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 and Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Every farm had its selection of everyday hand tools. They were nowt flash, purely utilitarian, weel-worn and heavy duty. Most were heirlooms handed doon through the generations – like great granda Robson’s pinch bar (bent a bit through trying to lever a muckle staen gate post), Uncle Bill’s mowdy spade, Jack fra’ Peaty Burn’s best aix. This was the one that’s had two new heeds and three fresh shanks!
No tools were new and most seemed to have been on the farm from when Hadrian built his wall. They came from farm sales or from the twice-yearly ‘term’ sales when traditionally, farm workers flitted from one job to the next. Although the practice of flittin’ has stopped, the term sales were still held in May and November and many’s the bargain lot purchased at these sales –or so folk thought! “A whole box of assorted bits and pieces for only 2 shilleen! Man, Aa cuddn’t resist it! It torned oot to be five links of roosty chine, two bent spannors with holes to fit aall sizes of nuts, a brokken hammor shank and two chipped mugs wi’ nee hannels!”
Spades, spits, ritters, hacks, turnip knives, hedge knives, fencing pliers, hammers, axes, saws, braces and bits, augers, all had their uses at some time in the farming year. Rarely, however, were they given the TLC offered by tradesmen to their tools. The regular sharpening, the loving caress with an oily rag, the careful storing in a fancy cabinet or tool kist were not for the likes of these rustic (and rusty) country cousins.
The scythe, being in fairly regular use for mowing an armful of fresh grass for the calves, opening oot the dyke backs in the hay field or corn field, and keeping the nettles and thristles at bay in the stack yard or paddock, was probably sharpened more often than the rest. A few practised strokes with the sharpening stone was all that was required to put a keen edge on the blade, an art that some laddies nivor larned.
The ritter, tornip knife, hedge knife and axe were used much less frequently and suffered accordingly. They got sharpened as and when it was absolutely necessary. The ritter, a big spade used for draining was given a good sharp with a flat file before operations commenced then at frequent intervals as the work progressed. After that it was back inte the caert shed ye go! The tornip knife was never so fortunate. The theory was that if it was ower sharp it was likely to take a fingor or two off alang wi’ the tornip tops! A quick wipe with the file every five years or so was deemed plenty.
There were usually at least two aixes on the farm. The smaller one was meant for the kindlin’ and as the choppin’ block was often the concrete floor of the shed it was usually as blunt as a bittle. “Ye could ride te London on’t!” It was used for all sorts of jobs apart from choppin’ sticks. It came in gey handy as a wedge, from time to time and it could be used to bray in 4 inch nails and to bend over the two inches that came right through the wood. Anything that a hammer could do (except pull nails), the aix could double for. Nee wonder it aalways had that weel-used, battered look!
The big fellin’ axe was even more versatile and in addition to performin aall the duties of a hammer and a mell, it was used to put points on fence posts, chop doon an offending hawthorn tree in the field hedge, split the owld ash trunk into manageable slices for the salmon-belly crosscut saa to log up, and it was even used to deliver the coup de grace at pig killin’ time. Because of its specialist duties, this axe was accorded the honour of a proper sharpen.
Almost every farm would have a grindstone or whetstone, in the form of a huge sandstone wheel mounted on a spindle and set in a solid wooden frame usually in the stackyard. Sizes varied from 18 inches diameter to up to 4 feet and they were between three and five inches wide. The simplest were turned by hand and had waator poowred ower them oot of a baked bean tin while a second person held the tool being sharpened. It was gey monotonous work and it was always the laddie that got to caa the handle. It was hoped it would knock sum o’ the daftnee oot o’ his heed!
Posh grindstones ran in a shallow trow of water and were turned by means of a foot treadle which meant that the sharpening could be managed by one man. Inevitably, sandstone being sandstone, and laddies being laddies, these wheels often got cowped, accidentally so had muckle lumps and chunks knocked oot of their edgees.
This made sharpening much more of a skill than ever through having to lift the tool up every time a notch came round. When the laddie found that he needed three hands and fower feet to keep the wheel turning, to pour waator on and avoid the gaps in the edge all at the same time, he would often give up and resort to the file to finish the job. He had to wrap his hankie aroond the file’s metal handle where there was once a nice wooden one.
Probably the bit of gear that got the best treatment was the reaper knife. There was nowt warse than a blunt knife, especially when the grass was deed i’ the bottom. A rive-up in the middle of the first brick of the day due to a blunt knife was guaranteed to make the boss explode in a haze of blue smoke, to invent a whole new vocabulary and a face ‘as reed as a heather bush in August’.
The hind, or even if he was weel in wi’ the boss, the Daft Laddie would spend an hour or more lovingly filing each edge of the triangular sections to a razor sharpness, remembering to lift the file off each stroke to aye file away from ye. And when he’d finished, he’d give everything a good squart with the oilcan. The spare knife too got the full treatment and was then placed carefully into its protective wooden sleeve and tied up with binder twine.
A measure of the high value placed on this operation was that every two or three years, the boss would lash oot on a new file if he hadn’t been able to find some (worse than the ones he had) at a farm sale! “Buying new” was unheard of in any other sphere of tool maintenance and a very verylast resort. The original knife was put back in the cutter bar ready for use the minute the boss said, “Right lads, yoke up the reapor. We’ll hev the square field cut forst an’ if it luks cleor up the Tyne, we’ll get strite inte the Glebe and flatten it as weel!” Whew man- decisions, decisions! It would sum lang days aheed so we’d thank God for darkness!