FARMING IN ROMNEY MARSH, 1920s-30s

Joan F. Basden.

The main text is best read as a story, but here is a list of topics I have picked out (A.B):


FARMING AT HAMMONDS CORNER

The Farm

Soon after my father, Richard Blacklocks, was demobilised in the early 1920s, he became the tenant of an ex-serviceman's smallholding at Hammonds Corner, between Lydd and New Romney owned by Kent County Council. The holding of 11 acres was all arable land.

On it stood the house built of Kentish weatherboarding, consisting of living room, 3 bedrooms, kitchen and pantry. There was no bathroom and the toilet was outside. Neither was there any electricity, gas, water or main drainage. Water was supplied from a pump in the back yard which had to be cossetted in winter and well lagged with straw, sacks and tarpaulin. Every night after the last pail full had been pumped off, a handful of salt was put down and the top covered. Even then it sometimes froze and we thought longingly of the luxury of the next farm along the road where the pump was situated over the sink inside the kitchen. The water was very good, but very hard and used for drinking only. For washing and laundry soft water was collected in rain butts at different points round the house and barn. Cooking and lighting was by means of paraffin stoves and lamps.

For many years the farm stayed its original size but gradually by renting and buying the acreage increased until, when he retired in 1951, it was over 30 acres. Except for the last 10-15 years he worked the holding mainly single handed, being greatly assisted by my mother and, as soon as we were old enough, by my sister and myself at weekends and in school holidays. For certain specific jobs or in times of urgency, casual labour was engaged or neighbouring farmers, particularly Mr. Dennis who held the next smallholding, would give a helping hand. This would of course be reciprocated when the need arose. The methods of farming then employed were so different from those practised now, that a few random notes on it seem worthwhile.

Crops

Originally the two main crops were wheat and broad beans, both grown under contract to Messrs. Carters Ltd., the seed merchants. The type of soil and the climate in this corner of England were ideal for this type of cultivation. Carters provided the original seed for sowing and at the end of the season would purchase the newly produced seed, providing that it reached a high enough standard. A contract dividend price was added to the market price. If however, for any reason, effect of adverse weather, disease or lack of purity of strain, it was not good enough, they could reject it and it must then be sold for feed at whatever deflated price it could reach. I do not recall our crops ever being so rejected but to ensure success a constant high standard of husbandry was necessary.

The beans grown were Green Windsor or Longpod, but I do not know the varieties of wheat. In addition to these two crops, others, not grown under contract or for seed, provided a rotation. Potatoes for human consumption (early and maincrop: Eclipse, Epicure, Sharp's Express, King Edward and Majestic) and roots such as mangold wurzels for cattle food were the main alternatives. Artificial fertilizers were used sparingly then and only before planting potatoes. Residue from this was sufficient for the following corn crop and the wheat stubble ploughed in provided nutrition for the beans, which in turn fixed nitrogen in the soil to further aid the root crops. Sometimes clover was sown with the wheat, to be ploughed in as manure the following autumn.

As the acreage increased, new crops were introduced - oats, peas, runner beans, clover and flax (all grown for seed under contract) as well as carrots and sugar beet. (However, since these were grown after I left home for university, I am not familiar with the details.)

In the early years we had a horse, Duke, and another in the late 1930s, Flower; a few chickens and ducks inhabited the plait (stack yard) and we did try a couple of pigs until this became uneconomic and they had to go. It was not until the 1940s, when a full time farm labourer, Lawrence, was employed, that a tractor appeared on the scene. But the period I am mainly concerned with was before this - mainly the 1920s and 1930s.

AUTUMN

Ploughing

The farming year began in the late summer or autumn when the land was ploughed, mostly by horse drawn plough. This was one of the occasions when outside help was employed. Mr. George Bourne from Lydd (three miles away) came with his team of two horses - and I remember being surprised that he and his team 'knocked off' at 3 pm. But he still had to walk home, stable, feed, groom and bed his horses, by which time it would be well after 5 pm. Sometimes the horses would be left overnight. If it were summertime they could be turned out in a neighbour's field, but in winter they were housed in our stable where, by the light of a lantern, I would watch my father replenish their food, water and bedding and settle them for the night. Sometimes the horses were fed on a mixture of crushed oats and 'meat', the latter being finely cut hay or chaff. (The chaff cutter was a long narrow wooden trough along which the hay was fed to be cut into half-inch lengths by a wheel with three sharp blades attached to curved spokes. This cutting wheel was turned by a handle attached to one of the spokes.)

The stable to accommodate two horses was the third part of the barn, built in 1924, to which was also attached a cart shed for two carts or waggons. The first, largest, part was used for general purpose storage of tools, seed before planting, produce from harvest before dispatch and for work when the weather was bad. The second, small, area, was used for storing hay and for the large wooden bins of food for the poultry. On a hot summer's day there was nothing so deliciously cool as plunging a bare arm deep into the bran, or middlings or sharps (different gradings of milled corn). Other bins contained wheat, whole or kibbled maize, or oats. Separating these two parts and the stable was a doorway across which was fixed, when horses were in residence, two specially designed bars which proved better than a door since they were kick proof against a horse should it by any chance become loose. The bars are best described by a diagram. Part of the bar swivelled at A. To insert the bar, the tenon B was pushed far into the door post mortise, enabling tenon C to enter its hole on the other door jamb. Then the moveable part was closed down, securing the bar.

Every few years the 'long reach', a field of about 7 acres, about quarter of a mile in length, would be ploughed deeper by steam plough. The big steam engines stood one at either end while, by means of a cable fed onto revolving drums on each engine, the multi-furrowed plough was pulled to and fro. The plough had two sets of shares; while one cut the furrows the other was carried high. At the end of each journey, the plough was up-ended so the second set of shares came into use for the return journey. One disadvantage of steam ploughing was the wide headland it left which either had to be ploughed by horse or dug by hand.

Not all fields were ploughed, a cultivator sometimes being used instead. With this the surface was broken up by a series of prongs or tines which curved obliquely forwards, disturbing the weeds and producing a good tilth. The tines varied in length and weight according to the job and the type of land, and could be raised and lowered by the operator to release accumulated weeds.

After ploughing the ground was fined and a seed bed prepared by harrowing. The harrows were made of crossed parallel timbers with tines at their intersections, and, like the cultivators adapted to the job in hand by different sizes and weights. They were sometimes used in series, a finer being drawn behind a heavy one. The tines of these and all other cultivating machinery were periodically taken to the blacksmith (Hartops of New Romney) for sharpening.

Sowing

The seed wheat was drilled up to 10 rows at a time in November, and the ground then rolled. Wurzel was drilled in April, two rows at a time, sets of rotating cups would pick up just enough seed to be dropped down the funnel-shaped spouts to the ground. This was a three-man operation, one to lead the horse, one to guide the drill using the bar-handle at the front of the drill and a third (me, if available) to walk behind and see that the drill was working properly and the cups did not fail to pick up the seed.

When carrots were sown, a small amount of lettuce seed was mixed in with it. Carrot seed is relatively slow to germinate and cannot stand competition from small weeds. Weeding after the carrots have formed disturbs the soil and attracts the carrot fly. So it is essential to cultivate before the carrots come through. The lettuce, being a quick developer, showed the line of the rows and allowed early shimming.

Broad beans were sown by hand, the ground having been 'creased' (marked into rows) using a turnip seed drill. The beans were planted with a dibber, a bent stick with an iron pout. The procedure was: dib a hole, drop in bean, dib to fill the hole, and move along the row. Spare seed was carried in a canvas bag tied round the waist.

Potatoes were also planted by hand; as the rows were marked out, artificial manure was spread at the same time by the drill. Sometimes this fertilizer, carried in a trug, was broadcast by hand along the rows. Potatoes could be dibbed in but more often were planted by hand and foot. One seed was placed in a row, trodden by the heel into the ground, another dropped in front of the toe, and so on along the never-ending rows. Immediately afterwards the ground was harrowed to cover the seed and protect it from frosts.

CULTIVATION

Much of the year between seed time and harvest was spent combating weeds, this being before the general use of weedkillers. Apart from the loss of production if these were allowed to compete with the crop for the sustenance, moisture and light, crops grown for contract must be 'clean' and not contaminated with weed seeds. In spring the wheat field was harrowed to break up the pan caused by winter rains, and then rolled to firm the plants in again. Before they became too high it was shimmed (horse hoed), the shim having a series of tines which were flattened and ran horizontally just under the surface of the ground. The tines were only wide enough to go between the rows, so did not damage the young crop plants.

Often a flock of sheep was brought in at this stage to eat off the growing corn - which seems at first sight an odd thing to do. But this not only firmed the plants, but encouraged them to make more roots and to send up extra shoots, thus increasing the final yield, a process known as tillering. The sheep, at the same time, were manuring the land. As the crop grew too high for it to be machine weeded, it must be hand hoed and spudded.

When the corn was in ear 'roguers' were sent by Carters - trained men who walked up and down the rows, pulling out any plants of the wrong variety (rogues) which might have come in with the seed - thus keeping the strain as pure as possible.

Beans and potatoes were also shimmed and hand hoed several times in the season, but even there the weeds would sometimes get the upper hand. A rainy spring or early summer would prevent any cultivation, as the land was too wet for man or machinery to venture on without doing damage, but the weeds would flourish. After a field had been shimmed or hoed it needed a dry spell of at least a day for the weeds to shrivel and die. A prolonged shower immediately following the cultivation would allow the weeds to revive and take root again. All the work and time would have been wasted. The last operation in the potato field was to earth them up with a potato plough, which had an elongated arrow shaped share which formed a furrow, throwing up a ridge over the potatoes on either side.

Wurzels needed to be thinned. First the row was chopped through with a wide hand hoe, leaving tufts of plants about every 9 inches. Then these would be 'singled' out by hand, leaving one plant from each tuft - a back-breaking job.

Weeds

The main weeds to be combatted were thistle, sow thistle, couch grass, dock and birdweed, with armstrong (Polygonum) and fat hen (Chenopodium) also a nuisance. Bindweed often attacked plants after they were much too high for cultivation, and could form a dense mat over a large area, keeping sunlight and rain from the crop and proving a great nuisance at harvesting. Couch grass and dock were indestructible unless they could be got up by the root, collected and burnt. The least particle of root from either of these left in the ground would multiply and in a field badly infested with docks it became necessary to dig up each one individually. Weed killing was a constant battle - good soil, well maintained, encouraged good crops but was also ideal for weeds.

Pests

Amongst animal pests, rooks were probably the most troublesome. Attempts were made to keep them from the newly drilled wheat, with tin cans or paper flapping in the wind or scarecrows. Sparrows also attacked the seed, and the corn in the ear while it was still growing, in the shocks and in the stack before it was thatched. Bangers were also used to scare the birds. Wireworms were a problem; they not only damaged crops under the ground but were also the cause of rooks pulling up healthy bean plants to get at the wireworm they somehow knew were underneath, leaving the plant to die on the ground. Wireworms were most troublesome in newly ploughed pastureland. So the first crop grown after ploughing was usually peas, until the ground was free enough from the pest to grow the susceptible crops of wheat and potatoes.

(One field so ploughed had been grass for 20 years, the last arable crop previously grown being turnip seed. The year after it was reploughed a considerable crop of turnips sprang up among the peas, the seed having lain dormant all this time.)

Broad beans were attacked by dolphin (bean aphids or blackfly) and it was desirable to sow the beans as early in February as weather conditions would allow, so that the pods would be developed before the insect arrived. The major problem with potatoes was blight, against which the crop was sometimes sprayed with Bordeaux mixture using a knapsack sprayer. Blight was mostly likely to strike when hot sun immediately followed heavy rain, as in the frequent summer thunderstorms.

Weather

The other major enemy could be the weather. Little could be done when weeks of drying March winds turned soil to dust, when a continuously wet and cold season made mud of the fields and prevented any work being done, when newly sown seed rotted in the wet ground, when the crop would not ripen on a cold wet summer, or when the cut corn stood out in the field and the wheat sprouted in the ear before it was dry enough to be gathered in. A sudden thunderstorm during a day's corn carrying could drench the middle of a stack before sails (tarpaulins) could be brought to cover it. No wonder farmers developed a 'weather eye' and made good forecasters. Not long ago I was told in the village, "I never listen to the wireless forecasts; I just ask your father." He once said that he would much rather the season be too hot and dry than too cold and wet, as plants seemed to be able to combat the former drought condition rather than the latter soggy ones.

Two particular instances stand out in my memory. Times were very hard in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the only way to survive was to capture the best part of the market. Being dependent on outside labour for ploughing etc. was disadvantageous as having to take one's place in the queue meant that sowing and cultivating was not always done at the ideal moment. But one year my father had managed to have his early potatoes well advanced and a fine healthy crop gave promise of catching the early market and the best prices. Alas, a late frost one June morning cut off the whole crop. We awoke to find a blackened field - the haulm completely cut off - resulting in a reduced yield and a much later crop. It was the only time I knew him give way to despair, though provocation presented itself many times.

On another occasion I recall standing at the window during a heavy thunderstorm, watching a field of promising wheat being flattened. Straw was long in those days, often 5-6 ft, and a fine upstanding crop could be laid flat in a matter of minutes, which could be disastrous. 'Lain' corn took longer to ripen, so part of the crop was ready for reaping while some was not. That underneath might not ripen at all, stay wet and go mouldy or rot. Reaping was more difficult. If the corn lay all the same way sometimes the reaper could get beneath it and pick some of it up. If however there was wind with the rain, the straw twisted in all directions, and then the whole area would need to be cut and tied by hand, a long and laborious task.

THE MARKET

Then the market could cause heartaches, even when the weather was kind. One year conditions were ideal and the potato crop was stupendous - high yield and very large potatoes. But so were everyone's, all over the country, which led the government to decree that no potatoes weighing more than 1lb or small enough to go through a 2 inch square riddle could be sold for ware (human consumption). So nearly half the crop had to be sold for pig and other animal feed. A poor recompense was this for months of hard work.

As 'relaxation' from a day's farming, my father's evenings were spent in the garden, where, in part of the farm, too narrow to be included in the main field, he grew market garden produce, including soft fruit, cauliflowers, cabbage, ridge cucumbers and lettuce, which he sold to local shops or sent to Ashford market. One year, getting up at dawn, 9 dozen lettuce were cut and packed ready for the carrier to take to Ashford. Imagine the disappointment in the evening when we learned that the 9 dozen had fetched 9d with market dues of 3d and carriage of 3d - total left for us: 3d (1.25p). Isolated incidents are these two, but by no means atypical of the worry and disappointments which had to be faced.

A word about the carriers - Turk's of Lydd - who drove across the Marsh, calling at numerous villages on the way to Ashford every Tuesday and Friday. Amongst many ways in which Mr. and Mrs. Turk, and later their daughter, served the community was this of taking produce to market, delivering it to the appropriate stall, paying market dues, collecting the proceeds and then returning it and the empties to the owners. Many a time as a child I was grateful to them for a lift as I walked the two lonely, dreary miles home from school.

HARVEST

Harvesting Wheat

But we have digressed. The crops have been sown, tended as they grew, and now they have to be harvested. It required considerable skill, learnt only by experience, to judge just when the wheat was fit to be cut. If cut too soon, it would not harden and dry (no mechanical dryers used then), and if left too long it would shake out of the ear and be wasted.

The field was 'opened' by hand, a swathe cut with a bagging hook right round the crop wide enough for the horse drawn binder to travel. This corn was bound into sheaves by a bond made from the wheat itself. Taking two large handfuls, the lengths were crossed just below the ears. Then, with a twist, the lower one was brought up and over, and back through the parted straw of the upper one, making a strong bond which, though not actually tied, would not come undone. When enough corn was cut to form a sheath, the butt ends were twisted together and stuck into the bond. Once this was completed, the binder (reaper) hired from Homewoods of Newchurch came in. The corn, cut by laterally moving blades, was guided by revolving sweeps or paddles onto a moving platform, gathered in sheaves to be deftly tied with binder twine and finally dispatched from the machine by the backward flick of a three-pronged fork. These sheaves were now 'shocked', that is stood on end in two rows, tips meeting, ten or twelve sheaves to a shock, where they stayed to finish ripening and drying until carried to the stackyard, two or three weeks later, according to the weather.

Wheat Stacks

The stacks were built in the 'plait' or stackyard, the base being built with last year's straw and faggots, brought from the woods of the Hamstreet area. The base must be level or the whole stack could lean and collapse. Our plait, being once the bed and banks of the River Rother where it flowed into Romney Hoy, was far from level, so compensation had to be made for this. The other preparatory job was the waggon, which was fitted with head and tail raves, with slades to extend the lateral raves and with tall poles, for which provision was built in on the Kentish waggon, that kept the corner sheaves from falling off. Neighbouring farmers came to help if possible so that two teams would be working, each consisting of two or three pitching up the sheaves with a pitch fork to the two loading the waggon. As the load became high a cry of "lay 'ard" (just before the horse moved forward) would warn those on top to guard against losing their balance. Care was taken to plan the loading; far away sheaves went into the empty waggon, gradually working back towards the plait so that the horse had to pull the heavy load the shortest distance. While one full waggon was being unloaded and the stack built, the other was loading up in the field.

The stack was circular, 18-20 feet diameter at the base and gradually increasing as it grew so that the sides sloped outwards, and rain running off the roof would fall on the ground and not run down the sides. The stack builder somehow knew just when to start decreasing the diameter again to build the roof. As the stack became too high for the pitcher from the waggon to reach the top, the 'lubber hole' was used, this being a small platform in the side of the roof where a man stood and received sheaves from the waggon, passing them over his head to those waiting above. The last few sheaves of the final load were used to fill in the lubber hole. (There was an illustration of this in Bygone Kent, vol. 5, no. 3, p.127.)

Harvesting Beans

Beans were cut by hand with a rip hook. The pods being produced near the base of the plant and becoming very brittle, too much damage would be caused by a reaper. They were cut two rows at a time and laid in neat piles about two feet apart. Later three of these piles made one sheaf and were tied by hand, last year's binder twine from the wheat sheaves often being used. The job had to be done early in the morning while the beans were still supple from the overnight dew and would not crack open. Only four bean sheaves made a shock. When the stack was built they were placed with the butt end to the inside of the stack. The wheat stack on the other hand was built butt ends outward so that in both cases the fruiting part, the pods and the ears, were protected in the centre of the stack from the elements.

Harvesting Peas

Peas were cut with a pea swap, a tool like a small scythe with a short blade fixed at right angles to a straight pike, a loop at the top which slips round the arm and a nib for the hand to hold. In the other hand a prong on the end of a stick held the peas in place. They were rolled into bundles with a small rake made of three long nails driven through a 1 foot long crossbar. They were not bound but were collected into small cocks, carted and stacked very much like hay. The pea swaps as well as bagging and rip hooks had to be kept very sharp and for this a 'rubber' (carborundum stone) was used. Hoes and spuds were sharpened with a file.

Thatching

Unless the stacks were to be threshed immediately they must next be thatched. For this the reed Phragmites (or Norfolk reed) was used; it grew in the ditches (locally called dicks) surrounding the farm. Reed cutting for thatching in many parts is a winter job, but ours was cut by hand during the summer when the water was very low and the reed dry. In the shelter of the steep banks of the ditch on a summer day, it was a hot job and most welcome was the bottle of cold tea (no milk or sugar) which was the frequent drink of workers in the fields. The thatch was kept in place on the stack by wooden hazel spars. The preparation of these beforehand was a very expert job. Hazel rods, 5-6 feet long, not more than two inches diameter, were split into four. By deftly inserting a bill hook into one end and exerting pressure the rod would split right through the centre. Each half was then split again and the four rods pointed. Some were twisted at right angles about 6 inches from the end so that it could be hammered into the stack, whilst a notch just behind the point prevented its withdrawing. The other end of the long spar was kept in place by shorter rods bent in the middle to form spicks. Mr. Huckstep of New Romney always came to prepare the stakes; my father did the thatching.

Threshing

Threshing took place in autumn or winter when the threshing machine was hired for one or two days. It was drawn and powered by a steam engine, and the driver, for many years old Mr. Christmas, would come about 5 am to light his fires to get steam up. All day long the engine would be supplied with buckets of water from the pump. (Once only during such a day the well ran dry, exposing the timbers of an ancient ship wrecked on the River Rother many hundreds of years ago.) Many of the men travelled with the thresher, the rest of the team being borrowed from neighbouring farms. Two men worked on the stack, pitching sheaves to the two on the thresher, one of whose jobs it was to feed the machine, cutting the binder twine as he did so. (Sometimes for an extra shilling a day he could be persuaded to cut the string at the knot, making it much easier to re-use.) The grain, beaten out of the ear and passing over a number of sieves to clean it, poured into waiting sacks which when filled and weighing two and a quarter cwt (hundredweight), were each carried to the barn. The straw which emerged from the other end of the thresher was collected into sheaves and tied with straw or hay bonds. Thence they were pitched to the straw stack which, unlike the corn stack, was always rectangular in shape. The straw was later sold for cattle feed or bedding. The worst job, though not the most arduous, was the disposal of the chaff and cavings which collected beneath the machine, which found its way into ears, nose, mouth, eyes and throughout the clothing. After the wheat was finished and the machine cleaned, the beans were threshed. When weighed and tied up the wheat and beans were dispatched from Lydd station, then Southern Railway, for Carters' at Raynes Park.

The bonds for the straw sheaves were made in bad weather or in the winter, with straw or hay, using a wimble. One person turning the handle walked slowly backwards, while the other fed the hay into the lengthening bond - a simple enough sounding operation, but one which needed considerable skill to ensure the evenness of the bond throughout. When the required length was reached, the bond was doubled back on itself.

Another wet weather job was sack mending. These expensive items could wear out or be nibbled by mice. Using a sack needle and string, they were mended with a blanket stitch gradually working from the circumference of the hole, round and round until it was filled in.

Harvesting Potatoes

The potato harvest was in two parts, earlies and main crop, the former being lifted as required by the market. Many of ours went to the potato merchant, F. Strickland, of Hastings. They were sorted and sized as they were picked up using two trugs, one for ware (large) and the other for chats (small). Having filled the trug, it was emptied into bushel baskets and thence into sacks, 2 bushels weighing 1 cwt, this being checked with platform scales and two half-cwt weights. Later in the season the main crop potatoes were picked up regardless of size and tipped directly into sacks as weight did not matter and transported to the clamp for storage. To protect the potatoes from rain and frost, the clamp was covered with reeds or straw and soil. Both early and main crop were lifted with the potato plough which drove through the centre of the hills leaving a furrow and a ridge on either side. When all the exposed potatoes had been picked up, these ridges had to be 'slouched' down, first with one foot and then the other, exposing more potatoes. This was a leg aching job at the best of times. When there had been rain, mud clung to the boots, potatoes, trug and everywhere else it could find, making it heavy work.

As the potatoes were needed throughout the winter and spring, the clamp would be opened up, providing that the weather was not frosty. The potatoes were dug out with a special potato shovel and riddled - that is, sorted into sizes by a series of sieves. One person fed the riddle while a second activated it by turning a handle and at the same time inspecting the potatoes and removing any damaged or diseased ones as they travelled on the moving platform to the sacks.

After picking was finished, the field was harrowed and dead haulms and weeds collected into rows of bonfire and burnt on a day when the wind blew in the right direction. (Smoke must not blow across the road even in those days.) A torch of flaming rubbish was carried from one fire to the next till rows of bonfires stretched down the field. Leasing took place at the same time, some of the potatoes finding their way on to the bonfire to provide a smoky but enjoyable snack.

Harvesting Wurzels

Mangold wurzels were lifted in the autumn, clamped and sold for cattle and sheep feed later when required, often during lambing. They were sold by the cart load, being thrown by hand from the clamp into the cart and delivered direct to the buyer's field.

(One use of wurzels not widely known was as an excellent cough cure. Slices about half an inch thick were interlaced with brown sugar and allowed to stand. A thick syrup, ideal for children with whooping cough, was produced. Incidentally, another remedy for this complaint was to take the child into a field of broad beans when they were in full flower. The fragrance from such a field is an experience never to be forgotten.)

Hens and Eggs

Once the corn had been carried from the field, the hens, henhouse and all, were transported to it from the plait, and for the next few weeks they could roam at will, finding their own food. Water had to be taken to them every day, and the eggs collected.

Selling eggs was one of the sidelines of the farm and even this could not be relied upon to be profitable. Selling to the local grocers resulted in only a penny three farthings a dozen (a tenth of the normal price) on one occasion. When in the plait, the hens were fed twice a day mash - a mixture of bran or middlings (the coarser part of ground wheat) in hot water, often enhanced by chat (small) potatoes which had been boiled in an old copper in the yard in the morning, and wheat, oats or maize in the evenings. Ducks too were kept for a while, but they tended to swim round the Marsh ditches and lay their eggs away from home. When all but one of a new brood of ducklings was killed one night by a stoat, duck rearing was abandoned.

SOME EXTRAS

A little extra money was earned by spudding thistles in Balcombe's field, a neighbouring pasture. Thistles were not, as now, left to grow tall and then mown or attacked by herbicides, but were chopped off individually when young at ground level, using a thistle spud, a small blade about two inches wide on a long handle. Not one must be missed.

My father also sometimes did some 'lookering' (the Romney Marsh term for shepherding) for Mr. Balcombe, in return for our horse being allowed to graze in the field. This mainly consisted of making sure the sheep, especially when the wool was heavy, did not slip into the steep sided ditch, and become bogged down, and of watching for foot rot and for 'fly'. The latter were the maggots of the green bottle fly which would burrow into the flesh of the sheep, spoil the fleece and cause lack of condition and appetite. The wool had to be clipped away, the maggots brushed off and the skin well rubbed with disinfectant.

At times we gathered mushrooms from the fields and sent them to market, and we searched the fences and hedges for sheep's wool to be sold to the rag and bone man who came round periodically in his horse and trap. As his name implies, he also bought rags and bones, all of which were saved assiduously.

CONCLUSION

With the harvest over, the year began again, ploughing, cultivating, and so on. It was a hard life, particularly in the slump years of the 20's and 30's, often very stressful, very frustrating and heart breaking. But, year by year, the compensations far, far outweighed the disappointments. They are impossible to quantify. There was the promise of new things which came with the newly ploughed fields, the satisfaction of the fields harrowed and drilled and the seed safely sown. There was the exhilaration of seeing the first sprouting beans, the potato fields neatly earthed up, the standing corn, the swelling ears and finally the harvest brought home.

There was the sun, the fresh air, the gentle rain, the sparkling frost in the open sky. There was the knowledge of having produced something good, a year's work well done, a mission accomplished. I once asked my father which season he liked best, and this was the autumn - when you could start afresh, learn from past mistakes, try something new and look forward with hope.


Copyright (c) Joan F. Basden 1998. Prepared for Web browsing, including index, by Andrew Basden. This has now been published in three parts in Bygone Kent, early 2001.