Farming in the North Pennine Dales
By Eric Wilson
In a bad season – weatherwise that is, the “good hay” previously mentioned came at a premium in the Dales. Farmers faced long hard hours of labour tossing the stuff about, hoping the black clouds were heading away from the hay field and that the dew would not fall before the sun set and the boss had to let you go home!
At such a time it could finish up as bad hay. Apart from all the family being engaged with short hay forks and wooden hay rakes, the machine that could save the day was the “strewer”, or tedder, made by W.N.Nicholson of Newark.
Originally with shafts for the horse and later with tractor drawbar, this machine was pretty drastic in its treatment of the hay. It was also pretty drastic on the poor horse as it was a heavy drag. The rows of spring tines on a revolving drum picked up the crop and flung it up (strewed it) to the high heavens in an endeavor to aerate it and move it to fresh dry ground. If hay lay too long in one place it “damped up” and took up moisture from the ground so that the process had to start all over again.
A “good” Dales summer weatherwise was very hard to define, because it could be sunny and dry on one side of the hill and raining on the other. However, occasionally the Dales were blessed with a good haytime, when a bit of planning could be indulged in instead of the usual panic about the weather and when the rain would arrive.
Certain fields could be cut when decreed to be at their best, weathered for as long as it took, then out with the swath turner. This was an ingenious device that looked like two giant metal spiders that revolved when the machine was towed down the line of the cut swathes. Each spider driven by cogs from the land wheels flicked over the thick end of the swath that had been created by the swath-board of the mower. These machines were made by Blackstone from Lincolnshire.
Unfortunately those responsible for increasing the length of the cutter bar to five feet when tractors came in, didn’t realise the swath turners were too narrow to cope with two wider swaths. But when everything fitted, and a nice sunny day to boot, it was a treat to watch the faithful Dales pony turning swaths at what seemed to be a pace to suit the occasion, and without much guidance from the driver on the seat. Also the tools needed could stay in the toolbox as there was little stress on the machine.
The other implement usually used in the pre-tractor days was the horse hay rake. This was about 8 feet wide as I recall with a cast-iron seat and the maker’s name cast into the sit-on part. Comfort was not necessarily a consideration, and although it was shaped to fit the average posterior, any additional refinement was achieved by adding a folded-up meal sack or using a large handful of soft dry hay free of thistles.
The hay rake consisted of a number of curved tines on a frame which had large iron-spoked wheels at each end. The tines were tripped either by pulling on a handle at the appropriate moment, or if the machine was a “self tipper”, kicking a foot lever which engaged a pawl in a notch in the wheel so that the wheel’s momentum tripped the tines. This saved the big effort of pulling on the lever while moving. All you did was kick the lever and wait till the handle came back into your waiting hand. So easy!
The purpose of the horse rake was to gather the hay into a “windrow” so that it could be swept into heaps by the hay-sweep to form pikes, somewhere near the site where the stack would be made.
But soon a combination machine known as a “swath turner and side delivery rake” superceded both the swath turner and the hay rake. This was a frame and wheels carrying two large discs that were spaced laterally to suit the width between swaths, and offset one behind the other. Long-tined bars connected the two discs at four mounting points on each disc and each bar carried a number of tines for turning the hay.
When turning swaths, a centre section of each tine bar was removed so that each disc turned a separate swath. But the sections could be refitted to make one windrow from two swaths, always provided the centre sections could be found and had not been included in the last load of hay!
The next great departure from the norm arrived on the scene in the shape of the finger-wheel rake. It took some time to catch on, as it had no means of propulsion apart from the contact between the fingers on the wheel and the crop lying on the ground. This concept was not easy for farmers to grasp so we had to arrange demonstrations at various venues around the Dales.
The machines were developed by a Dutch firm called Vicon and sold under licence by the Blanch company in UK. Vicon joined with Lely and the machines were sometimes referred to as a Vicon Lely.
I remember the first demonstration I attended with the firm’s representatives in attendance. Well, the finger wheels revolved all right, but instead of the tines picking up the crop they just combed neatly through it and barely disturbed a blade of grass.
A startling discovery was then made by the firm’s mechanic who had just come along with the rep for a ride out, and no doubt to sample the brew at a few local North country inns. The tines were all fitted the wrong way round at the negative angle. So this effectively defeated any positive ideas the designers may have had when they dreamed up the idea.
My boss Sid Dipton was livid. He had recklessly ordered six of these new machines to get the quantity discount, five of them still in their crates. The demonstration was a disaster and the possibility of a sales bonanza was rapidly receding, accompanied by the smirks and grins of the other dealers who had turned up to watch and pick faults.
The outcome was that after a frantic phone call by the rep to the factory to warn them of the situation, the machines were returned to our workshop where the task of changing round about 2000 tines was discussed on the machines we had bought.
Needless to say the boss delivered an ultimatum. It was Friday and none of our staff were keen to spend the weekend on such a monotonous job. So he just told the rep – “Fix it or take them away”! Someone did lend them some tools and come Monday morning, two weary-looking company men emerged – after a late breakfast, to announce that all the tines had been turned round. We took them at their word as they had sticking plaster on their fingers to prove it!
The next demonstration proved to the farmer and his staff that the machine did work, and with others of similar design, they became very popular over the next few years. This type however was rather too big and unwieldy for the upland farms but before long they were catered for also with the advent of the Fahr Centipede and another similar machine from Melotte. But the one that really caught the imagination was the Vicon Acrobat, also a finger-wheel rake, but with four reels and longer more flexible tines.
This was a mounted machine, meaning it was fitted to the hydraulic linkage of the tractor, and did not have any wheels on the ground. It was eminently suited to those who had invested in a hydraulically equipped tractor. Hydraulics and power-drive shafts were rapidly becoming standard equipment on tractors and fortunately some standardisation was established in shaft sizes, either one and one eighth inches, or one and three eighth inches for the splined drive shafts, or what were known as category 1 or category 2 linkage pins. The larger size eventually became the norm.
One of the big drawbacks of operating machinery in the Dales was the narrow gateways, flanked by two stone gate posts that would not have looked out of place in Stonehenge! At either side of these monsters was a dry-stone wall.
Eventually the gateways had to be widened as the cutting and drying of the grass became a faster operation and more farmers were encouraged to “get the baler in”. They were also being persuaded by the younger generation who attended the Young Farmers’ Clubs and were becoming knowledgeable about the mechanical side of farming.