December 5, 2009

Daft Laddie tales - Howkin tornups

The Northumbrian art and craft of harvesting (howkin) turnips

By Donald Clegg

A field full of memories
There’s a field in the Upper North Tyne that I pass almost daily as I travel to and from my home near Kielder Water. As soon as I see it, memories take me back almost 60 years and I hear myself telling a phantom passenger – ‘Aye, Aa mind the wintor when me and owld Andy pulled 15 raas o’ tornups there afore dinner time’.

In those days the field wasn’t the serene, green pasture that it is today, or even the acres of golden corn that it had also been in past years. In my day, it was a vast expanse of frozen clarts (mud), encrusted with row upon row of giant turnips.

It was very important for farmers to grow their best crops in fields next to the road where they could be viewed by locals with eagle eyes and big gobs, passing by in the bus and train. Both Norman’s bus and the Riccarton-Hexham-Newcastle railway went past Tarset Hall farm.

Townshend’s historic brassica
The turnip –that wonderful brassica, was changed in the Middle Ages from a miserable spindly plant into a fat nutritious store of carbohydrates, sugars and water, by the famous agriculturist ‘Turnip Townshend’ (1674-1738). (See later).

Daft Laddie at Tarset Hall
The first turnips I encountered must have been ancestors of some of Townshend’s best as they were the size of footballs (regulation size 5). I on the other hand, was a 16-year-old Daft Laddie, 5 foot 7inches from end to end, and weighing in at 9 stone no pounds. I didn’t yet realise what a struggle was in store for me!

My parents were both teachers. Father was head teacher at Rochester Church of England Primary School and mother was too busy looking after her four bairns to be available to teach. Incidentally, she came from a long established farming family in Lincolnshire, so perhaps farming was in the genes.

I had only just arrived at Tarset Hall as the hired Daft Laddie straight from school to work for tenant farmer Andy Davidson. I had no farming background but a deep desire to be part of the countryside around me.

At Tarset Hall I was paid £3 per week plus bed and board, working from 7am on Monday until 12 noon on Saturday. ‘Lowse’ (finishing time) each day was not specified. I got Saturday afternoon off to do what Daft Laddie’s did in those days, like hing aboot heame and then at night gan te the local dance. Sunday was to recuperate in preparation for another week, and gan te chorch te clear me sins of the previous yin.

Local names
Back to the ‘tornups’. Technically turnips with green tops are referred to as ‘turnips’ or sometimes ‘soft turnips’, as they have whitish flesh and don’t keep as long. If they have purple tops they are swedes (developed in Sweden would you believe) which are much harder and keep longer. We kids soon learned the difference between green turnips and purple-topped swedes when we crept into a field to pinch one to eat raw. The swedes were always much sweeter.

On the farm 60 years ago they had many names. They were either tornups, swedes, neeps, tumshies, snadgers or bagies, depending on which valley or even village you came from. Farmers grew them mainly for pulling to be fed to cattle that were either tied up in byres or run lowse in hemmels during winter.

Chopping turnips for stock
To prevent them rotting from regular freezing if left in the field, they had to be protected by carting as many as possible of the biggest ones inside, or putting them in a long pit at the side of the field.

Only the small rubbish would be left to be grazed off by sheep, usually the keeping hoggs that had to be grown out well or any kept for sale in the fat market.

Once inside turnips were chopped up in a rotating mincer into small ‘fingors’ (fingers) for sheep prior to lambing, to supplement their diet of hay and a bit cake. Young cattle like calves would be fed this size turnips.

For older cattle turnips were cut into slices with a guillotine-like chopper. These bigger bits were safer for cattle as they were less likely to ‘chowk’ on a piece.

Turnip choppers were great devices for getting you warmed up, as was the exercise needed to carry the ‘swill’ (basket) full to the brim from the chopper to each pair of cows in the byre, or into a big trough in the hemmel.

So the bigger the turnips grown in the field, the fewer there were to handle. Driven by this simple commercial requirement, plant breeders selected for size, encouraged by prizes at local shows for monster specimens.

Nowadays, turnip varieties are much smaller and if they are grown are left in the field before the hard frosts to be eaten in situ, a few rows at a time, as the sheep netting is moved every few days across the field. Daft Laddies have all gone and silage has taken the place of turnips as being much more cost effective and you can make it by never getting off the tractor seat!

Howkin routine
Howkin (pulling) turnips was an art form, especially when you could look behind you and see a neat row, (or often two rows put into one if two folk worked in unison), with the tops either in neat heaps or in a double row between the rows of turnips.

You just quietly hoped that some nosey passenger in the bus or train would later be spreadin the news that:
‘Aye - that luked like a canny crop o’ tornups that Andy and the Daft Laddie at Tarset Haall wor howkin the day as Aa cam by i’ the bus’.

But you also had to be prepared for a rider such as:
‘Aye – be the way yon Daft Laddie was buggarin aboot, he doesn’t seem te hev much idea aboot farmin!

I very soon learned that howkin tornups, was a job for the coldest, frostiest, clartiest days in the backend of the year (early autumn/winter), and it was one of the first jobs to dispel forever the romantic notions I had harboured up to then, about being close to the land, caring for grateful animals and being part of the natural cycle of life that is farming. It I’d been any closer to the land I’d have been under it!

Dressin for battle
You had to be thoroughly garbed for the job, and here’s a selection of claes from our wardrobe. You could wear any combination of the following – as lang as it didn’t cost ower much money!
  • Woollen (itchy) vest or body shirt (optional but usually essential).
  • Thick woollen shirt. (shart or sark) .
  • Lang linins – woolen (itchy) ‘Long Johns’.
  • Thick (itchy) army surplus khaki trousers held up by both braces and belt. A belt was always worn in the belief that it would prevent back injuries when lifting. It was also handy to sort out problems among the bairns in the hoose too!
  • Woolen sweater or ‘gansie’- usually army surplus or family hand-me-doon.
  • Old worn Harris tweed sports or ‘hacking’ jacket, single-vent, worn out elbows or very worn leather-patched.
  • Hats (a wide choice); Trilby, flat tweed (County) cap or one with button on peak, hand knitted woolen balaclava, ex-RAF leather helmet, khaki or black army surplus beret, Glengarry army cap with sides pulled doon. Essential requirement was that all had to be pulled weel doon ower the lugs.
  • Thick fishermen’s stockings (navy surplus). (Aa’ve nivvor did meet a thick fishorman, that Aa knaa of).
  • Wellington boots (Wellies). Only colour was black.
  • Some farm hinds on good wages had a pair of strong, ‘heather louper’ boots made by Rogersons of Rothbury. However, mostly for this kind of wet, clarty work, wellies were best.
  • My own compromise was a pair of ex-army boots topped with a pair of crafty gaiters made from an old pair of wellies with the soles cut off. They kept me legs dry (comparatively!) and stopped soil, grit and old-fashioned farmyard manure (muck) from filling the boots.
Leggings and apron
On top of all this you needed an apron, which went from waist to ankles, made from an old corn sack or Uveco bag. It was held up with a length of binder twine, to keep the worst of the wet and clarts off your legs.

Bearing in mind that this was my very first experience of this annual ritual, I was more than impressed by the amount of time and effort expended, even before getting started! It felt like getting ready to go into the arena to fight a Chillingham bull, and this feeling was reinforced when I was given my weapon.

Turnup knives

Turnip knives: 1, 2 and 3 are knives from farm stores. 4 is made from straight part of scythe blade and 5 is made from the blade tip. 6 is a large carving knife or 'gully'

These weapons came in various shapes and sizes. If you were willing to spend some of your own hard-earned wages, and saw a great future for you in farming, you could buy your own turnip knife from the Northern Farmers’ store in Bellingham.

The commercial models had a turned wooden handle and a thick blade about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. They came with a straight blade or one with a slight curve, and they all had a hook at the end pointing either upwards or downwards.

Modified butcher’s gullies (knives) - long, strong and sharp, were also used. Some turnip knives were ingeniously fashioned, often by the local blacksmith, from the old blade of a scythe. You could use a middle piece or the pointed end piece.

You were lucky if you worked on a farm that had new knives and it was obvious from the age and state of some of these tools that avoiding spending money was a major priority. Many passed on from tenant to tenant as farms changed hands.

Knives were sharpened on the old sandstone grindstone that stood in every farm stack yard. You needed a second person to slowly turn the handle and keep putting plenty of 'wattor' on the stone, as you needed all your strength to keep the knife blade on the uneven face of the stone – due to many years of wear.

If a second person was not available, you just used the stone stationary to sharpen knives and the like, so over time it made the surface uneven. They could also get knocked when lumps broke off.

There was no way these monster stones could be dressed level like with modern grindstones. They have moved now from stackyards into gardens as fancy ornaments. Photo shows an old stone in very good condition. Can you imagine cutting them out of the quarry and carting them around?

Into battle

Now, fully equipped, we made our way, rather awkwardly because of all our accoutrements to the battlefield. This was not to be the leisurely harvesting of my imagination. It was winter after all, and Mother Nature had other ideas for my initiation.

Naturally, the field was frozen hard and a grey, chilling mist hung about the hilltops. There was no shelter from the cold east wind from Central Russia and within minutes my hands, wet from the frosted turnips, were blue and stinging with cold.

These old-fashioned turnips, bred for size consequently had an enormous, round body topped with a short stem and very few leaves, which by harvest time had started to turn soft and were very slippery when grabbed. Where the leaves had dropped off the scars up the neck, although in theory providing good grip, were very hard on your hands. There was no point in wearing gloves as they got wet in minutes.

Action stations
Here was the drill:
  • First bend doon and grab the the turnip by the neck (stem) with one hand.
  • ‘Hoike’ (Pull up) - heaving the turnip oot o’ the grund.
  • If it was hard to budge with one hand, you stuck the hook on your turnip knife into its root with your other hand to get extra purchase.
  • On the up pull, you hung on to the root for a few seconds, taking the knife to dress off the roots and any soil, with a couple of sharp slicing chops.
  • Removing all the soil was very important, as it was bad for stock to be digesting large amounts of soil.
  • Sometimes up to three swipes were needed with the knife to remove all the soil, while rotating the turnip with your wrist. Daft Laddies’ weak arms were a big handicap.
  • If the roots were a bit ‘cleft’ and hairy, you needed extra chops. This happened if the turnips had ‘club root’ caused by a boron deficiency in the soil. If the disease had been bad, you could spend minutes trimming off all the roots so there would be little of the bulb left. Often the crop was a write-off as it went rotten before harvest.
  • If the turnup was a real ‘pomor’ (monster), you’d certainly need three chops at it, and unless you were Superman, you’d most likely have to drop the brute back on the grund to finish it off. Now you had to lift it up again!
  • The secret was to keep pulling, and convert your pulling energy into a smooth swing to get some momentum into the turnip, to propel it into the direction you wanted it to end up. This could be at your feet, or most often oot the side into the row next to you on bare grund.
  • If it was a real bigun, to get it to swing right, you gave it a wee swing in the opposite direction to its final swing – a bit of pendulum motion to generate some kinetic energy for it’s final direction.
  • During this motion, there was a split second when the turnip swung past you, and was held in a horizontal position. It was only a split second! In today’s corporate speak – it was a ‘window of opportunity’ not to be missed.
  • Anticipating this, you had your knife ready raised high to bring doon a muckle chop on the turnip’s neck - a broadsword slash that would have chopped the heed off of any reiver from the Scotch side in one blow!
  • You could only afford one, or else the brute will drop at your feet and you’d have to repeat all the physical work of lifting it with both hands to heave it away from you. And, you’d also have the comments from the hind to deal with – about how you were going to cope at the dance on Saturday night!
  • Done well, the turnip never stopped moving in a beautiful trajectory, and when the released from its neck, it even increased in momentum falling into its final resting place with a resounding thud. Bonnie!

So remember, it was PULL, SWING (right or left side), RAISE KNIFE, CHOP DOON, HING ON TO TOP! Ganin right – it was like poetry in motion!

The turnip tops
The turnip tops were valuable feed, but nowt near as gud as the root. By the time it was ‘howkin time’ the tops had started to yellow, so it was important to get them eaten as soon as possible.

They were collected with the horse and cart, or later in the 1950s by Fergy and trailer and taken to feed the cattle in the byre or hemmel. The trailer was often the old horse coup cart with shafts removed and drawbar fitted. Or they were left on the field for the sheep to clean up.

Piling the tops into heaps as you went along howkin was a great help when you came along afterwards to load them. Otherwise you had to use the ‘grape’ (fork) to gather them up.

Frozzen grund
Unfortunately, I soon learned that the turnips were often well and truly frozen into the ground, and no amount of tugging at the hard, icy slippery stem would budge them. Try as I might, the stubborn bulbs refused to give way, and with hands by now frozen and red raw with the effort, I had to resort to kicking each massive bulb in turn to release it from its frozen hold before lifting it with great difficulty and slashing wildly with my deadly weapon.

Alas, I was neither strong enough, quick enough nor accurate enough, and the turnip fell from my numb fingers still complete with soily roots and short, hard stem. If in my inexperience I had cut off one or two fingers, I would hardly have noticed!

Frozzen fingors
The index finger of the hand holding the turnip neck was most at risk of mutilation, and regularly ended up with your hankie tied around it till it was time for a break for pipes to be lit, and ‘a few draas and a spit’. Then you could ‘gan away te the hoose and git some iodine on’t and a bit of clean cloot’. When you did slice frozen fingers they didn’t seem to bleed much at all!

Achieving perfection
As it was, it must have taken me at least 20 minutes to achieve some semblance of expertise in this new art, by which time the circulation had returned, excruciatingly to my blue fingers. My back refused to straighten up and Andy the boss and Bob the hind were almost out of sight at the other end of the field.

Determined not to be beaten by a field of obstinate brassicas, I redoubled my efforts and managed to complete a creditable number of rows before the boss called it a day. Soaked through to the backside and clarts to the oxters, and by now sweating with the day’s exertions, we plodded back to the farm to a swill doon in the trough, dry wor claes, sup some broth and devour a pie with bread butter and scones in the warm kitchen, and above all a huge mug of steaming and reviving hot tea.

Tomorrow was another day when the turnips would have to be carted away to be taken indoors to await further processing!

TURNIP HISTORY (Dr Clive Dalton)
The turnip is a member of the large Brassicacaea (Brassica) family along with mustard, cabbages, rape, kale and many more.

The original wild plant (Brassica campestris) is believed to have originated in Northern Europe or the Mediterranean and even Asia around 2000 BC. In 1500 BC forms of wild turnip were found in India where it had been used for its oil-bearing seed. It was grown mainly for animal fodder but also a cooked as a table vegetable.

The turnip was developed from the swollen stem of the original plant and not the root, although it’s now always described as a ‘root vegetable’. Neolithic farmers used it, and the Romans who used it widely for cattle fodder would certainly have taken what was then, not a very productive plant to Britain with them.

Honour be to Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend
Born in 1674, he succeeded to the family title at the age of 12 to become the 2nd Viscount Townshend. He went on to an illustrious career as a Whig politician under King George 1.
After falling out with PM Robert Walpole, he left politics for his estate at Raynham in West Norfolk where he began experimenting with new farming ideas, most importantly with crops and their rotations.

This was a period described as the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ where many people were pioneering improvement of crops and livestock. Breeders like Robert Bakewell, the Collings brothers and Thomas Yates all wanted better feed for their improved stock, especially to feed them during winter.

The turnip was the key to this, because prior to its development, there had to be a big slaughter of stock and nosh-up at Michaelmas (29 September), which was followed by ‘bare commons’ for the rest of the winter. Only essential breeding stock could be nursed through winter on meagre hay before the turnip was developed.

Townshend is credited with developing the concept of crop rotations to increase production, where one crop benefited the following one so soil fertility was maintained and improved. In modern parlance – he improved ‘soil sustainability’ and was really before his time. He could see the turnip as a vital part of what became known as the ‘Norfolk four-course rotation’ of ‘Roots (turnips), Barley, Seeds then Wheat. Prior to this leaving the land fallow was the only way to build up fertility.

The ‘golden hoof’ of the sheep was part of this, as sheep were used to intensively graze the turnips and through their manure, add great fertility to the soil for the following grain crop.

The barley was then followed by new pasture made up of grass and clovers – which was later found to add nitrogen to the soil from the air, through the bacteria in the root nodules. This was all at no charge unlike modern nitrogen fertilisers which come from oil or gas.

It’s not hard to see how Townshend soon saw the need for a better more productive turnip, so he set about doing this through selection using the same techniques as the animal improvers at the time. It was described as ‘breeding the best to the best’.

‘Swede’ turnips were known as turnip-rooted cabbages until the 1780s, when Sweden began exporting the vegetable to Britain and the shorter name resulted.

On our family farm in Stamfordham 60 years ago now we would put both the tops and the trimmed turnips in small heaps ready for lifting on to the coup cart. They would be lifted usually before the first frosts and stored either in a linear heap on the edge of the field, in the stackyard (to be covered with straw/soil for insulation) or in an easy accessible part of the steading (main farm buildings).

Lifting was sometimes done by women folk from the village. It was a real hazard to avoid serious injury to the hands and fingers, particularly on cold days. No Health and Safety regulations in those times!

When opening the store in spring, the turnips would have developed nice yellowish short shoots - edible for kids and also cooked as a vegetable.

Singling turnips in late spring, we had a lot of depredations from rooks. They would pull up the seedlings looking for wireworms and leatherjackets. YFC's would have singling competitions in the district and the skill was much admired, as it had important implications on the yield of the final crop.

In our area there was also a tradition on the larger farms to hire an Irishmen to help with the singling and hay. The same person would come over each year for a few months. This ended about 1940 and when mechanisation gradually took over with single spaced seeding and chemical weed control.

1 comment:

  1. I found this article most interesting and enjoyed the touches of humor. My sincee thanks.