October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Aye, the corn’s riddy

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton & Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

Matthew and Lawrence Dagg of Hott Farm cutting a nice crop of oats in 'the square field' in 1959 waiting to be stooked.

When the boss came back from the hill and made the pronouncement that the corn was riddy, the Daft Laddie instinctively knew the full implications. It was time to help the hind git the binder oot.

There was always an air of excitement about this event as another whole seasonal ritual was about to unfold - the cuttin’, stookin’, leadin’, and then stackin’ and thaekin’ (thatching). The threshin’ was a winter task so it was a long way ahead. The corn harvest was an opportunity for the hind to show his skills and the daft laddie to larn aall he cud if he had any aspirations at all of being a skilled hind one day.

“Corn” was the general term for cereals, although in the North Tyne and Rede this was always oats and barley. Wheat was only grown in wartime. When oats were cut the grain had to be like cheese and the strraa still a bit green just bellaa the heed. With barley the grain had to be hard like flint.

So the call was - "Howay lad, inte the Gin-Gan and git the bindor oot". This was a tricky job. First you shifted all the other machines like the scuffler and corn drill that hemmed in the binder, as this circular building which formerly housed the Gin-Gan or horse-driven threshing mill made a useful, but gay akwaad implement shed.

The Daft Laddie's first job was to clean the hen muck, Guinea fowl and turkey muck off the binder, as many preferred it’s high safe roost to the hen hoose until they gat a gliff from a visiting fox!. There might also be the odd deed rat or two and endless odds and ends that you’d stored on the binder as they were easy to lay your hand on.

The binder
The binder was dragged oot inte the stackyard where the hind checked hor varrious paerts and fettled owt that was brokken. Key parts were the "fannors" that rotated slowly and gently pushed the standing corn back towards the cutter bar. Then there were the "beators", boards that shaped the butt end of the sheaf and were slanted and not cut off at right angles. Needing a de-rust and oil, the jewel in the crown was the knottor. This consisted of an ingenious pair of little jaws, like your thumb sitting on your first two fingers, that grabbed the string as it flew across in the needle, twisted it and tied the knot around the sheaf just like clockwork. The secret was to get them polished like new so the string slipped off cleanly after the knot was tied. It generally took a few roonds of the field afore this happened.

The two extra-lang binder cutter bar knives were extracted from their wooden covers and sharped with the file – tekkin grate care not to cut yor fingors. Then the precious canvasses were browt doon from the rafters in the barn where they had been stored, and checked for damage. You prayed the rats hadn't chowed them or that none of the laths or leather adjustment straps were broken or chowed, otherwise you had a trip to the sadlers.

The canvasses were crucial. The cut stalks fell back on to a canvass on the deck of the binder and then were carried up between two other canvasses until enough corn was accumulated to trip the knotter and two rotating forks threw out the sheaf.

Always old machines
A funny thing is that we never saw a new binder - they were like family heirlooms and had passed from owner to owner at farm sales up and doon the valley. A Mr McCormack invented the self-tying binder in 1878 and some of the North Tyne and Rede models looked contemporaries of his original! By our day they had all been fitted with a tractor towbar although a few folk still yoked a pair of horses. They were not an easy drag for horses.

Once we got hor oiled and greased up, off we went to the field, the binder traveling in a sideways direction on her small, cast-iron travelling wheels. Once in the field she was let doon with a screw handle on tiv hor land wheel which drove the workin’ parts. The fannors were all fitted with their nuts and bolts, the canvasses buckled up and checked for tightness, and we all quietly prayed as Harry Ferguson or Henry Ford took the strain that Mr McCormick's wonder machine wad had tigithor.

Oh the music, man of the chains meshing on the cogs in concert with the rattle of the knife, the clapping of the beattors, the smack and bang as the needle flew, the knottors zapped and two forks did a circuit and despatched another perfectly tied sheaf on te the grund. When she was gannin’ bonnie wi nivor a louse sheaf, it was just like the soond of a good hornpipe. But ye had te keep yor lugs cocked and yor eyes open, and at the fist soond of owt not normal to shoot WOW!

Opening out the field
The cornfield was often oppen'd oot all around by mowing a width with the scythe, hand tying sheaves and standing them up against the dyke. They were always muckle ugly sheaves and nowt as tidy as Mr McCormick’s. If you were pushed for time you could oppen oot wi' the bindor and then come back the other way to pick up the corn you had flattened as with cutting hay. In this case the Daft Laddie had to pick the sheaves oot o' the dyke forst as they would sartainly bung up the machine. By heck you didn't dare miss one or you got your lugs chowed!

After a few roonds of cuttin’, the stookin’ could start. Here you worked in pairs in the opposite direction to the binder with the butt ends or hint ends of the sheaves facing you. You went alang the rows hikin up a sheaf under each arm with the knot on the outside, so the butts would be sit correctly when you set the sheaves doon.

You just let the sheaves slide doon your body and dadded their hint ends nicely on the grund to make them stand by leaning them against each other. Your partner did the same and you leaned your pair against his (or hors!).

The next pair you picked up went on the end of the first two, and leaned in a bit (but not ower much) as they all had to stand independently when finished te let the breeze blaa through. You placed the stooks in a direction to get most sun and to exploit the prevailing wind.

Barley was always shorter than oats (which could be man-high in some years) but the barley awns were a menace as they could get into aall kinds of embarassin’ places! But thistles were the prize hate and some crops were more thistles than corn. If things were really bad you could stook a thistly crop with forks - but that was something you kept quiet aboot in the village. The boss didn't want that kind of news gittin’ aboot and wearing gloves was a sure sign of weakness unless you were in the Women’s Land Army.

The cut out
We always leuked forrard te the fun at the cut-oot. This usually occurred in the late afternoon if nowt amaest had gaen wraang, and by then the news had spread to the village. Often a crowd would land hoping to be in at the kill for the rabbits. The bank manager would arrive with his dog and gun, and given a clear area to cover on his own for obvious reasons. The rest would stand guard with sticks waiting for the escaping rabbits. The odd fox always created a tally-ho or two. Many of the hunters stayed on and helped finish the stooking and mebbe for a bite o’ supper. The crackin’, leg pullin’, a few barley awns doon an attractive cleavage, and mebbe a bit o’ village scandal was aalwes good te help the job alang.

The combine harvester
But then one day, news arrived that stunned us all. No, not that Bellingham had beaten Wark, but that George Richardson at the Riding had gittin’ his corn done wi' yen o' them new-fangled combine harvestors from doon Matfen way. It cut and thrrashed at the saem time so the corn went strite inte bags. The whole blowed job's daen i’ the one go, man. What else could you say but “Nivvor ‘i the mind o’ man!”

The laddie's eyes sparkled, but the boss assured him that the price te git it dun was far ower deaor, and in any caese the strraa’s brayed te bits when it cums oot the arse end o' the machine, and its nee geud for nowt but beddin’. It’s sartainly nee geud for thaekin’, he declared.

And you have to agree that there were few more pleasurable sights at the end of a lang day with the moon just starting to rise, than a field of neatly stooked corn. And Mr McCormack’s wonder machine neatly sheeted up in the corner waiting for the next declaration that the corn’s riddy.

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