked like a boy with a Short Back and Sides, in-fact exactly what Mum had arranged with him and I fell for it every time.
Like all the other boys we knew Uncle Ben was better than our Dad and each time we went to Uncle Ben’s we convinced ourselves we would get the cut we wanted.
Eventually we grew-up enough to get our hair styled in the barbers in Newport Pagnell... just in time for the Beatles.
The Goats Bladder
I was a sensible child. I am a sensible adult. You couldn’t have had our mum and not been. I was never a brawler and avoided physical hurt; including cross-country runs at school. I had no trouble walking miles or running around playing football for hour after hour, but cross-country runs were purgatory.
A sensible child appreciated the abundance of nature around him. If I shot something it was done in a sportsman like way and the kill would be swift and effective.
With dad being a butcher and me being somewhat associated with farming, life and death were part and partial of country life. To see dad shoot a pig and help butcher it was what happened, nobody saw it as a pleasurable thing. You wrung the chicken’s neck so it could be eaten for dinner.
There was always a bit of fun to be had when a chicken, or pheasant, was in preparation. Mum would cut off the legs at the elbows, if you know what I mean. These would be left in the kitchen and when found made excellent girl scarer’s. The legs were actually part severed and then torn off and this would leave the sinews exposed. Holding the leg in one hand and pulling on the sinews would cause the leg to flex and come alive. Need I say any more?
Dad and mum never had a car, but dad did bring the butchers van home most weekends. It was a Ford Prefect and was black. Dad used the van to fetch and carry dogs, or for our occasional Sunday visits to friend or relatives.
Once, and only once, we had a family holiday at Selsey Bill - in a caravan and that’s all I can remember about it.
Playing on a Sunday was restricted. There weren’t many restrictions most of the time but Sunday was different. I had to do my paper round in the morning and that meant an early start up to Mrs Watts cottage (long gone) opposite the White Hart. Sundays meant thick heavy papers and collecting the paper money for the week.
Thinking back… I was under age, had a bag which was over weight, had to collect and carry money. Wouldn’t happen today. What’s more I was exploited… I did it all for a thrup'ny piece (or was it more – aah! memories tinged with sentiment).
Anyway I was back home mid-morning to sort my Jackdaw out and clean football boots etc, etc. Folks would arrive mid morning with their dogs for dad to trim. Some were relatives, some were dad’s friends. Some would stay and talk to him, others would go off and return at some pre-arranged time. It didn’t make any difference to the use of dad's stock command... ‘sit still y’bu*ger’.
About eleven it was 'Two Way Forces Favourites' on the wireless and we listened to the hits of the day amid messages from army bases all over the world. Then it was the 'Billy Cotton Band Show'… ‘Waaaaaaakeeey Wakey’ 'Da diddy da da da…' We all laughed. There was 'Round the Horn' with Kenneth Horn, which was a bit to grown up for me but older brother Eric snigger'd so I followed suite. Same with the 'Goon Show'… I laughed more at the stupid voices than what was said. Sometime between Billy Cotton and Round the Horn I was despatched to fetch ‘y’dad’ from the White Hart.
The majority of Sundays passed off this way, then once in a while, about once a month, dad would ask me to come with him to Olney and I knew what that meant.
I still had the paper round to do, but that would be a doddle and nothing was an obstacle. No one answered… stuff the papers in the letterbox - they could pay next week. Mrs Watts always knew when I was off with dad, but most people paid-up eventually… she never grumbled.
I cant remember if dad was or wasn’t a good driver. I suppose he must have been as he told me he drove Monty about in the desert.
We didn’t have far to go, just up the hill past Uncle Dick’s field and orchard and then down towards Emberton. Prospect Place was a detached house built near a pair of cottages slap bang between Sherington and Emberton.
Dad pulled up and stopped the engine. I clambered through to the back of the van and waited. After a while there was a bang on the door and I opened it. Dad would have hold of a Nanny Goat kid, usually white. ‘Grab er’ed boy’ said dad and I would oblige.
The goats got in without a fuss and were generally happy for me to hold them still. Dad would get us in motion as quick as possible and that in turn made the goat grateful for having me to hold and comfort it.
The journey to Olney meant going through Emberton as this was before the by-pass was built. I was aware in the back of where we were due to the left and right bends in the village. Down the hill and brake, left bend followed by a straight bit that went past the pub (remember I’m in the back of a van with no windows) to the war memorial and a sharp right, on to a winding bit past the school and on out of the village.
The next bit of road allowed me to stoke and pet the goat, that all seemed very good-natured. I always said to dad that this one would make a good pet. ‘Yuw got enuff pets or’redy boy’. ‘ just yuw old er still’.
Over the hump of the river Ouse bridge and one left bend before turning right and stopping in Mr Osborne’s yards.
The back door opened and dad took the compliant goat off into the buildings. ‘ go and see missus Osbun Alun and tell er we’ ere’.
Mr and Mrs Osborne were a nice couple and Mrs Osborne always said to come in and have some pop and a biscuit; here I needed no second invitation.
After telling her my news I was allowed to go and explore around the yard. After about 20 minutes dad would shout for me and see if I was behaving.
‘Can I ave the ball to play with yet dad’
‘give us a fuw minites Alun’
I would wait near the door knowing not to go in, then after the few minutes the door would open and dad would toss out the ball.
Well not so much a ball as a smelly balloon. But it was fun to kick about. Up against the wall. High enough to head the rebound or chest it down like John Charles. It kept going for around 30 minutes but eventually it would rupture and go flat. There was no fixing it. One last kick would despatch it into some stingers along the yard, it was biodegradable. It was the cuddly goats bladder and by now the best of her was jointed and being frozen. I usually went into the butchers shop in time to turn the mincing handle on the sausage machine where the rest of her was mixed with the other secret ingredients of dad’s special sausage recipe.
We drove home and never discussed the Goat, the meaning of life, what was expected of a boy when he became a man. We just drove home, chatting, after what was just a mornings work. When we got home a normal Sunday took over. The dinner would have been put on and would be smelling delicious. Dad went off to sell some more raffle tickets to raise funds for much needed battleships and I would hang about the sheds avoiding cleaning anything.
The White Hart
Looking back I am amazed at how much influence my dad had on me. Most folks would tell you that myself, my elder brother Eric and my younger sister Kathleen, were fed, clothed and looked after by our mum. Our dad worked, went to the pub and slept. Forget most folks… that’s my recollection.
Mum was a saint. In retrospect it’s fairly clear she was a cultured and intelligent woman, who could have got on in other circumstances. Nobody spoke a bad word about her. She was a rock to us and to many of her neighbours and friends. Mum made life seem easy. In hindsight, she had it very tough. Mum had three kids, a husband and her elderly cantankerous father to look after. I remember grandpa banging on his bedroom floor with his stick to summoned her up.
My dad had returned home from serving in WWII, where, if you re-call, he was Monty’s driver in the desert. After Monty left the desert dad went on to Italy and sorted out the ‘Eye-tie’s’ as he called them. He was uniquely awarded three medals, the Africa Star, the Italian Star and the WWII star but he never bragged about how he won them. Anyway, he came back to find mum in her dad’s house looking after him and his bachelor brother-in-law (a professional soldier who had been in India and the Crimea) and my brother Eric.
Uncle did the garden. Uncle looked after the house. Uncle chopped the wood. Uncle did this and Uncle did that. Dad told me, just before he died, that Uncle didn’t really like him and so he was not made to feel welcome in that atmosphere. Dad was an easygoing man – a mans man – what’s described as the strong silent type. Not silent literally, quite the opposite, a very social person and could walk into a room of strangers and start up a conversation at once. Plenty of smoke, lots of laughter and able hold his beer. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Never saw my dad drunk, very merry, but never drunk. I suppose it was natural for him to stop off and have a pint after work, most men did. And when he was at home, in the atmosphere I have described, I can hear mum saying to him ‘ why don’t you nip off to the White Hart’ and I don’t think he would have hesitated. This situation continued for sometime, in fact up until the time I was born. Uncle died and Grandpa was bedridden. Dad had moved on and was into dogs, gymkhanas and his mates and by then wasn't the least bit interested in gardening… so mum did it.
By the time I was about ten I would be sent to fetch dad out of the pub a dinnertime on a Sunday. Mum would have cooked a roast beef joint with a Yorkshire pudding around it. Mashed spuds, bread sauce and peas or brussels. To start with I didn’t go into the White Hart, I’d wait for someone to go to the toilet on the opposite side of the yard.
‘Al’rite boy’ ‘ Yu lukin’ fur y’dad?.
‘Please tell ‘im dinnurs in five minites Mista (Whoever it was)’
I would be off at a canter to tell mum I’d told Mr Whoever and that he was going to tell dad.
Mr Wise usually kept the front door of the White Hart open, except for very cold or wet days. The atmosphere inside was thick with conviviality. In the summer the sash windows would be down and the atmosphere just spewed out. There were benches under the window and small boys could peer over the window tops and stare at this grown-up's world. I couldn’t wait to grow up. Sometime you would here another dad’s voice shouting across the room…
‘Wag y’Aluns at the window’
Wag, my dad, would appear with a grin, a pint pot and a fag.
‘Cum on in boy’
‘Mum ses dinnurs get’in cold’
‘Oow… tell’er I’ll get ohm then’
And he would… he liked his dinner.
Dad was a butcher and by all accounts a good one. He worked for Mr Osborne in Olney. The butcher’s shops gone now, it’s an Estate Agent’s. Consequently we always had good meat even when rationing was around and dad was a stickler for having it cooked well. What dad called good meat included Tripe, Tongue, Brawn (brains) and every other piece of offal that could be salvaged. He usually had the former on his own. To this day I never eat offal.
Sunday dinner was great. We all sat around the table together, the only time we did. Us kids had school dinners and mum ate when she cooked for her dad. More Sundays than not we would have afternoon visitors and none were more welcome than Auntie Freda and Uncle Jack. Freda was mums friend and not really an auntie… although there was a distant connection, as there was in those days. Freda was an ample woman, today we would call her obese, with a cheerful disposition. She loved to be teased by dad. Jack was also a butcher but that’s the only thing he and dad shared, a thin miserable little rat of a man, he was everything dad wasn’t.
‘Ther’s a’r Freda’
‘Cume on in’n sit down wumun’
‘Dunt sit there or that chair’ll bust’
‘Charley Garut… I dunt kno how’y dare’ she would say amid belly laughs.
‘Mum get’hu the sorse bowl tu lick’
‘Charley Garut… I dunt kno how’y dare’ more belly laughs.
‘But I will polish it off if yu like’ and she did every time.
We would all play cards while dad snored in the front room. Mum would make tea as soon as the visitors went and then around seven dad would get smartened up, put his Sunday collar back on, apply plenty of brylcream and slick back his hair.
‘Wer’ y’going ar’dad?’ ‘can I come?’
‘Not tunite boy. Gotta sell some raffle tickets for that battleship’
And off he went. And not long after off to bed I had to go.
The Great Ouse.
The Great Ouse ran across North Bucks, like cutting the top off a boiled egg. I know it's full path now, but then it was enough to know it flowed to Olney and on to Bedford, having snaked around Stoke Goldington and past Sherington from Newput. At Newput it met with the smaller river Lovat at Ouse Bank Gardens, you know, where Lulu had a concert in 1965. Shout!
I had heard of the Thames and the Mississippi but to me the Great Ouse was just that, Great. A mighty river indeed! The river ran around Sherington to the south and west and was reached in one of three ways. The most direct route was via Pete Gardener's Farm in Water Lane. But although Pete Gardener was a nice chap it was my cousin Puffer who helped out on his farm. Pete Gardener and John Burgess, who I helped out, were friends and about the same age. I am sure it would have been OK to walk through his yard but generally I didn’t.
It was as easy to go down the footpath by my brother Eric’s mate’s house, Rex Line (Rex, actually also a cousin, would become an important person in my life when I left school and became an apprentice at Rogers Engineering) The footpath joined the track from the farmyard and went down about three fields to the river.
The second best way was along the main road to Newput. About a mile out of the village the road came to a T-juntion with the A422 Newput to Bedford Road. Perhaps a bit of road mapping would be useful. The A50 rand from Newput to Northampton and on up north. There was a milestone near Newput that said “A50 LONDON 50 MILES”. Just over the Ouse bridge by Ouse Bank Gardens the A422 forked off of the A50, taking a bendy course past the gravel pits to Sherington Bridge. The bridge crossed the Ouse that had looped around the back of the gravel pits.
Sherington Bridge was quite impressive and had Roman origins, or so I was told. It had been re-built a few times and obviously widened and paved for modern two-way traffic. Never the less it was an impressive solid stone affair with two arches and traditional semi circular refuges down both sides. When walking to Newput we would dash from one refuge to another when traffic passed by. There were some old houses at the bridge, one fronted the river. I guess these dated from the 18th century. Next to them was a farm. Opposite the farm one field over were boarding kennels, somewhat of a mystery as to the owners and their origins. But this was an adult rumour and us kids weren’t interested. The A509 now set off west, at the T-junction I spoke of earlier, about 200 yards from the bridge and headed for Sherington, Olney and Wellingborough.
There is a third way. You went down the bottom of Water Lane past the Mr Smith’s Haulage yard and over the field towards the village sewerage plant and the old railway crossing. The former was a good reason not to go that way as it stank and the latter was no more than an abandoned buttress of bricks that Dr Beaching stopped before it really got started. It had been planned as a branch line from Newput to Olney.
The piece of river we boys frequented ranged from the west side of the bridge down to the ‘second island’. We did go further down on other occasions for adventures or exploring. The very furthest was the bridge a Tyringham House. I also remember that the older boys had a chain ferry that we were warned to leave alone, or else.
Some fish species to be found in these waters. The stickleback; this could be caught with a jam jar or even your hand and was to be found in the gravely shallows. The Gudgeon that we pronounced GUD-GIN. I learned recently, from Rick Stein, that it’s really French and should be pronounced GOOW-SHON; as in a cut of fish. The Pike; the monster of the deep. The Perch; with horrible spiky fin stretched out to sting you. I used to go fishing because like golf it can be undertaken either alone or with others. I didn’t have flashy fishing tackle. If you looked too much like an angler then the bailiff, or fishing club members, would start demanding to see your rod licence. They left dopey boys with fishing poles alone. The fields sloped gently to the waters edge in a few places and formed banks in others. The gentle slopes were nearest to the bridge and also these were the shallowest places.
Down stream from the bridge (left to right as you stand with the village behind you) there were two islands. The first island was about 150 yards long by 10 yards across and it tapered to a point at each end. This side of the island nearest the bridge was accessible by paddling across the shallows. It was covered in vegetation and shrubs and a few willow trees. Sometime the cows would cross and nibble the grass. The channel on the far side of the island was deep and narrow and the main current flowed here. The far bank (the Newput bank) was fished by the Newput Angling Club and us boys kept away. You couldn’t swim there as there were reeds along the bottom and the current was too swift. Half way down the island the river veered right a little and the bank on both sides rose up. Here was a kind of special place. There were trees here that gave some shade on both sides and the river widened and then closed to form a type of pool. There was a large Pike that lived in the shaded water beneath the willow that hung over the river from the island side. The right to fish here depended on peer group pressure. There was only room for two and only one could cast under the tree without fear of tangling the lines. Every time I fished here I caught Perch after Perch and never that Pike. I hated Perches, their spines always got me and they stung. I never got the hang of holding them so the fin was folded.
With hindsight it was a good thing I never caught the Pike… it would probably have bitten my hand off.
On summer days this pool was a jumping-in place. At thirteen I could just about stand on the bottom. If you wanted to get out you went up stream towards the shallows and just walked out of the water. This part was a bit like Sherington’s beach in the summer. Families would come down with a picnic and watch the little ones paddle while the soaked up the sun. The cows kept their distance but sometimes there would be calves gazing and they would be more of a nuisance. Either way the biggest setback were the deposits left by cows fed on very rich summer grass! And thistles.
Moving down stream from the pool the river became a little deeper and faster flowing as the banks steepened. Despite the reeds on both sides the bigger boys would swim down the next 25 yards to where the island finished and the two flows met. Here the river was about 30 foot across but soon tapered to about 20 foot. At the meeting place the bank on our side was about a foot high and the water was about 7 foot deep. The older boys built a springboard to dive off. I would have been around thirteen before I ever dove in. But having plucked up the courage I couldn’t be kept off. When you dived out there was a submerged ledge jutting out from the end of the island and you could stand on this before setting off back upstream to the pool and the shallows, or back to the diving board. It was also the starting point for the older boys to swim down stream the 100 yards to the next island. This swim was dangerous and the bigger boys would never let us try it. In the main we didn’t go against this advice. The stretch usually had a very strong current and very reedy bottom. If you did go for it you had to go all the way. The current was too strong to turn back and the reeds were too tall and thick to give you access to the shear sided high bank. There were other reasons given for not tackling this swim, the story of a massive Pike that had bitten quite a few older lads, attach from the swans, discarded fishing tackle to get en-snarled in and cramps from the cold of the water.
I never did this swim. Not because I was scared but because when I was old enough a dead sheep was found in the reeds, to the right of the diving board, and it stank to high heaven. The river was deemed foul that season. It was thought that the sheep had been put there, just to keep us away, by anglers from the Newput bank.
Anyway that covers the bathing activities and takes us downstream to the second island.
The second island was not a true island because on our bank there was a muddy part that bridged the short span. Even if there had been a trickle of water the span could easily be leapt over. This island was not as long as the first island but was twice as wide and dense with small trees. The perimeter was all Willows. Because all the water went past the far side the current was fast and the river about 7 foot deep. The willows had roots into the water and were as close as we would ever get to mangrove swamps. It was possible to stand on a root and have water under your feet.
We made camps on the island and I even set up a tent and stayed overnight once. Not on my own. We would light fires eat our sandwiches which had been packed for us by our mums. Have a drink of orange and a packet of Smith’s crisps. No flavours then… just a little blue wax paper pocket of salt that was twisted to form a seal. If we were there with bigger boys the woodbines would come out.
This was a great place for hide and seek, or variants of that game. The most spectacular would also involve bigger boys. This would be more hunter and hunted. The bigger boys would have an air rifle and boy-O-boy you were very careful to hide yourself well. No one got shot on the island… but I remember we were playing down the village one day in Mr West's orchard. The bigger boys, including my brother, were playing with the air rifle and Eric got shot in the stomach by accident.
Someone found me, ‘Oy ‘yre Eric’s bin shot’ ‘He’s gon ome’
By the time I got home the fuss was all over. The pellet, from a very weak .177, had lodged in his skin around the belly button area. More scared than injured he licked his wound. That put paid to the air gun for sometime and I should think every boy in Sherington was told that it ‘cud a’bin is eye'n blinded’im’.
Woodbines for a Jockey?!
There was an area in Sherington which was my paradise. I was the self appointed custodian of the area, nobody knew it better than me. It was situated to the north of the village between Gun Lane, Church Farm and our neighbour Mr Robinson’s farm, Yew Tree Farm. In all it would have been around a hundred acre’s and it was owned and farmed by Mr Burgess and his son John. The farm was a typical mixed concern, some crops, some dairy, some beef. No sheep as I recall.
Usual access was gained either at the top of 'our road' Park Road, between Mr Barkers house on the left and Mr Stephens (the school master) bungalow on the right, or up through Mr Burgess’s yard.
This yard was not his farmyard, that was called Griggs Farm and was down in the village, a bit isolated. The cows had to be ‘fetched’ for milking and driven from the field gate on Gun Lane down past the White Hart and on to the milking parlor that was in Griggs Farmyard. The tractors were usually kept in the farmyard and were driven out, past the White Hart pub on Gun Lane, during the day and then back again at night.
Many days were spent there helping John. Whether I was more use or nuisance is difficult to assess in hindsight. But never the less I was always welcome and in many cases sought.
Between the ages of eleven and fifteen my jobs on the farm included... Feeding pigs, helping with milking, assistant mechanic, collecting eggs and builders mate. They all stood me in good stead and I look back at that time as one of enlightenment and experience. I think it’s fair to say that John had a bigger influence on me that either my Dad or my older brother. John was older than my brother and younger than my dad. He was well educated and part of the established farming community which in those days put him a class above the likes of my family but never snobbish. Old Mr Burgess and John welcomed me into their houses on many occasions and even took me out on a few trips.
Once when I was coming back from school Mr Burgess stopped his car, an American Ford Pilot with a V8 engine (the same engine that hauled the little train around Wicksteed park) and said to 'jump in'. Off we set but before the car had got into third gear the door flew open and I fell out. Second gear in a 1950’s lumbering giant like the Ford meant about 5 m.p.h. so the fall was relatively insignificant, but still sufficient to brake my elbow and cause the shedding of a few tears. Mr Burgess was most shocked and took mum and me to Northampton hospital to have it set. I don’t remember having it set. I remember it was not a plaster caste but consisted of an L-shaped splint wrapped in sticky plaster. It didn’t hurt and it got me out of sports but unfortunately being my left elbow it didn’t prevent me doing sums (If ever there was a reason to drive on the right that was it – if it had been in America I would have not been able to do sums).
The worst bit was having the plaster removed after a few weeks and that I do remember, vividly! Nursey sat mum and me down and said that it wouldn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt her. It hurt me. She cut the plaster in strips down the length of my arm. Then holding one end ripped them off, hair and all. OK I suppose that it’s just a few seconds of pain but there were about four of these strips and when you know what’s coming it isn’t pleasant. Mum said I was brave and after Mr Burgess bought me some sweets and I was soon back to normal. Every time it comes to shutting a car door, I still to this day discretely make sure it’s shut whoever is shutting it.
The land was as I’ve said mixed but that section nearest to the village was always in-grass and I expect had been pasture for year after year. Up through the overgrown gate at the top of Park Road lay a grassy gully about 200 yards long and topped on the left hand side with mixture of trees and bushes. Not sufficiently tight enough to form an impenetrable hedge but good cover. On the right ran the boundary with Mr Robinson's land. For no real reason I tended not to go onto his land very often. The field here were generally under crop and therefore less interesting.
This gully was a great place to play in. You could swing out from the banks with a rope on a tree. Make tree houses. Spy on the few people that ventured up the gully for a walk. I had bows and arrows, an airgun and a catapult with which to hunt. Best of all was knife-throwing practice.
The grass field to the left of the gully rose in a dome and at the top a pond sat surrounded by a few trees and bushes. A poor scrub hedge ran north from the pond in parallel with the gully.
The pond was fantastic. Dangerous, mysterious, peaceful and teeming with life. Well enough for a young boy. Frogs, sticklebacks and newts. The newts were my favourites. We had common and crested newts and they could be caught and put back very happily. You couldn’t paddle in the pond, it had steep sides. It was about 12 foot across and 20 foot long. It was a safe pond for a boy. There were more dangerous watery places in the village but this was safe.
Across and over the dome into the corner with Fred Field’s field ran a track, it set off at right angles to the right and up between two cropped fields. This was about 40 foot wide, 400 yards long and sided with good hedges. In effect it was a long thin field and could have been grazed, but never was. It was called the 'Laze' and at the top of the two fields it turned 90 degrees left and continued along the top of the field. This last section wound it’s way through huge swaying pine trees. In all I guess there were about two dozen trees along a distance of one hundred yards. The Laze rose gently along its length and overall the land surrounding it were a succession of domes verging on hills but never forming anything other than rolling countryside.
From the end of the Laze you had a field to the right which led down to the Emberton Road and which was usually cropped. To the right were two field one after the other. At their intersection formed by a good hedge lay another pond, a much larger pond. This one had bigger fish in and was surrounded by a thick hedge apart from the end near the field side track. These fields were also cropped and so were not much of a playground. As I got older we would go shooting up here.
Today this tapestry of countryside isn’t there (come to that most of the places I'm describing ain't there). The small fields were grubbed into big ones during the 1970’s and the upper Laze with its ancient Pine Trees was flattened to make way for the Sherington by-pass. Driving across it, as I occasionally do, it makes me wonder why we do, what we do and where it’s all going. The landscape of my childhood looked like it did and had been kept like it for hundreds of years. Within one decade the 70’s agricultural revolution butchered and murdered it and today we are paying farmers to look after the corpse. It was always said that the British were real farmers and that the French were peasants, farming the old fashion way. Don’t tell me the French had it wrong. Today France is where we look to for examples of real food, it’s where English families who yearn for real country life and values choose to migrate to and bring-up their kids. What’s left in this country is like the difference between margarine and butter. A margarine landscape.
The tractors used on the farm were never new, nothing was. In truth the farm was not a model enterprise and later as work caused me to travel from farm to farm, across the county, this became more evident. There was a David Brown Cropmaster, a Fordson Major and an old Fowler or Field Marshal to be correct.
I can remember the Fowler being started a few time. A single cylinder diesel. Started with a blank 12 bore cartridge. First the tractor was put into neutral and the flywheel positioned so that the cylinder was just over Top dead Centre - then you lit a fag paper (cigarette paper) and put it into a special bolt that screwed into the cylinder to warm the air up – next the cartridge cap was unscrewed and the cartridge popped in - the cap was tightened by hand – then tapped tight with a hammer (if not tight it could blow back). Lastly the end of the cap was struck a blow with the hammer. A striker set off the cartridge that exploded in the cylinder and became the first stroke - the natural diesel process then took over. The sound of that engine is one I’ll never forget… Pop... Pop... POP… POP.. POP. POP POP POP POP
It wouldn’t have been given space on most farms of the day. Today it’s worth a small fortune.
The David Brown Cropmaster was really the first tractor I ever drove. It had a double seat that was quite unique. This one was a diesel and had full hydraulics and a swinging drawbar.
Nice to drive but not easy to work on and I remember many times my cold oil covered hands got skinned as the equally oil covered and cold spanner flew off an inaccessible nut or bolt. By now this tractor was also somewhat old fashioned but never the less proved very reliable and was the workhorse of a very mechanised farm. I say mechanised, but looking back it was a classic mix of tractors using old adapted horse drawn mowers, muck spreaders, rollers and harrows.
I wont go into the Fordson because there was a succession of them and I can’t remember one in particular. Also I shall be straying into ‘old tractor land’ and boring you with my current hobby and passion. It’s funny how people’s eyes glaze over when I start to talk about tractors, only my wife listens with interest. I think.
As usual I haven’t given you the reader any clue as to the title of the chapter. Ironically the phrase Woodbines for a Jockey came as a surprise to me as well.
I was about fourteen and not far off leaving school. I was a slight lad of average height, good at most sports, except cross country running - which I do not class as a sport, more a punishment. I was getting proper haircuts now in Newput. I had denim jeans, chisel shoes a Beatle hair cut and I was smoking with the best of them. We took it in turns to get ten Woodbines and would smoke them at school in the toilets or in the village bus shelter. The medical dangers of smoking at this time were a walloped backside, if caught. I well remember that there was an ashtray on the doctor’s desk for patients use during the consultation.
I hadn’t started to drink beer as yet. Us boys were content to have a shandy or cider. But smoking we did. Sometimes I could manage to whip one of dads out of the packet. That was a dangerous task as if caught. Smoking was forbidden. Yes forbidden – so obviously we smoked.
Anyway on this day I must have had a fag and some matches in my pocket. I was walking with the dog from the pond over to the opposite corner of the top field - towards the top of the gully. I’d lit a fag at the pond before walking off. Halfway across the field I saw a figure standing in the far hedge. Old chap – huge ex-army greatcoat tied with string – white hair – red face. Mr Burgess. Fag arm dropped to my side – fag nonchalantly allowed to drop to the grass. Slowly exhale without smoke being obvious – not frosty so can’t blame hot breath.
Pretend you haven’t seen him – keep walking in a straight line. Surprise!! ‘ello Mr Burgess did’nt see y’
‘Well Well Well’
‘I hoped it weren’t you Alan’
‘I hope that fags gone out’
‘FAG!’ ‘What FAG?’ ‘I don’t smoke’
‘I had high hopes of you being a champion Jockey Alan’ ‘and I’m disappointed’
‘them fags will stunt you boy’
‘they’ll take your wind’.
Now I’m going to analyse his words because they came as much of a shock to me, as did seeing him in the hedge in the first place.
1. A Jockey, or being a Jockey had never featured in my life to that date. Dad knew about horses but they tended to be show jumpers.
2. I didn’t know a horse or anyone with a horse.
3. I had never sat on a horse let alone ridden one.
4. I didn’t really like horses.
5. Apart from on the TV, I had never seen a horse race and didn’t have a clue what being a Jockey entailed.
6. Surely a Jockey was small and did just about anything to be ‘stunted’. Wasn’t that the very thing the fags were going to do to me?
There was no good lying I’d been caught and would have to take the consequences. These were racing through my head as Mr Burgess said we’d better walk on and sort this out. (would I be able to bring up and use as blackmail, the long forgotten instance when HE BROKE MY ELBOW??)
My dad never instructed me on the facts of life, as is the modern way. Well actually I never had to with my son because by then the schools had introduced Condom usage and Safe Sex classes and it was obvious he knew more than me.
I’m doing dad a disservice, I’ve just remembered. When I was eighteen I elected to emigrate to Australia and a friend Geoff decided to come with me. We had to go to Australia House in London for interviews and medicals and our fathers decided to take us on the train. About lunchtime our interviews had gone well and I think our dads decided that it wasn’t a flash in the pan idea and that we meant to go. Geoff and I had to undergo some medical tests, x-rays and the like, so our dads took the opportunity and nipped off for some refreshment. When they returned they found us waiting in x-ray gowns. They looked agitated and said they had something important to tell us. So we sat down and looked up to them... “Y’r going off intu the world (pause) Y’ll need to be careful of loose women o’yu’ll catch summut”
They were pleased with that and no more was said.
Well this discussion with Mr Burgess was about as close as I got to being taken aside properly for a man to man talk. In the next mile I had to tell him what I was doing and what I was hoping to do, none of which entailed being a Jockey. Everything I said was a good reason for him to gently suggest it was incompatible with smoking. But also he encouraged my plans and said how important it was to make something of myself. Clearly the man liked me and wanted the best for me and I am very grateful for that chat, it left an indelible mark. He didn’t tell anyone else about the episode. I did stop smoking Woodbines, I moved on to Nelson’s. But was no more mentioning of me being a Jockey.Some
Sherington was my playground, 14 Park Road was my home. Our house may have lacked the basics of today but for a young boy it was a special place.
In the garden were sheds that my Grandpa and Uncle had built. Grandpa Wright lived with us when I was a youngster but he was confined to his bedroom which smelled of pee and always wanting me to fetch him dark stripped mints from the shop. Anyway he had long abandoned the sheds. The sheds seemed to be extensive to a small boy and to contain nooks and crannies too scary to go in. They ran across the complete width of the bottom of the garden, a long uninterrupted run of sheds. Timber framed, corrugated tin walls, tin roof and in the main dirt floors.
Just a small sidetrack as I’ve introduced the subject of the roof. The tin roof had a series of holes along its length. These were in fact bullet holes shot from by a German fighter in WWII. It had strafed the sheds mistaking them for an ammo dump. Anyone who thinks that it’s not possible, due to the range of the fighters, can just think again, dad told me and that’s good enough. Dad was a bit of a stickler about the war. Like a lot of ex-fighters he never said much about the war, as he was Monty’s driver in the desert, he must have been very brave and important. One of the things I most admire him for was his charitable work, most nights he went off to the White Hart to sell raffle tickets for battleships. Not bad when you remember he was a soldier not a sailor.
Back to the sheds. Starting from the left there was a square area about 8 foot x 8 foot, all roofs were about 8 foot high. This shed was open fronted and full of old garden tools. The next part was about 14 foot wide x 8 foot deep, enclosed all but for a 3 foot opening on the right. This is were we kept our bikes a sawing horse and small store of reclaimed timber. The adjoining part, to the right, was the workshop it measured about 10 foot wide by 6 foot deep and had a window, a door and a wooden floor. So you can work out that the workshop was not as deep as the other parts. In fact the frontage was all in line, as was the back. This left a 2 foot deep by 10 foot long dead end passage that was accessible from the side of the sawing horse and went behind the workshop. I was about 12 before I dared go back there – it was pitch black even in the summer – clearly inhabited by huge rats, snakes and bogeymen. Continuing along in the same row to the right of the workshop was another open area, a lean-to, about 8 foot by 8 foot containing a water butt. This leaned-to and joined the tin sheds to the stone built coal shed. The coal shed was set in the right corner of the garden. I shall be coming back to this area so please remember it.
What can I say about the coal shed? It had no windows; not quite true but the tiny one it had was glazed with glass engrained with 60 years of coal dust sufficient to hold back the rays of the desert sun at noon. A small door was at the back of the lean-to and let in very little light. The coal shed was of course situated next to the privy and the privy was situated as far away from the house as possible for obvious reasons. Every time you went to the privy you were supposed to fill-up the coal scuttle. I was so scared of going into the coal shed that I never went to the privy when anyone was there to remind me – otherwise it meant entering 'The Black Hole'. There was no electric in the coal shed, when you edged in you had to know where the coal was, take a step in that direction, bend down, scoop, retreat and if in the daylight you could see the scuttle was not full it meant repeating the feat.
The coal shed had a loft over half its area and what ever lived up there will remain a mystery to me. I suspected Uncle Percy’s eye was there. When the coal was first delivered it almost came to the doorway. Collecting coal at this time wasn’t too bad, but towards the end of the load you needed to be very brave and I always made sure that I’d been to the privy before the coal shed otherwise there would have been many accidents.
As I got a bit older and braver, about the time I adopted the area behind the workshop as my secret place, I would go into the coal shed and break up the bigger lumps ready for the scuttle run but I never tackled that loft.
Anyway to finish off the shed layout we need to add the brick and stone privy to the coal shed. The privy adjoined the coal shed on the right side of the garden in the corner. A stonewall ran along the right side of the garden bordering with Mrs Watts and this formed the right wall of the privy.
The privy was a special place for obvious reasons, but ours was not only special but also somewhat colourful. Dad was the main influence on its décor, no that’s the wrong word, on its ambience. In the warmer months we had cigarette smoke blended with what would today be termed the off-gas from an irritable bowel. In the colder months paraffin oil fumes were added to the blend. Aromas that will live with me forever. It was a manly smell and one that I aspired to, but sadly never achieved.
Our privy had whitewashed walls and a red quarry tiled floor, a traditional white (well originally white and considering its age a credit to our mum and bleach) ceramic pan with high-level black cistern and a long chain with puller. The door could be locked, but if it was, you were suspected of being ‘unnecessary’. It had a window, which did let in the light. A paper dispenser and a shelf. Did I say paper dispenser… don’t get carried away, all it dispensed was shiny utility post war toilet paper. It was as soft and absorbent as newspaper. In itself this utility paper was a luxury for when unavailable we did indeed used cut up newspaper. Being down the bottom of the garden, you didn’t want to have done your business and find that there was no paper.
Mum MUM MUUUUUM.
Many a time Mrs Watts, from next door, would say through the wall ‘y’run out of numba tu paper yung Alun’ ‘s’no good y’showtin. I’ll tell y’mum’
The privy had a shelf on which my brother Eric kept white rats in a cage.
What a colourful picture I’ve painted ? I’ll bet you all wish you were there right now… itching to go out on a cold dark night for a pee with the coal scuttle. Well I haven’t told you this bit yet because I thought it might spoil the thought of the trip down the garden, trip being the operative word. Not a greatly undulating garden but still one with three distinct levels and surfaces. First the slippery tiled area outside the kitchen, followed by the step up to the concrete path. Half way down to the privy, level with the Garden Well, the path rose up again, this time about half a brick onto the final level that went all the way to the coal shed (turn right just before the coal shed for the privy. If you were the frightened sort and made a dash up, or back, it would end in tears, or a skinned knee, or both. Mum would always be sympathetic to a wound, but as I had probably nipped out on the quiet without taking the scuttle, she could cut you to the quick with her look of disappointment. Dad waited patiently until you settled down by the fire and then starting talking quietly… ‘y’al’rite boy’ and then just that bit firmer… ‘cause y’ve left the bl**dy light on in the privy and it ent gunna turn itself off’. And off I'd have to go.
Oy come’ere, hav’nt y’furgot summut’ pointing to the coal scuttle.
So far we’ve had rats, snakes and Uncle Percy’s eye so I’d better tell you where the Jackdaw comes in.
In fact he comes in when I was about 11 or 12. Nesting was as much a part of my childhood as going to TOYS'R'US would be today. As the result of one foray up to the Pines I came across a Jackdaws nest with a baby just about fledged. This was a prize pet amongst the boys in the village, well those who would be allowed to keep one.
I took it home and introduced it to mum as a lost orphan I’d found in the hedgerow. First there was that disappointed look but she knew I would look after it so she suggested it went into an old rabbit hutch behind the water butt in the lean-to next to the coal shed (remember). He was to be called Jack as he could already say his name over and over. Jack grew up on a mixture of bread soaked in milk. He was at one with me and was as tame as could be. He would sit on my shoulder and come everywhere with me. Eventually I clipped his wing and he would be content to fly around but always come back at night. He knew where my bedroom window was and would sit on the ledge and call to me. Jack Jack he said.
Folk were happy to see me walking around with him and I became a celebrity. Well alright not a celebrity but in Sherington in the late 50’s not much happened (I did have a distant cousin who’s mother was my uncles sister, if you get my drift). I’d had Jack for a couple of years and he was happy living in the lean-to despite a few close encounters with rats. Mum always warned me that he might get blown away in a storm and I was ready for that. However, I wasn’t ready for the little monkey’s exploits that followed.
Jack would come to my bedroom window ledge as I’ve said. Sometimes he would be playing with stones and this always fascinated me. These stone became increasingly more colourful but he never used to let me get a close look at them.
One day when I arrived home from school mum had that look – you know.
Mrs Somebody, I can’t remember whom, from the bungalows in School Lane, had been up to ask mum if we could get her jewellery back! Mrs Somebody lived in the new bungalows along school lane and she and some neighbours have lost items of jewellery and knick-knacks. They had seen Jack going in through an open window and taking bits. He then made a beeline for my window, which could be clearly seen from their gardens.
Mum took me down to the rabbit hutch. How long since you cleaned him out? Ages mum why? Look in here! Aladdin’s cave. Mum made me put all the stuff in a bag and go round and ask the folk who’s was whose. They did not see the funny side and demanded that the bird was stopped.
All my mates thought it was great and wanted to buy him. Andrew Donnelly had always wanted him, he had lost his own Jackdaw and I knew he would look after him. Andrew lived in the Up End far enough away from Mrs Somebody. Sadly I agreed but before we could move him a storm took him away.
He lived a good life though because I can hear his offspring even now… Jack Jack Jack they call in Dingley Wood.
Drilling for a shilling.
The road, or track, to Yew Tree farm ran for about 30 yards from the end of the gable, down the left side of our house. It was tarmac and there was a wide grass verge up to our fence. Down the other side ran Mr. Robinson’s cow sheds. Single story stone built and centuries old, all topped with a pitched slate roof and containing no windows. Another practice area for me! This one was good because nobody minded the noise and if you skilfully angled the footballs rebound you could make diving saves, or spectacular diving headers.
Our house we had three floors. The ground floor consisted of a kitchen extension, the living room, where we lived and ate and the front room, or parlour, which was only used on Sundays - until the telly moved in there.
We never had a telly until I was a teenager. Up till then I had to watch such events as the Cup Final on Mr. Johnson’s set. Mr. Johnson and his wife lived over the road and were an elderly couple. I remember one Cup Final in particular… not for the teams playing, or the result, but for an extraordinary drink Mr. Johnson made me. It was a cold day and we were huddled by his fire watching the hour-long build-up to the game. Abide with me and all that.
‘I’m alrite Mr. Johnson’
I was a very unassuming boy and didn’t want to be a nuisance. I expect that’s how I was taught to be when I went off to people’s houses. I was always ‘alrite, even if I wasn’t. I was never thirsty when offered a drink, or hungry when offered food.
‘I’ll get’yu somethin’ speshul y’just wait there’ said Mr. Johnson.
He was gone for a while and in the background I could hear the kettle boil. A cup of chocolate, tea or maybe coffee? I hoped it wasn’t Camp coffee. It wasn’t. It was worse. First it was in a glass. Hot vapours were rising from a glass! Something I’d never seen before. As he got carefully nearer I could smell peppermint… a nice smell.
‘Eer’yar boy. Sip that, but mind its ot’
It smelled wonderful. The rising vapour with its spearmint aroma promised bliss. The warmth of the glass was like holding a sunbeam… everything boded well. Then I had a sip. Just the one was enough. How I managed to not be sick. Not to cough. Not to grimace. Somehow I managed to ignor it and he didn't press the matter or show his disapointment.
Back to the estate agents tour. The kitchen was not as a 21st century person would picture. No Mfi here. The walls were raw brick and stone, painted with a shiny washable paint. There was a Belfast sink with a wooden draining board. A ‘copper’ which was a tub heated by gas to boil water. It was about the size of a tumble dryer but cylindrical. The boiling water was usual used to place washing in. After boiling, it would be wrung out with a hand-cranked wringer that was clamped to the draining board. The steaming wrung washing would drop into the sink, which was filled with cold water for rinsing. Mum would rinse the clothes by hand; wringing them as dry as possible before hanging them out to dry. So let’s just go over that again girls. First the washing was boiled in a tub with washing powder added; DAZ or OMO. Secondly, using a pair of wooden sprung tongues, the washing was lifted out of the boiling water onto the draining board. Mum would pick up the item and feed it, with one hand, into the wringer whilst cranking it through with the other hand. The boiled washing could scold your hands. Third. Her hot hands were then plunged into the ice-cold water to rinse the washing out. This procedure was repeated for each item of clothing and washing would take all day.
The cooker was a gas stove of which I have no interesting facts to convey.
The copper also heated the water for a bath. Oh how I dreaded Friday night. Mum went off to a Whist Drive most Friday nights. It was her one night off. Dad was left to supervise my bath. Thinking back I don’t know why he had to supervise my bath. Where were my brother and sister, didn’t they need baths for some genetic wonderment that I had missed, or did they never get dirty?
Anyway, dad would sit in the living room either listening to the wireless or later watching the telly. First the tin bath was dragged into the kitchen from the lean-to by the side of the kitchen. It would settle in the middle of the kitchen. Mum would have set the copper going so the water would get hot and ready. Dad would come and check the copper was properly turned off and then help me to empty the hot water into the bath via buckets and the tap at the base of the copper. 80% of the hot was placed in. Then cold from the tap was added until I was happy with the temperature of the water in the bath. The last 20% was for use if too much cold had been added, or if someone else was having a bath after me and would need the water topping-up. With the water in place dad would retire back to the wireless. I was allowed to lock the back door and draw the curtains. The door between the kitchen and the living room did have a shut bolt but shutting it was thought to be ‘un-necessary’. We didn’t have central heating, in fact all we had was a coal fire in the living room and in the front room. The kitchen could be chilly and you relied on the residual heat from the copper and the hot bath for warmth. Not that I ever had any intention of getting into it. Usually I stripped off to vest and pants so that I was ready to take the plunge if dad made a move to inspect. I took the opportunity to scrape my knees as they were usually caked in a weeks football mud. Having scratched the mud off, they would be washed with a flannel. Nothing else got muddy so I couldn’t see any reason to wash clean bits. It was necessary to splash the water and bang the tin bath like as if I was really in it. Oh yes and to scum up the water with scrapped-off mud and soap. Other than that I could read a comic.
‘Bowt time y’got owt boy’ Dad would say, if he hadn’t fallen asleep.
‘J’st anuther minut dad’
Remembering to make the towel wet and dampen my hair, I’d get dressed.
‘Giv’us a hand with the barth dad, wil’yu’
Dad and I would carefully drag the bath out the back door and he would tip the water out, content that the water was a dirty scum colour as the result of a serious bathing. I wonder what mums take was on events. She would have known I never washed properly. She must have known about BO even if I didn’t. The hall where the whist drives took place would occasionally be booked for some other purpose, and no whist drive meant a proper bath. There was no faking it with mum about.
I've drifted off again and need to concentrate on drilling for a shilling.
Springtime meant the farmers had ploughed their fields and prepared their seed-beds. I never did more than 1 days ploughing in my life. Not because I wasn’t any good at it. It was a job for a man and normally done by John or his full timer. Following with the discs, or the harrows, or the roller, was OK for a teenager and I spent many a happy day on the second tractor harrowing. I loved it. Back and forward. Up and down. Round and round.
Drilling was serious stuff. You could disc over bad discing and harrow over bad harrowing but drilling had to be done properly… first time otherwise the profitability of the crop was compromised. One blocked drill head and that meant 200 yards x 6 inches without a crop.
The drill was a modern combination drill. This meant that the seed was in a crossways hopper and a parallel hopper held the fertilizer that was basically nitrogen pellets. Each hopper had two half width hinged covers, to keep everything dry. The large steel land wheels of the drill turned two sets of gears – one below each hopper; these were calibrated with some gubbin’s to mix the correct quantity of seed with the correct amount of fertilizer. This mixture was riddled down a series of flexible tubes and between to two discs that formed a forward facing vee shape. The discs were pressed into the soil so that the seed mixture fell into a nice little slot. Opposing fingers followed to close the slot and bury the seed mixture. Each slot was about six inches apart and the whole drill was about ten foot wide. There were two jobs. Job one was to drive the tractor in a straight beat and in-line with the previous beat, you mustn’t have a gap as that meant no crop. At each headland a rope from the drill to the tractor needed pulling to stop the gears driving the gubbin’s and so prevent wasted seeding whilst turning. The next job was to man the drill. A foot board ran across the back of the drill. The drill man stood on this plank and was able to move from left to right lifting the covers to check the levels. Sometimes the seed to fertilizer mix meant that they ran out at different times. The next job for the drill man was to squat on his haunches, holding a handrail that ran across the back. He would check that the seed mixture was dropping into the slot in the ground. A blocked chute needed clearing quickly otherwise it was necessary to stop the tractor to clear it. Clearing on-the-move was done with a prodder. A prodder was usually a thin metal rod bent into a shape evolved by experience. It needed to be ok for smacking as well as prodding: importantly, you dropped it at your peril, that enforced a tractor stop. The flexible tubes were made of a combination of corrugated rubber tubing and tin joiners. A bit like old fashioned knights armour, with rubber instead of chain-mail. Remember all this had to happen with the drill moving over the bumpy land on un-sprung steel wheels. Add to that a touch of frost, or freezing wind, rattelin’ gubbin’s and you can imagine how hard this job was. It went on hour after hour. The only respite was the five minutes it took to re-load seed and nitrogen. Gloves were a no no. Impossible to hold-on wearing gloves whilst riddling the seeds and nitrogen at the same time. Hour after hour you needed to keep your concentration or the results of your in-attention would become apparent a few weeks later when the green shoots appeared, or in this case didn’t. In fact all these aspects of the job paled into comparison with checking the nitrogen hopper. Nitrogen pellets were very susceptible to damp. A little dampness caused the pellets to crust. You opened the hopper and it looked full but you couldn’t trust it. You needed to comb your fingers through it and break it up.
So we have freezing cold hands, hanging on to a cold steel bar and your feet in muddy wellies slipping on the foot board. Can it get worse... Oh yes, it could for me. In his wisdom God chose that I would be a nail biter. I was a happy lad without a care in the world. Well fed. Well loved. No need to nibble the quick’s, but I did. My fingertips would sometime be raw. Two things don’t go well together, nitrogen and raw flesh.
A days drilling was more a job for a man than a boy. I don’t know how much a man would earn a day. I got a shilling.