Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.
By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg
One thing guaranteed to lift the heart of anyone workin’ lowse or hired for the hay, was to knaa that the farm had some decent rakes and forks. This was because so much of haytime was handwork which could start with turning sweathes, kilin’, shekin’ oot, rekilin, rakin’ trails, pikin’, dressin’ doon pikes and stacks - and a whole lot more skills.
Even we Daft Laddies could appreciate what these experts and the resident hinds were on aboot. These connoisseurs of hand tools could rave on for hours about rakes and forks they'd met, while at the same time filling their pipes – a job ye’ll appreciate that could not be hurried.
These tales always started with the words - "Aye Aa mind the time Aa was hired at the So & So!” If this statement coincided with the baccy pooch cumin’ oot then you knew it was going to be a while before work resumed! That ‘threatnin’ shooer’ cumin doon the valley’ would just have to wait! We Daft Laddies didn’t mind this legitimate rest period, as it provided great material for our mimicking performances later.
While working as a daft laddie at the Demesne farm in Bellingham for many summers in the 1950s, I (CD) well remember a fork called "Tommy Hedley". It had been left by the Hedleys when the Beatties took the farm and it was revered, especially for forking corn. It had fine prongs, a smooth supple ash shank and was the Stradivarius of forks.
And oh man! One day helping at a threshin’ at the Reenes I broke the shank, forkin’ lowse oats and peas and trying to break some Daft Laddie record for stupidity! That horror still haunts me because the new shank from the Northern Farmers could never be the same! When I relate me sins to St Peter (or more likely Owld Nick), top of the list will be that "Aa brok Tommy Hedley"!
Rakes and forks
Rakes and forks were like fiddles in a way. Some played well, some canny and some were just plain numb. You could spend hours selecting a strite-grained shank but when you'd had it for a week or so, it was still not the Strad you'd been hoping for. You could get an owld fashioned waltz oot o' them, but they were hopeless for a hornpipe!
But hidden away up the North Tyne was a family that made the Strads of hayrakes! To find them you had to travel up to Lanehead on Norman's bus and knock on Weightman’s door. They were respected joiners and undertakers and used to make a tremendeous hay rake. The head, with 14 teeth nicely spaced and angled, was made of ash. The bow, a critical part for strength was also of ash. These bows were bent with steam and not cut so the long grain gave added strength.
The length of the ash teeth was critical to get a nice bite when pulled through the hayfield stubble, and the little chamfer on the end was an important touch to stop you getting catched in holes, mowdy hills and bull snoots. The angle they were set into the head was a very clever refinement too for efficient raking.
The long, 71-inch shank made of straight-grained pitch pine was a lovely feature, because in certain movements you delicately threw the rake forward to cover as much grund as possible before drawing it back. The shank was flattened and tapered to enter the head then squared off for the bow to go through, after which it was shaped not round but slightly oval. Now that was also a clever touch, as this was easier on the hands and gave a better grip, especially when racing to dodge that shooer cumin’ doon the valley.
But the overall pleasure of a Weightman's rake was its "balance" - a thing hard to describe but lovely to experience. A bit like a good dance partner for a polka! The rake was an instrument for the real craftsman who could make it sing and was the combination of lightness and strength that was the key, because a hand rake got a lot of use and abuse.
One minute you may be drawing in hay over rough ground rakin’ trails, and the next minute dressin’ doon the sides of a pike with great meaty whelts. Then you could even be rakin’ back heavy wet grass from in front of the cutter bar when mowing a laid crop, but it was best to use a very old rake for this as many a Daft Laddie managed by ower zealous rakin te git the mower to cut some teeth off! This practice was aaful hard on rakes.
On farms where grass was cut by a single-horse reaper with a three-foot cutter bar, the hay was often turned by hand rake before they had a horse drawn turner. It was here that you really appreciated a quality rake with good balance as you made rapid strokes, lifting the thick end of the sweeth over towards you while walking quickly forward in unison with others in the gang. It was a great job until your hands got covered in blushes!
We Daft Laddies used to spend time on wet days tryin’ te fettle broken rakes. It was always a botch of a job as you could never get them back owt near their pristine state. Milly Dagg of Stannersburn and Lawrence Dagg of the Hott remember the cost of a rake would be around twenty five shillings. If ye hev one lyin’ aboot, then contact the Bellingham Heritage Centre - urgently. They'll tek yor hand off and gie ye twenty five bob!