Peter’s Farm Part 2


There was a cobbled area outside the back door and a large stand on which the churns would be stood before being lifted onto the cart. To the west, the wide outer yard sloped gently upward to the higher orchard, a level ground held back by a retaining wall. The orchard was reached by a stile typical of a wall stile in Devon in which stones projected from the wall to form three or four steps. To the east of the back door in the corner of the yard, there were often the remains of a hay or straw stack which provided the chicken with a good scratching area. Beyond was the lower orchard. A small stream trickled down through the higher orchard, disappeared under the farm buildings and reappeared in the lower orchard. Watercress grew in the stream and the scent of crushed water mint wafted upwards as feet walked along the edge. Most of the trees were cider apples but here and there an eater or cooker had been planted. The Orange Blenheim whose wrinkled apples were include in the Christmas hamper was in the higher orchard, a Devonshire Quarrenden in the lower where there was also a Crimson Bramley whose branches hung over the front garden. Behind the farm buildings a gate and path in the higher orchard led to a small hedged area which served as a kitchen garden. Here the potatoes and carrots and runner beans were grown. Farmers are notoriously bad gardeners (Aunt Sue kept the front garden beautifully and loved her flowers) and by August the crops could not be seen for a tangle of bindweed and speedwell. But the potatoes they grew, some redskins and an all blue variety were of superb flavour. Much of the yard in which the hens ranged free, was covered with Mayweed which gave off a pungent smell. I loved this smell not only for itself but because it was so characteristic of my much loved Peter’s.

The main farm buildings were arranged in a square round a sunken midden into which the liquid manure was swept. In the heat of the summer a crust would form on top and once the farm workers told me it was quite alright to walk across. When I did so I sank down to my knees in muck much to their amusement. A wooden gate closed off this inner yard from the outer and inside to the left was the harness room. Here ferrets were kept –  but there was always something a little sinister about this room. From an early age we were teased that a bogey man lived in it and Muriel was always very nervous when passing it. Then came the pigsties with a ring set in the wall just below the roof.   A rope attached to the pig’s nose was threaded through to hold its head up when the poor thing was to be stuck. I never was allowed near at such times but had to stay in the kitchen listening to the agonised squeals though I could go and watch the next stage as the still body lay on its bier. A loose box and the stables completed the left side. Harnesses hung from the walls and heavy wooden chests contained grooming brushes etc. and the horse brasses.

Across the top of the square were two calf pens and cow stalls for six or seven cows and above this the barn. Here we played on wet days and here each year we were measured against the barn wall. The right wing consisted of four cowsheds each with stalls for five cows. A corridor ran right round the cowsheds to allow fodder and cake to be carried from the store houses at each corner to the feeding troughs in front of each cow stall. In the storehouses, each with its ladder going up the wall to its loft above, there was a turnip cutter and a similar machine for breaking up large slabs of linseed oil cake. I never used the former but enjoyed feeding in the linseed slabs. There was an oil engine in the barn but it was rarely used in August but outside at the back of the barn, covered with lichen and surrounded by nettles was the long wooden arm of a ‘machine’ which provided the motive power before the oil engine was installed. A horse used to be harnessed to the arm and encouraged to walk monotonously round in circles. Just beyond this under the huge elms was the faggot stack, refurnished each year by the hedge trimmings when layering was carried out in the winter. It was general policy amongst farmers to try and have a seventh or at least a proportion of their hedges layered each year to keep them in good condition thickening out the bottoms to make them stock proof. But the hedges of those days were very different in character to those of today. Devon hedges were generally grown on banks of soil and consisted largely of hazel. Rabbits infested the banks which were often covered with primroses and red campion, harts tongue fern and a large variety of wild flowers. Guelder rose and honeysuckle managed to survive the hazel in places and this proliferation of Nature’s beauty made a lasting impression on me – I could take you back today to where the yellow toadflax grew on the top of a bank on the road to Ipplepen.

This then was my paradise, this my heaven ! To live on the farm – what more could one want. Of course this was August, but even when the West Country drizzle swept across the farmyard and fields, the magic remained. Muriel and I would take our bread and cheese lunches, my bread liberally spread with Lazenby’s piccalilli, and our bottles of lemonade made with Eiffel tower crystals, into one of the linnies (open fronted buildings housing the carts) and sit on one of the carts whilst the rain swept by. The chickens, seeking refuge from the wet scratched about in in the bone dry dust of the linney earth floor – no rain ever fell on it. Sometimes old Tuckett would work there when outside work was impossible, making spars out of the  flexible hazel sticks, like giant hair pins to be used to peg down the thatch on a hay or corn stack. What a character he was and how we admired the skill with which his gnarled hands twisted the hazel stick in the middle, separating its fibres without breaking it in two, then sharpening the ends. Every now and then he would take a swig from his small keg of cider, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. I thought him a fascinating old fellow. Aunt Sue didn’t share my enthusiasm and called him a ‘dirty old man’!

The farm itself was about 180 acres with most of the fields scattered here and there in groups in the parish. Even their names had for me a magic all their own, – Blue Church, Nell, Yelland, Big Peak and Little Peak, Stone Church, Compton Meadow, Stringsland and Peter’s Field. Stringsland was reached by a short lane from the main Marldon – Compton Road, by the gate to Compton Meadow but even in a dry August at one point the lane was flooded for 20 or 30 feet as a small stream flowed across. One picked one’s way close to the hedge, balancing on the high dry ridges thrown up by the wheels of the farm carts. Many of the other fields were in West Lane which led into the wilds of the Devon countryside from just past Church House Inn. For the first fifty yards it ran as a sunken lane between 15 foot high banks topped with hazel bushes whose branches met over the lane to form a living tunnel. It was often deep in mud but the sun filtered through sufficiently for the primroses and harts tongue ferns to dot the banks. Farther along, the lane opened out to allow more light; the ground became drier and the sides of the path became massed with flowers. Gates here and there led into the fields, belonging to Peter’s and other farms – but what a job in those days to get even a self binder into a field. No wonder today farmers remove hedges and knock the patchwork of fields into huge areas where mighty combines can move more freely. Towards the end of the lane the grasses and flowers grew more and more undisturbed – few ventured that far and one had to push one’s way past the clinging stems of blackberry and clumps of ‘sticky buttons’. It was up in this remote area to which the cows were banished when Mother, Aunt Sue and Uncle Stanley developed diphtheria when children. The cows were milked in the fields and the milk brought down West Lane before being taken to Paignton.

Our holiday on the farm was the highlight of the year, almost surpassing birthdays and Christmas. Excitement grew as the prospect of the long train journey drew nearer. Muriel and I discussed at length what sweets we would buy to take on the train and mother laid out the clothes for the holiday ready to pack in the skip. This was sent luggage in advance and when the railway van collected it, we knew the holiday was imminent. It was a ten hour journey to Paignton, travelling by the Devonian from Leeds. I always enjoyed train travel – and I still do – despite the fact that on nearly every journey I would get a smut in my eye, something not experienced with Diesels. About mid afternoon we were speeding through Gloucestershire and a certain drowsiness would creep over us. The train perhaps got held up; there would be a heavy silence in the hot hazy countryside. The poem ’Adlestrop’  must surely have been written under such a situation, on a hot still August day. But spirits rose after we’d left Taunton for soon the most exciting part of the journey was at hand. Exeter behind us and we now caught the first glimpse of the Exe estuary. We reached Starcross, from where a ferry sailed across to Exmouth and where until only a few years ago, a small rowing boat with its bows in the shape of a swan was moored by the jetty. Dawlish Warren flashed by and Dawlish itself where the railway ran along the edge of the sea almost brushing the elbows of the holiday makers who walked along the seafront. There are few more picturesque journeys with the train racing in and out of the tunnels cut in the red Devon Sandstone, past the Parson and the Clerk, hard pillars of rock left standing when the softer rock was eroded away by the sea. Teignmouth and up the Teign to Newton Abbot and before long we’d left Torquay. As the train ran along the Torbay coastline, we stuck our heads out of the window to ca tch the first glimpse of Aunt Sue waiting on Paignton Station. She was always overcome with excitement and giggled her way through her greetings.     Into a taxi and a three mile drive to Marldon, past well loved landmarks, Java Cottage and Windmill Hill, to the village itself. We drove past Barby’s Corner where outside the big house were the mounting steps to help the less able to get on their horses.  (Barby’s Corner is the junction with Kiln Road at the bottom of Marldon Cross Hill – MLHG)    Excitement reached its climax. Grandma sat in the front room window. Muriel and I dashed down the path, gave Grandma a perfunctory kiss and flew out of the back door, across the yard and up into the higher orchard to the Lemon Pippin tree. This was an early eating apple of unusual shape, long and cylindrical, a pale yellow when ripe, crisp and juicy. The holiday had begun.

I woke on the first morning with the sun streaming through the window and the sounds of activity in the farmyard. Bed was no place to be on such a morning and I was soon dressed and out to find Philip, a young man who worked on the farm. Morning milking was over and the cows waiting to be driven to the meadow. The hens scratched happily in various parts of the yard, wandering where they would and often laying their eggs away from the hen house in quiet spots. The loud clucking of a hen boasting of her achievement in the higher orchard would bring Aunt Sue rushing to the back door to pinpoint the area. Later there would be a search there amongst the nettles, or the bottom of the hedge and when the nest was located, perhaps 8 or 10 eggs would be revealed. Sometimes a nest would remain undiscovered and a proud mother would one day come across the yard with a dozen chicks around her. After breakfast, I would join Philip as he harnessed one of the horses to one of the carts and off we’d go to a job in one of the fields. Even the old carts had a romance about them, the two wheeled (called a putt in Somerset) and four wheeled, the hay wains with their wooden framework to hold the hay, or sheaves of corn. Remains of their last load lay about the cart, wisps of hay, dried lumps of manure or a light covering of red soil. What more could a lad ask than to sit up behind the broad back of a strong but relaxed cart horse. There is even nostalgia in recollecting when the horse raised its tail to break wind, almost in your face or dropped its large but neat pile whilst still walking. So different from cows which splattered their way across the yard or down the road. The sun soon dried their splats into thin crisp ‘pancakes’.

After dinner the cows were fetched from their morning grazing ground, a task I was allowed to do. Animals have a great sense of time and routine, and one only had to stand at the gate and call ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and they would amble slowly across the field, udders bulging with milk. Then after milking, I would take the cows down the road again to the meadow. I drove them with a great feel of professionalism, though the cows knew just where they were going. An occasional car, fairly rare, might wish to pass and I imagined the occupants seeing only a sunburnt country lad, sleeves rolled up, stick in hand, urging the cows to the side of the road, with basic everyday familiarity. As we neared the meadow, I would have to go ahead of the cows to open the gate, the cows placidly and dutifully stopping or stepping to one side as I walked ahead murmuring softly ‘steady now, steady’. How disciplined the herd were – and how well led!! It was a different story with the sheep. Uncle Stanley asked Dad and I to take 15 or so sheep to a field in West Lane. All went well until one stupid animal suddenly darted up the bank and through a gap in the hedge. Of course the rest followed and Dad and I spent a very frustrating hour trying to get control of them and get them to where they were supposed to go.

Sometimes in a poor summer, there would still be hay-making to be carried out. The grass was cut in swathes by the mower and after a couple of days in the warm sun, had to be turned by hand using a two pronged fork. I would join the men in the field and try to keep up with them and the next day would help load the hay onto the hay wains. As I grew older I was probably quite useful as an extra hand and took my place on the cart. Here I learned to pack the hay around the sides – the middle always filled up by itself. What a joy to sit on top of the sweet smelling hay as we rumbled across the field to the corner where the stack was being built. I helped to build the stack and used the same principle – ‘Don’t bother about the middle, – a principle I still use in building up my compost heaps. Of course when one is young one is often naïve. Public toilets weren’t provided up West Lane and one disappeared behind a hedge – I’m not sure who’d be watching if one stayed in front of one. Once when young I had recourse to visit behind a hedge and called to Uncle Stanley for some paper. I received the curt reply ‘Use grass’.

But of all the farming activities, harvesting was the most exciting. In those days the headland round the field had to be cut to make room for the self binder as the blade stuck out to its left side. This had to be done by hand using a scythe, the corn gathered into a sheaf and tied with a rope of twisted straw, a skilled little operation in itself. This was then thrown up against the hedge out of the way. Cutting didn’t start till the dew was off the corn, usually not before midday so that in most fields cutting went on until the evening. What a sight to see three straining horses pulling the binder which rhythmically threw out the bound sheaves. Tea had to be taken in the field and somewhere around 5 o’clock, Aunt Sue would walk out with a stone jar of tea and a large apple basket, lined with a clean white cloth and filled with cups, raspberry jam sandwiches and Chelsea buns – always the same menu. The workers which included me and sometimes Muriel, would sit under the hedge and quietly refresh themselves, an occasional word being spoken or piece of gossip exchanged. Above our heads the hazel nuts were already swelling and wasps and flies would come down to share our jam. Back to work and the oblong of uncut corn began to get less and less. Villagers came out to the field after their evening meal to help put up the sheaves into stooks, six or eight sheaves to a stook. Then a shout! The first rabbit broke cover from the uncut remnant and went galloping away to the safety of the hedge. Work on putting up the sheaves stopped and men and boys fetched their dogs tied up by the gate. Philip who drove the binder sometimes let Muriel or me have charge of his whippets, Flossie the large grey one, thin flanked and long legged with alert bright eyes and gasping tongue; and the smaller Fly. Another rabbit made a run for it, twisting and turning to avoid the dogs, diving over sheaves or through stooks until with a piercing squeal it succumbed to the teeth of the leading dog. Those without dogs armed themselves with stout sticks and lashed out wildly if the rabbit turned in  their direction. The corn patch grew less, more rabbits ran and the field became a scene of barking, chasing dogs and panting, shouting men. Occasionally a poor animal would run into the blades of the binder and have its legs severed amid horrible squealing. Philip would stop the binder, get down and quickly despatch the victim. Sometimes a man walking alongside the corn would spot a petrified rabbit crouching close to the ground unable to move and would reach down to pluck it from the corn. Rarely did the dogs kill the rabbits and they had to be finished off with a sharp blow behind the ears or a sudden twist to its neck. But for us the excitement was always tinged with concern for the rabbit as its life was so violently ended. The ‘catch’ was laid out in rows – it could be half a dozen, it could be a hundred – and as the sun dropped down on a calm, still, summer evening, the last strip was cut and the last sheaf stooked. Uncle Stanley would distribute the rabbits, keeping some for the farmhouse. The workers came first and then onto the helpers, probably Uncle Stanley had his own fixed order of precedence. The binder was covered for the night and the village folk drifted home. The men paunched their rabbits by the hedge, cut a hole in the skin between the two bones of one rear leg and threaded the other one through it. Then back home with rabbits looped onto two sticks carried over shoulders as the sun sank behind the hills. The smoke rose upwards from a house in the village – there was peace and contentment. For Muriel and me there was still joy to come. We rode back to the farm on the horses, Farmer and Britain, sitting somewhat uncomfortably on the harness as the horses plodded their way back, knowing that their day’s work was done and a night of feeding and sleeping lay ahead of them. We clopped into the farmyar d, the heavy harness was lifted from their broad backs and their bridles replaced by halters. Then out to the field with a much lighter step, through the field gate, halter removed, a run, a kick of joy and freedom and down to the serious business of supper.

One evening I was riding Britain bareback after work, out to a field up West Lane, when Philip on Farmer gave Britain a sharp blow across his flank with the end of his halter rope. Britain took off in a wild gallop up the lane. A halter has a rope attached to only one side, unlike the bridle where the reins are attached to both sides of the mouth. I clung on frantically with the halter rope in one hand and grabbing Britain’s mane with the other. Riding bareback I slithered from side to side but somehow managed to stay on. Britain stopped at the top of the steep slope and Philip rode up, laughing uproariously at my obvious discomfort. Some years after, Britain was pulling a cart down Kiln Road past the two disused lime kilns and the quarry when he bolted and tried to jump over the gate of Broad Meadow. The accident killed him and I felt a very deep sense of loss.

PART 1– PART 2 –  PART 3


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