When I was six we moved to a new house. Before I could settle I was shipped off with my grandmother to stay with her brother and sister-in-law, Uncle Tom and Aunty Glad, on their farm in Wiltshire. I suppose I might have got in the way while my parents settled themselves and my two sisters into our new home. As it turned out our journey to the south-west proved a useful preliminary to my new life, away from the dry and dusty streets of suburban Seven Kings.
There, my life had been mapped out by town pathways, pavements that led to church and school, to the shops at the top of the road and the park and to Newbury Park Station and further on to my grandparents’ home. On my blue Triang tricycle I pedalled ahead of my parents and felt the regular, even, thump, thump, thump of the joints in the paving stones. My whole child’s world lay within walking distance of my home and the homes of my two friends, Jeffrey and Donald.
Newhouse Farm lay in dairy country, with stone buildings and a large stone house, a few miles from Melksham. Soon I had learnt its simple geography and I remember being able to wander about, managing without pavements but looking for gateways and gaps in hedges, following my great-uncle and the men who worked with him; one of them I remember was Harry from Holt
Dairy cows require your attention fourteen times a week and I was up early each morning to see them brought into the farmyard and into the cow shed where they were tied up side by side, each in her own place. In the last place, up against the wall, was William. William was the bull and he was not allowed out. He fascinated me, this huge Dairy Shorthorn, such a threat and yet so easily managed, held fast as he was with a simple chain around his neck. I still have my school exercise books from the autumn term that followed and can see the cow stalls, each with the name of the cow that came and stood there twice a day, chalked up on a small board, clipped to the vacuum pipe to which the milking machines were connected while each cow was milked. My confidence with these large, gentle creatures grew rapidly and soon I was stepping forward to pat their haunches and call them by name. But not William; approaching him would have been a step too far, despite the chain that held him fast.
It was harvest time and there was other work to do. Over the road was a field of wheat, standing taller than me, waiting to be cut. After breakfast the men started with a machine called a binder, which cut the corn, bundled it together as sheaves, tied automatically with twine, and then threw off to one side. One man drove the blue Fordson tractor which hauled the outfit and another man sat on the binder and controlled the height at which it cut the corn and kept an eye on the knotter which jammed from time to time or ran out of twine.
From the other side of the field there came a loud bang. I was not tall enough to see the cause but then a young man appeared carrying a gun and a rabbit which dangled from his side. As he approached me he lifted its head and held it upright as if it were still alive but I could see that he was pretending and that the creature would never again bounce and skip across the field and scamper into the hedge. Later in the day I passed several rabbits piled up by the kitchen doorway. I noticed that their eyes were no longer bright and kept away.
By the end of the day the sheaves had been gathered together and stood upright together in half-dozens called stooks. The stooks were set up in rows, the picture-book harvest scene, and a few days later a horse pulled a cart along these rows and men with pitch forks picked up the sheaves to load them onto the cart, and carry them to the rick yard, an open space next to the farm buildings where stacks or ricks were built.
I remember Uncle Tom working on one of these stacks, leaning over the top of a ladder which had been propped up against the stack. He was wearing a leather strap below each knee so that his trousers were hitched up, above his ankles. When I was older I learnt that these straps were called wangers back in Essex and were worn to prevent trousers clinging tightly around the knees. Gradually, Uncle Tom spread straw as a cover on the stack, fixing the straw in place with sting and long wooden pegs which he shoved down into the sheaves that this thatched roof was going to protect.
Finally the horse rake appeared, a metal frame on huge spindly wheels which held a row of curved tines that were held just above the ground. With this piece of equipment hauled by a solitary horse the remaining straw was raked up and pulled into a corner of the field. When it was not at work, the horse was left alone in another field, next to the farm buildings and from where he could easily be fetched when there was work for him to do. One of the firs things I was told not to do was to avoid the pond there, but I had my wellington boots, didn’t I.
I had taken only a couple of steps towards the centre of the pond when I discovered why I had been instructed to keep away. It was Uncle Tom who found me and pulled me out of the pond, and out of my boots, and onto dry land. Once he had leaned out over the mud at the edge of the pond and retrieved my boots there was a word of rebuke and I was free again.
Alongside the kitchen was a long room, an outhouse really, that was called the long dairy. It was where my great-uncle had once made award-winning cheese. The presses in which the cheese had been compressed to expel surplus liquid were no longer used but stood as a cold and mouldy reminder of those far-off days. As a teenager I learnt an important lesson there from Dad’s cousin, Uncle Dave, who by then had taken over the farm. When I first stayed at Newhouse, the long dairy was the place where four shot-guns were kept, leant up against the wall and easily picked up by anyone in a hurry to get a rabbit for the pot.
Later, on one occasion so Uncle Dave told me, he was confronted by another nephew who was staying there. The boy, then aged about eight, pointed one of the shotguns at him. Uncle Dave raised his arms and then found himself wondering whether the gun had been left unloaded or not. If he told the boy to put the gun down, the boy might think that this was a ploy, a trick that was part of the game, and pull the trigger. It was some moments before the boy lost interest in the gun, which was heavy and difficult for him to hold. After that the guns were shut away, out of sight and out of the reach of children.
I have never recalled a moment’s homesickness or longing for my parents during my first stay at Newhouse Farm. The only suffering I remember was caused by a wasp that I disturbed whilst crawling on a rug in the parlour, in front of an empty fire-place, and by a golden syrup tin that another cousin kicked down from a loft in one of the barns. This was rather more serious and resulted in a visit to the local hospital. I remember a nurse telling me that I was a brave little boy as my eye-brow was stitched without any anaesthetic being administered.
Then we returned, my grandmother and I, to Collier Row, north of Romford, where next to this urban fringe some farming is still to be found, its appearance not changed greatly apart from the sheer volume of traffic that clogs its roads and the garish advertising that follows you everywhere. My grandmother was a patient grandmother for she helped me to bring home discarded milking machine liners, rubber inserts from the milking machines with which I played for months after our return. It is a tribute to my grandmother that my time away proved so happy and that I came home with an interest in farming that was to occupy me for another twenty-years and which endures to this day.
List some of the important things that this little boy learnt?
If you had to write about an important event in your early childhood, which would you choose?