September 30, 2008

Wartime on a Tyneside farm

By Dr Deric Charlton
Image of Ryton's East Grange Farm taken by the Town Surveyor J.P. Dalton in 1900 from the iSee Gateshead collection, a magnificent resource of photos for anyone interested in Northumbrian history.

I wasn't have been much more than three years old when the farm workers developed my vocabulary by coaching me into using their rather strong language – which really riled my grandma the day that I first called her a "daft bugga"! The inquisition that quickly ensued soon revealed had taught me, and though I'm not sure of their fate, I know that their lessons went into my long-term memory and have been used since on certain occasions!

The farm staff soon expanded to include two German prisoners-of-war, who were really nice people, I recall. They must have been the Laurel and Hardy of the German Army, as Paul was tall and very thin and hailed from East Germany, while Hermann was from West Germany. Others replaced them but they never held the same place in my memory as these two did. They never taught me any German swearwords but I can well remember Hermann demonstrating a knowledge of gymnastics by hanging upside down on his feet from a beam way above the hay in the hay barn – but he never encouraged me to try the same trick!

My father's cousin also came to work on the farm, as well as having some fields just across the road from the farm, and he was a very solemn, humourless and serious person. But Tom had inner visions, and it wasn't long after he first met the Land Army girl Hilda, that he was courting her in the byres and hemmel, much to the glee of my young mates and me! They were soon married and lived happily in Ryton. Tom's father ran a coal delivery service in Ryton all his life, and I remember that he died in his mid-70s but never saw the sea, although he lived only 20 miles away from it all his days.

They never ventured far in those day; but my Grandpa did, as I can recall him taking me with him on one occasion to collect some malted barley from the famous Newcastle Brewery that lay seven miles to the east of Ryton, along the famous Scotswood Road that is immortalised in the Geordie anthem "The Blaydon Races". This was a route I would later travel many times during my school days in Newcastle, but I guess that my trip with Grandpa Charlton to collect the brewer's grain for cattle feed was one of the first that I ever did along that route.

We set off with a sturdy Clydesdale pulling a high-sided cart and clip-clopped our way down the long steady slope to Blaydon, only three miles along the road into Newcastle. We rode on over the "chain bridge" that crossed the River Tyne and then along past another three miles of the Vickers Armstrong factory complex that was constructing naval units to help us beat the Germans at sea. Well we eventually reached the brewery and I became heady with the intoxicating fumes from the malted barley – it smelled heaps better than anything I had smelled in the cow byres or pigsty! No wonder the cows liked eating it!!

After we had stacked the cart full of the soggy meal-like material we set off home again, just as a steady rain began to fall. My grandpa hadn't thought to bring any rain wear with us so I was rather soaked by the time we reached home in the dark, and he received both barrels of my grandma's tongue as a welcome home, and was probably sent off to bed without any dinner.

The farmhouse was a large limestone house with five bedrooms, so the farm worker then employed was allocated the room right above the front door, while the POWs went back to camp every evening. Now I was part of quite a large family, and had three aunts and an uncle who regularly met their parents in the farm kitchen and sat around the long whitewood table eating and arguing among themselves well into the wee small hours. I remember one night, when the family members were all arguing and the farm worker, who had been enjoying himself in one of the village pubs along the road, returned somewhat "under the weather".

Of course my grandma sent him off to bed, and the poor feller must have been scared to leave his bedroom after that, even to relieve himself. It wasn't too long until the family broke up to go to their respective homes, and one of my aunts put out her hand at the front door, to check whether it was raining or not, and reported that it was – and then that the rain had suddenly stopped! Well, someone soon realised what the "rain" was and the poor farm worker moved on to pastures new shortly afterwards.

The farm was a mixed farm of just over a hundred acres, a lot like all the others near the city sprawl that Newcastle and its suburbs were then (and still are), and my grandpa farmed dairy cows, pigs, hens and ducks and grew cereals and potatoes as well as having some beef cattle, so I soon learned a lot about all these enterprises. He used Clydesdale horses for the major farming operations and these were great to work with and always a pleasure to behold. Our home field had a limestone block on its upper slope, standing over six feet tall and was hewn into a square post, and it was a dual-purpose memento for these horses as it served as a gravestone for several, with "Daisy, Dragon and Chestnut" and dates carved in it from the last century, and it also served as a very useful itching post for them!

The dairy cows were all sorts, as my grandfather could never resist a bargain at Hexham Market on Tuesdays, and he used to come home with some unusually looking cows. Each cow had its own place in the limestone cow byres, and each had a flower name (Daisy, Buttercup and many others), and at milking time, they made their way in from the home field and found their place, and whoever milked them had to tie a sturdy chin around their necks and then give them some oats or turnip chips while they were being hand-milked.

One day, when I was still a primary school lad, I had helped to bring the cows in for their evening milking. After all the cows had walked into the two byres, I ventured in to tie up a long-horned Ayrshire cow, and she suddenly turned and flicked me with her horn, catching me right in the stomach. Luckily for me the doorway was right behind, and I sailed through the air and landed in the well-filled midden with a plop and only a red weal on my stomach. Her shot was perfect – only a foot each way and I would have bounced against the two-foot thick wall, which would have been a little harder than the midden – but it wouldn't have given me a long-lasting aftershave, before they even invented aftershaves!

Yet another vivid memory was the day I wandered "doon the yard" and found my father and his cousin castrating young bull calves. They looked up and saw me watching them and then told me that I was next for the operation. Well, my education wasn't well advanced at the time, but I do remember probably breaking the mile world record well ahead of Roger Banister as I hurriedly departed the farmyard that day. They never did catch me, fortunately…

Those were the days when almost everything on the farm was horse-powered, even tough my grand-parents were the proud owners of a large Morris car, which I recall had multi-coloured glass windows and was kept in a red wooden garage that always looked as though it was about to collapse. One day my grandpa and grandma were going out, another daft laddie mate and I decided to try out our latest trick. A farm worker had shown us that when you catch and hold a hen towards you, and tuck it's head under its wing, and then whirl it around for up to five minutes, it becomes dizzy (understandable!) and when you place it on the ground, it thinks it is nighttime and stays as though it was sleeping.

So my mate and I quickly caught about a dozen hens and performed our hypnotic act on them so that when my grandpa came out, he found a guard-of-honour on either side of the garage door! Naturally, he quickly went back in to warn his dear wife, who then came storming out, only to find the hens walking around the farmyard as though nothing was amiss – as we had hurriedly flicked out their heads and they had realised it was still daytime… We weren't the ones to receive a tongue lashing that day.

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