November 1, 2008

Northumbrian milking machine tales: Traps for young players

Byres, hemmels, shippons and mistles - milking machine tales
by Jack Dent (2005)

I started for the Simplex Milking Machine Company in February 1952 and was designated a “Service Inspector” which meant visiting farms over a wide area fitting new milking machines. At that time most of the herds were between 10 and 20 cows and farmers were making a decent living from those numbers.

I stayed on the farm for about three days while installing the machines; some were good and some I couldn’t get away from fast enough. Some are still friends with half a century on. I also met some “canny lasses”!

As to the buildings themselves, they varied quite a lot from Northumberland byres, Yorkshire Dales “hemmels”, West Yorkshire “shippons” and East Yorkshire “mistles” while up in the hills they were usually called “cow’ouses”!

On the low better land, buildings were nearly always brick and were easy to knock holes though their walls, except if they were on big estates when they were built with “engineering bricks” and were a day’s work getting a two-inch hole through for the vacuum pipe. These bricks were of Victorian origin and through some process in their firing ended up being extremely hard.

The stone walls in buildings up the Dales were a very different matter. It wasn’t simply a case of taking stones out to make the hole for the pipe. Oh no, after a few near disasters I learned to weigh up the enemy, i.e. the wall, and it’s structure built by cunning old masons centuries before. Each stone carried the weight of its neighbours and if I pulled one out, there was likely to be a rumble and I’d end up in a lot of dust (from the lime plaster before cement was invented) and with no wall.

I only had this happen to me once and I didn’t do it. I was being “helped” by one of those farmers who knew everything there was to know about everything, and when I told him not to be too enthusiastic about removing stones from the wall, he told me that the wall had stood for hundreds of years and would be standing long after I had gone. He wasn’t quite accurate! When I heard the first slight rumble, I was gone, and the wall didn’t stand long after my departure. It came down around the farmer and he was left standing on a stepladder with a new view of his farm from his byre.

So the best advice for getting a vacuum pipe through a stone wall was that of hedgehogs making love – the job needs to be done very carefully.

Once I was fitting a new machine away up in Wensleydale and I was working on my own as all the farm staff were in the hayfield. It was about half past two on a nice summer’s day – ideal for haymaking.

I was standing on a three-legged milking cracket (stool), and carefully taking out small stones form inside the wall, when without any warning, one of the throughstones (large flat stones that tie the wall together) slipped and fell sideways trapping my wrist. My arm was at full stretch and I could not move it in any direction.

The cracket, (as crackets were prone to be), was very precarious and any movement on my part was likely to topple the blessed thing and I would have been left suspended by my wrist. I spent a very uncomfortable afternoon stuck in the hole until the men came in from the hayfield. In the way of what usually happens when someone else’s discomfort is witnessed, it was several seconds before they perceived the danger I was in, and were able to stop laughing and release me.

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