October 31, 2017

Northumberland farming. Village hayfield helpers


By Clive Dalton
A hay rake used to row up the hay from windrows.  You walked behind this model pulling a lever to raise the tines.  Other models you rode on a seat and worked the tipping lever from there. 
A welcome sight
It was always a welcome sight during hay time when we saw helpers turning up from the village to lend us a hand with the haymaking.  They came after finishing their full time day’s work on the railway, the roads or in the village businesses.

Most village folk in the 1950s and 1960s had done some farm work in their lives, so they knew how to handle a rake and a fork, and never lost these skills.  In return for their work, those with gardens or allotments were paid with a good big load of hemmel (covered yard) manure in the autumn, so it would rot away nicely before spring planting of their vegetables.  Any village ‘professionals’ were happy to be rewarded by the opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise on a summer’s evening - and for the ‘crack’!

Their help from late afternoon till evening, fitted in well with the hay making routine, and included the evening time of most midge savagery,.

Mowing and turning
Grass was cut in the early morning when moist from dew so it cut easily, and before the sun started to warm up – hopefully.  In the horse era this was cool for the heavy work of pulling the mower.

Then the grass cut the previous day or days, and depending on the weather, was turned about 11am when the horses had been given time for a rest and feed after mowing, and before being yoked into the hay turner which was much lighter work.  When tractors arrived – which was a slow process up the North Tyne, this was not an issue.

The turned swaths were then left to bake in the sun with farm staff going around with a fork and ‘shekin up’ any thick bits the turner had not teased out.  The ‘double swath (‘double sweeth’) around the outside of the field was an area that always needed a good shake out (‘shek oot’) with the fork.

By mid afternoon the crackling dry hay (hopefully) would be ready to rake up into windrows. If there was time, these would be checked for lumps that had not dried properly.

By late afternoon, after the afternoon tea had been welcomed, it was time to get ready to sweep the hay in the windrows into large heaps that were used material to make the pikes.

It was for piking that extra help was appreciated and you kept your eye open with keen anticipation to see which helpers appeared all keen to get into the action.  The main thing about this from the ‘Daft Laddies’s’ view was that the more help that arrived, the sooner you would get finished, and well before the moon arose!  We used to say ‘thank God for dark’ as you kept going till the job was finished.

Farm regulars
Farms had their regular helpers who looked forward to hay time and the rituals that went with it.  Here’s a list of a few in the Bellingham and Reedsmouth area that I was involved with from childhood to student days.  They were all great friends and mentors.

Helpers job
John & Lance Riddle
Tommy Davidson
Railway surfaceman
Bob& Jack Beattie
Jack Maughan
Bank clerk

Willie Potts
Retired farmer
Geordie Breckons
Harry Dalton
Jake Cowan
Railway guard
Wagon driver
Robert Allen
Jim Swanson
Engine driver

Robson girls
Retired farmers
Dove Cottage
James Wood
Jimmy Cairns
Railway surfaceman

Learning skills
Many of us children would join these willing helpers, mainly to have fun among the hay and to scrounge some late afternoon tea.  If there was a spare rake you were allowed to use it under careful supervision, living in fear that you would break a tooth through your behaviour.  They were strict teachers of the art of handling tools.

And the helpers were skilled at piking, and making sure you carried out the rituals to the letter, especially if you were forking hay up to a man who stood on the pike to ‘poss doon’ (consolidate) the hay to the very last forkful.  And also when you were raking the sides of the pike so all straws were facing down to shed off the rain (‘dressin doon’), you didn’t over do things so a side of the pike fell out and brought down the person on top.

I learned these fine arts from about 7 years of age at Dove Cottage small farm, where Jimmy Cairns was an expert in making possed (compressed) pikes.  He was a big man but had wonderful balance when the last part of the pike’s top was being completed.

He had an unfortunate stutter so his request for ‘another smaaa ffffffforkfu’ was slow to arrive!  He described it as the size of a hen’s nest, which you had to deliver with great precision so not to poke him in the foot with the fork tines.

When haste was needed because of doubtful weather, we usually make pikes ‘built on the trail’, which was where you used the swept heap of hay as the base, making sure it did not come adrift when you had the pike half built.

The farm women folk
Generally the helpers were mainly men, as the women on the farm were the key to preparing and bringing out the food for afternoon tea.  They often stayed on to help if they could see the pressure was on because rain was on its way.

They were equally skilled as the men but concentrated on the lighter jobs like hand ‘raking the trails’ which was the hay left after the windrows had been swept.  Every straw was precious!

A few local women who during the war had been in the Land Army would come and help just for the enjoyment and memories of more worrying times.

No comments:

Post a Comment