October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Singlin tornips

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 donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

'Perfect Root Cutter' Turnip Slicer (photo by Don Clegg, 2008)

From the early 1700s, the humble turnip had a major role in Northumberland, and especially the North Tyne and Reded for hundreds of years until plastic wrapped silage came along in the late 1980s. So much horse-drawn machinery had been developed for turnip cultivation starting with the double-winged drill plough to make ridges on top of which the seed was sown. Then after the young plants grew, the sides of the drills and in between them had to be weeded (scuffled) with the horse-drawn scuffler with its range of different blades.

But the one job that could not be mechanised in the 1950s, was thinning the seedlings to give a single plant the opportunity to grow and develop into a prize root that would tek two hands to pull oot. Precision seeding was a far-off dream and something that sounded far ower risky. The emphasis was more on being generous wi the seed incase of a range of disasters.

The job was to “single” the resulting long row of young seedlings by knocking out some and leaving one single plant to grow and develop. So learning to wield a good swan-necked hoe with the dexterity of a broad sword, and keep it sharp with an occasional filing was a necessary part of the Daft Laddie’s trade.

In theory singlin’ was a very simple process. You stood in the bottom of the drill, one back from the row you were about to attack, and with a push and pull action with the blade of the hoe you knocked oot plants that were not wanted, leaving aboot a foot atween them.

It was also important to hoe oot all weeds from the sides of the drill and this was the killer as it slowed up progress if the crop was gay dorty. It was also accepted that in this process you would “fell” each plant, making it faall ower without damaging the delicate stem and roots causing wilting or death. It was a nice steady job iv a mornin’ in late spring or early summer if howin was easy in a clean crop. This was the theory!

Seed rates
But in practice things didn’t alwes woork oot that way. Your problems started if the person who had sown the seed had set ower big a hole in the seed box so the seed came oot ower thick. To be safe, it was easier to go for a heavier seed rate just in case there were any misses - a monstrous sin when the boss looked ower the dyke te see what kind o’ braird there had been. If the “braird” looked thin then ye cud be in for yor pedigree.

A heavy seed rate was alright if ye got on to singlin’ orly and afore the plants grew and wapped themselves aroond each other. Then your patience got rattled as you had ti woork away for ages with the point of the hoe trying to isolate a single plant. Or if that wasn’t achieving results, you had to bend doon and release a single plant with your fingors which held up the person singling ahint ye, stopping the whole gang. Exports didn’t hev to use thor fingors, you were told!

The final catastrophe was when your fiddling aboot failed and there were no plants left to grow because the whole cluster came oot! All you could do then was to find a plant and dibble it in with yor fingers. It looked alright but the plant rarely grew well.

If things on the farm got delayed and there were other things te dee, the singlin’ also got delayed. If it was a wet spell things gat warse because the plants grew like scallions, and so did the weeds. If you were driven to single in the wet and there was nee sun to kill the weeds you had ‘removed’, then all you’d done was to shift the weeds te grow again in a new spot.

Fat-hen and redshank were the main weeds that could be easy killed if howed oot under a nice het sun. But wickens (couch grass) were another story and were the pet hate of anyone singlin’ tornips. All you could do was hack at them, knowing full well that in a week, all the roots you had chopped up would be back in action again with their one desire to chowk whatever was in their way. Nature had designed them for just this job.

Hopefully the boss had chosen a nice haugh with sandy soil for the turnips where you could hoe at a nice steady walking pace. But if the crop rotation had landed you on some stony grund, then speed would be greatly reduced. The only positive thing was that there would be plenty staenes to bray your hoe on to knock the clarts off on wet days.

Singlin’ mangels had extra challenges, as this plant had a complex seed with many individual seeds in the same capsule. These were the days before rubbed seed required for precision seeding. So the little mangel plants were very prone to strangling each other –slowing up the job of singlin’.

Singlin’ tornips was great if you got help, maybe from some old retainers or folk from the village. It helped the morale no end. Working in a close relay across the field with hoes almost in unison was a great sight, and the cracking was always good, especially on a Monday morning after the weekend’s analysis of social happenings in the village and “whee’d been seen wi whee”!

Saturday mornings were gud an’all, discussing prospects for the dance that night. Stopping for a rest was allowed at the end of the row, but we Daft Laddies were always grateful for the pipe smokers in the team who could rightly claim a stop to refill and light their pipes. This of course was never a simple job and took many manoeuvres that we studied carefully for later mimicry.

Filling the pipe
There was the dismantling of the pipe, the two or three blaas doon the shank to remove accumulated juice, maybe the search for a suitable strraa on the heedland to clear any solid blockage. The sourcing and careful cutting of the baccy from the pooch. The fillin’, tampin’ doon, trial lightings needing at least 5-6 matches that went oot afore she teuk haad, then finally the testing few draas and maybe prospects of a repeat of some of these stages. If satisfactory combustion failed, then a rescue action was to insert the blade of your pocket knife doon the side of the pipe bowl to ease the baccy if you had owerdone the possin’.

You could see at least a good 10 minutes spent on this ritual. If you were a non-smoker of course, it didn’t look good if the boss keeked ower the dyke an’ there you were dein’ nowt while you waited for owld Jim te git his pipe gannin’. And of course anyone smoking Woodbines could in no way claim such time oot.

But it was a great feelin’ when you could make away haeme with your how ower yor shooder having singled the last drill, and knowin’ you wadn’t be back in the field until it was time te pull them up afore the frosts got ower bad. Ye might be asked to dee a bit of scuffling but that would usually be the hind’s job when you were away dein’ more menial tasks like sortin’ oot pike ropes.

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