September 30, 2008

Bringing in the sheaves on a Tyneside farm

By Dr Deric Charlton

Of course the war soon ended and it wasn't too long until the first tractors appeared on the land to modernise farming and spell the end of the horse as a beast of burden on the land. Although Grandpa bought a well-used Standard Fordson, the Clydesdales were kept on the farm long after the old man passed on, and they served several good purposes – one of my favourites being on threshing days. I was always excited when the thresher arrived to thresh the corn stacks, as it meant that we would soon have day when the neighbouring farmers would come and help us, just as we did when they threshed their stacks.

The thresher was a Massey Harris and it was powered by a broad belt that operated from the tractor drive wheel situated down below the driver's left footrest. However the corn sheaves had to be hoisted up onto the top of the thresher so that one man could cut the binder twine and throw them into the entry where they were threshed by the revolving drums, and this was carried out using a tall timber post on a hoist that was driven by the horse. A pulley and large fork was attached by rope to the hose's harness and once the fork was driven into some sheaves, the horse was led away and the load rose and then swung across onto the thresher top. Some times I used to lead the horse and then reverse it, and for a young lad to stand by a large Clydesdale and think that he was controlling its movements, this was responsibility indeed!

It was amazing how the corn stacks shrank as the threshing team worked away, and the chaff went into bales as the bags of grain filled and were stored in the granary, to be crushed into rolled grain for cattle feed during winter. One feature that always impressed me was the performance of the cats as they caught many mice fleeing from their homes in the diminishing stack. Before the threshing began on a stack, a roll of wire netting was erected as a temporary barrier around the stack and at least two of our mouse hunters were placed inside. The soon became busy as the mice emerged, and usually only had time to kill a mouse and maybe bite off its head before leaping to pounce on another victim. It was all go for them that day and then I suppose that they returned for another meal on the corpses that night.

My father's cousin Tom was the stacking expert. He was the one I admired as he built the corn stacks from loads of sheaves we brought in from the field. He was so used to the job that his hands were immune to the many thistles bound up in most sheaves in those days, before spraying broad-leaved weedkillers became common practice. Tom knew it all and was also expert at building corn stooks from the sheaves in the field. He would pick up sheaves in pairs and prop them together in a long group of ten or twelve that were known as a stook. This let the wind and sun dry the cut cereal crop without losing the grain and before we stacked it on a trailer – that was Tom's skill as well. He would build a load while kneeling on the sheaves, placing them carefully so that they sloped downwards slightly to the exterior, which seemed to hold them together better as the tractor and trailer wended its way back to the farm along the village roads.

Our fields were not all adjoining, and one large one was about two miles away, up over the main road between Newcastle and Hexham and beyond the colliery railway line. Another two fields were on a flat area down beyond the common land by the River Tyne known as the Ryton Willows. I can vividly remember cutting a tall crop of oats from these fields one year, using a Massey Harris binder pulled by two energetic Clydesdales and driven with a lifelong expertise by my Grandpa Charlton. Yet another two fields were more than three miles away, just beyond the large railway yards to the east of Blaydon, a larger town on the main route into Newcastle. They were only used for grazing beef cattle, thank goodness, although driving them along the main road with all its traffic was a nightmare that we had to undertake every few months. It wasn't only the traffic that we had to endure during this four-mile cattle drive, but closing and then opening all the gates along the road to prevent the curious animals from venturing into the attractive gardens and hastily chewing some exotic shrubs or flowers!

Gathering in the corn and hay crops was a regular job for me during those years. The same bogie was used to transport hay pikes, as they were called in these parts, back to the stackyard, as we used later on for the cereal harvest. There was a chain winch on the front and we would place the extended chain around the base of a hay pike, having tilting the tipping bogie with its sharpened wooden tray at the pike base. Winding in the chain would gradually slide the pike onto the bogie, and it was then roped on for the journey back to the farm. This had to well done as the fields were like a rolling sea after many years of ploughing and cultivation to develop the rig-and-furrow drainage on this heavy land.

So when we drove over the field to head home, it was like sailing an ocean yacht! By, but you had to hang on!! Then once on the road we would steadily drive along the village roads, exchanging varying remarks with villagers as we passed by them. I recall that it always seemed to be a race against time or the weather. The tractor had no lights on it, so we had to gather as many loads as we could before darkness fell, but the weather was an ongoing threat, and it usually started to rain as the last few loads were being collected from the field, giving the operation a lingering aroma of fresh rain on the soil, combined with the sweet scent of coumarin from the hay, or the characteristic aromas of dried wheat, barley or oats.

Returning to those harvesting days in my memory reminds me of some of the other local farmers we worked with – all great characters. There was one whose farmhouse was right in the village centre, at the Lane Head, and having the "townies" all around him must have plagued him, as he had developed a rather aggressive approach to them by the time I was an active youth. His fields were right next to the house we lived in until moving onto the farm after my grandpa died in 1950, and my young mates and I naturally used the closed-grazed one, with a super hollow in it, to play cowboys and Indians and other youthful games.

Another of his fields was an excellent shortcut to the primary school that I attended, and yet we had make sure that "Wor Jackie" wasn't around before making a dash for it and then out onto the main road and along to school. One day he just happened to be there when three of us were playing and ran after us, so we took off and ran into the back of one friend's home, then out the back door and away through the allotments. He kept on after us apparently, though we never stopped to check for the first mile, but wended our way rapidly though the back lanes of the village until we panted to a halt by the cemetery! He never did catch us that day, but our parents had to tolerate some rather strong remarks on our behalf.

He was well-known among the other farmers for being a bit "stingy" on threshing days, and I recall some of them relating that when they once sat down for lunch they thought they were being served "banana-skin sandwiches" as the bread was rather thinly cut and spread and there was little filling on offer! And another then remarked that the teapot had been filled straight from the hot tap, so the brew wasn't really pleasant… The last I ever heard of this particular farmer was that one day he was ploughing a field with his horse and a swarm of bees settled on them both. He was daft enough to try fighting them off, and ended up in hospital with many stings. I never heard about the fate of the horse but suspect it was more sensible.

The other farmers were far friendlier and we used to help each other when necessary. One farmer was a wiry old guy, of a similar age to my grandpa whose two sons were running their two farms mostly by then. One day we were binding the cereal crop in a field next to theirs, when someone spotted a red fox in the crop. So the old fellow and his son went home quickly and returned with their shotguns, and the son's red setter dog. I was standing watching when the dog suddenly emerged from the corn not too far from the old man – but fortunately far enough for the dog's sake, as he raised his gun and took a shot at what he though was the fox. Well, the sons fairly cursed him for his prompt action – "You daft owld bugga! Thet's the dug, not the bloody fox!"

Yet another village farmers was also a contractor and supplied the machinery and some supervisory manpower during important operations like threshing, baling, spraying crops and the like. Over the years he and his family grew wealthier than most of the other farmers as a result of his initiative in supplying the essential equipment for these important farming jobs, so the farmhouse gradually turned into what the other farmers would describe as a palace.

One of the village tradesmen related to us during a pint-supping evening, that he had a mate who had tiled the contractors' bathroom in recent weeks. This tiler went along to estimate the job and materials needed, and of course he asked the farmer's wife how far she would like the tiles to cover the bathroom walls, bearing in mind that most customers preferred them to be up to "splash height" at about four or five feet. But not this lady. She immediately replied emphatically, "Why, reet up te the top, man!" It raised a good few laughs that night, and made the minds boggle.

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