COUNTRY CRAFTS

The country crafts that have sadly changed or are falling in abeyance on our farms are many and varied. Two country workmen I miss most as I walk our country roads, lanes and footpaths are the thatcher and the hedger. The thatcher as the roofs of buildings are covered in other ways now but the hedger, I truly miss. Like most farm jobs it was handed down from father to son or neighbour’s son, country folk being helpful and willing to pass on to the youngsters their knowledge and skills and even their tools. The hedger was always in his billy hat, cord trousers, a hardwearing jacket or gerkin, leather apron, strong leather boots, and thick heavy gloves. As a boy I would try to put the stiff half clenched gloves on. No way could I move my hands let alone clench axe, bill hook or slash hook as Ole Teddy did weeks and months of the winter on our farm!

Jobs were done in rotation: the hedges every seven years were cut and laid. The laying of the hedge meant a good many of the young sapling growths that grew up from the stools, were cut out altogether to be used to bind the top of the hedge around the stakes. The others we would chop with bill hook half-way through, bend them down and lay them down diagonally, to grow side shoots, strengthen the hedge in a more or less weaving pattern. So the whole thing welds together into a stock-proof fence. For horse it needed to be high, and to be sheep proof and rabbit – tight. The horses and sheep were confined to the fields but I wouldn’t say they were rabbit tight as they could and did use the hedges, like lots of birds and small animals, as a busy thoroughfare – birds, insects and small animals have their homes and nests in the hedge, many feed off one another but it is much safer than passing to and fro in open field.

The hedger cut and chopped out the dead wood. He lopped off the big chunks so young growth would shoot, strong and vigorous from the bottom. The half cut branch, seeing that he’s left a sufficient section of bark on, will grow, sending out side shoots to strengthen the hedge. To see the hedger at work was a pleasant sight and to hear him talk: he generally had a fair store of knowledge and legend as his job took him to the hedgerows that bound the fields and roads of the whole district. As one passed by he was ever-ready to pass the time of day. Many people talked with him and gained local knowledge of trees, copse and farms and nature. Not book-learnt but things his father showed him as a boy. Knowledge he learnt by contact at his job.

Sometimes his roadside job would cause him trouble for many women gleaned the hedgerows for dry wood and chips for the cottage fire.

“Save some for tomorrow,” they would say, as he moved a bunch of thorns to give one an apron full of chips or dry kindling wood. Along would come others and soon half the village women were imploring,

“Please – you gave to others.” Supply could not keep up with demand, so the hedger would be pleased to move away from the roadside near to the village.

A hedger came to work on a roadside hedge near our village. I chatted with him many times. He knew me and had cut and laid hedges for my father on some of our farms. He was known as Ginger – this was due to his thick mop of ginger hair. He was a wizard with a bill hook. This double sided, steel bladed tool was square straight edged along the back with a curved hooked blade on the front. A four or five inch wide flat piece of steel ten inches long, a six inch wooden tapered handle fitted in the steel, sort of wrapped around the handle, which was oft times hand cut and fashioned by the hedger, was six or seven inches long, an inch round. Where it fitted into the billhook, it widened to an inch and half, curved on the front. The back was straight. This tool was always sharpened two or three times a day whenever the hedger stopped for a bite of food. In the bottom of the lunch basket was his tone and after a break, with his pipe in mouth, the billhook handle clenched in his knees, the blade stood up as the hedger sat on the bankside of the hedge as he would dry or oil stone sharpen his billhook with a half round motion of strokes. So fine was the edge that he could cut a match straight down the middle.

As I watched him cut backhand and forehand, I could picture our ancestors fighting with double two handed battleaxes. The hedger cuts, slashes and weaves his hedge. The two must be related. To get back to Ginger – he cut and laid miles of hedges and he was always in great demand. Now Ginger was a bachelor and would lodge with cottagers of time-workers on the farm, where he was hedging. He wasn’t fussy – the shepherd’s hut would do. I have known him to bed down in our barn for a few nights:

“Till I get myself fixed up,” said Ginger. Ginger was working on our neighbour’s farm near Souldern, one winters night about seven o’clock – there came a loud knocking on our farmhouse kitchen door. Of the two dogs, Bob the sheepdog outside, just gave a woof woof. Sort of to say someone’s about, no stranger, but the spaniel in the kitchen was in good voice being disturbed from her slumbers. The storm lantern was always kept alight, hanging just by the door. I went to the door taking the lantern. As I opened the door there stood Ginger, all six foot two of him.

“Can I see the Master?” he implored. “I’m proper done, flummoxed, I be”

“Come in the kitchen,” I said. “I’ll get the boss.”

Poor Ginger, with a glass or two of home made parsnip wine, Ginger told his tale of woe.

“Two of ’um, Master, there was,” he greeted my father. “Two of ’um going at it hammer and tongue – so I bolted.” The tale he told was real upsetting – he shook his head and supped his wine:

Moffey had let Ginger one of his cottages for 1/6 (One shilling and sixpence – 71/2 p) a week for the several weeks while Ginger was in the neighbourhood cutting hedges. A neighbour next door ‘did for him’ – his washing, cleaning, etc. but no cooking – the woman the other side did the cooking. All went well for five or six weeks till the cleaning lady said to a villager,

“The food she (this was the cook lady) cooks him isn’t fit for a dog.” When Ginger’s cook heard this, she shot out to Ginger’s cottage just as Ginger had finished eating. It were all right said he,

“I’ve ett it – the plates clean to prove it.”

All seemed all right but the other neighbour who lived next door, heard voices and came in to see who it was. That was when the balloon went up – the two women fighting. Ginger had never seen two women fight over him before.

“’Andfulls of hair they were a pulling out of one another, Master – can I sleep in the barn? I’ll get my things later tonight when they two be a ’bed.”

“Yes Joe, certainly, move in. Stay as long as you like – I might find you a hedge to cut and lay for me away from the village for a day or two till things quiet down,” said Father.

“Thank you, Master, thank you – I be never going back to live by them two women, no never no more! Good night, Master and thanks again.”