HARVEST TIME

The leading-in went on till dark.

Leading-in was the most interesting part of the harvest work. During the whole day the carting of the corn sheaves goes on. It is a cheerful and almost jovial job; the reward of the year’s work is in the weight of the sheaves and the golden corn.

Master and man remark: “There’s some weight there!” (the corn). The wagon is a four-wheeler, built of ash and elm known as an Oxfordshire, built by a local wheelwright, and will last 20 odd years, with annual painting and repairs. Yellow bodies and red wheels, its sides splayed out, to add extra carrying capacity, there were raves like small ladders, detachable, fixed front and behind extending the load another five or six yards, besides four poles known as the corner poles were fixed, one at each corner, for hay, straw or sheaf carting. These poles were a great help to a small boy, loading the sheaves coming two sides at a time on a stop and go, lurching wagon. Keeping your balance loading, you sang out “Back corner” or “Plank wad” over the middle, as each of the two men pitchers turn, their two sheaves skewered on the tines of their pitchforks towards your load.

“Hold tight” sings out one pitcher, the horse walks over the ridge and furrow:

“Bumpity bump,” goes the springless wagon.

“Whoaa!” sheaves rock and rustle.

“Mid side,” you shout. Four sheaves, two each side come at you eight to each shock. The two pitchers working steadily and with a certain rhythm. One keeps pace with the other.

“Fill your middle.”

“Other wagons coming” – thank goodness for that. Down you slide – straw and thistles scratch your bare arms and legs as you slump to the floor, fork out of the way.

The wagon bed is soon carpeted with shed corn, moths, earwigs, beetles, all fallen from the sheaves of the previous loads. As you climb in the empty wagon you tread over it but hardly notice it as the sheaves come towards you, and the carter sings out:

“Hold tight.” Thirty to forty lots to be loaded a day, as long as the weather and harvest lasts.

Away goes the laden wagon out of the field to the rickyard, my older schoolboy brother leading the loads, then back again with the empty. If there was a easy straight gateway out of the field or if in the big homeground (and fields were big to a seven or eight year old), I would have a lead for a change, but not often, because Father set you a job like a workman and you did it!

The days were long, and the work heavy. How I long for the tea-break, the rest of the workers had their tea breaks at the Rickyard but ours came out with the empty wagon. The small butter delivery basket packed with sandwiches and slices of fruit cake. It was Boddingtons’ bread from the village and our Chinsnell Farm butter, homemade jam, cake, radishes, lettuces, etc. All wrapped separately in a white, large, muslin cloth. Packed by Mum and Lou (who helped in the kitchen), and who then brought it to the Rickyard and stopped to serve it to the workmen.

After tea was milking time, my older brother and I were sent off. Lou would stop and help leading horses and helping where she could be of most help. The gallon stone jars of hot tea were drunk. It did you good, so you were told – it opened up the sweat pores and it certainly cleared the throat of dust and pollen etc. Extra help came in, in respect of the canal and rail workers in the evening that cut through our farms. I could go to the farm to fetch wine for the workers – a pint and a half bottle to each, and a bottle of best to take home known as their ‘supper bottle’.

The work went with a swing now as the extra 5 or 6 men came and gave their help and their different views and news of local gossip. We children now did the fetching and carrying, to and fro. As we grew older, our jobs and responsibilities became greater. As a young child you feed the poultry under Mother’s or Lou’s supervision; collect the eggs, clean out the coups, let them out, and feed them in the morning and shut them in at night. Catch the pony and harness it.

Then I graded up to learn to milk the quiet cow who was being ‘dried off’ as it was termed, for resting before calving down with next calf, or a cow old or “light titted” meaning loosing the milk in one of her four quarters. You sit on a three legged stool, if you were not careful, the legs dropped out as you picked it up. The stool was a rough bit of willow, the hurdle maker made them round or square with three sticks (imitation legs) pushed up three holes. These burst through the seat part, after a few years. Hundreds of milking times, banging of legs in the wood seat, had split and one leg was shorter than the others. The seat pinched your arse as you hotched under the cow, balancing on one leg, or hopefully, on two.

In the summer the flies and cow’s tail plagued you. In wet weather – rain or snow dripped on you. The cows were let in the cowshed chained up, their food already in the manger or as it was termed “the browsing.” You got your bucket and stool, the men had the best, boys had what was left, and you did what you were told, “You milk this, that, the other.” They didn’t help you, so you got on with it, as quick as you could.

If they milked their cows and you hadn’t, it was your job to let the cows out, sweep, and clean the cowshed, so you worked hard to finish first. After all, you were told, you have the easiest milkers giving less milk – so you got stuck in. That was the life growing up, no Mother or Lou to help here, not till you got in the farmhouse kitchen. The milk to be washed off legs and boots, and socks to be changed. For not only was it hard work for hands and wrists to squeeze milk out of the teats, but also to get the stream to go into the bucket, held between knees tightly so as not to spill or get knocked over with a fidgety cow or a clumsy awkward little boy.

The worst time was the first three weeks, after that you get confidence and wrists grow stronger.