By George Weallans, 1999
This all happened in the twenties and early thirties.
Andrew’s farm in Derbyshire was owned by my grandfather. He was born at Alnwick in Northumberland and served his time to become a monumental mason but farming had run in the family for generations, so he reverted to type. I have a photograph of him as a sergeant in the Northumberland Fusiliers but I do not know where or when he served his country. He would be too old for the first war.
To the age of about twelve I went to the farm for most of my summer holidays. It would be arranged by letter, telephones were almost unknown, that I would be put on a ‘bus at Newcastle and someone would meet me in Manchester and take me to Chinley by train. On one of these ‘bus journeys I tried to flavour chewing gum with chocolate in my mouth but the mixture just disintegrated. My grandfather was very fond of some mint sweets called Black Bullets, which could be bought only in the North East so I always took him a big bagfull.
The other two permanent residents on the farm were my Uncle Bob a bachelor and Aunt Jean unmarried. Uncle Bob helped to work the farm and Aunt Jean cooked and ran the household. During the summer months; aunts, uncles and cousins increased the numbers of residents. This was the only time we saw each other as the family was dispersed over the country. The house must have been quite large and I now suspect we were all free loaders. The garden was large and mainly grew vegetables but there must have been some flowers. I have a memory of night scented stock in the evening.
Aunt Jean cooked large amounts of food. Among the less usual were freshly pulled turnip tops and nettles. Some days she made real lemonade, which was drunk with home made biscuits as elevenses, usually taken at about ten o’clock. The day started early on the farm. Occasionally she would give us children some icing sugar in a screw of paper with a piece of macaroni to suck it through. This was seldom successful, the hole soon became bunged up. On the hills numerous bilberry bushes provided purple fruit and staining juice, which was collected and made into delicious tarts.
Another of Aunt Jean’s skills was making butter. First the cream had to be taken from the milk by using a separator, which meant turning a handle for ages. I think this was some sort of a centrifuge. The cream was then processed in a foot-operated churn till the butter solidified out. The remaining liquid was poured into a bucket for the pigs. The butter was patted between Scotch Hands till the last of the liquid was beaten out. Getting rid of all the liquid is the secret of making the best butter, most of which we ate but some was sold.
She also made various jams. My Grandfather used only rhubarb jam, a rather thin sour product.
Two of my father’s aunts were sometimes there. They knew the names of all the flowers and weeds growing wild on the hillside and fields. Aunt Nan was then housekeeper to a gentleman who lived comfortably in Heaton Mersey. He was something in banking and once showed me a small revolver that he sometimes carried to work. He took her on holiday with him and did as he was told. They were great friends but I am fairly sure there was no “hanky-panky”, which could not be said of all her family relations. She kept the position for many years, until he died and left her a small pension. Aunt Sally was also in service but not so lucky and had several “places”. When I was an infant I once slipped through a shawl while she was carrying me. No harm was done but in later years, when I was told of this, I claimed that I fell on my head and so she was responsible for my many faults. These two were sisters of my dead paternal grandmother, who was dead before I arrived on the scene. I think these aunts helped to raise my father and his siblings.
There were some cows on the farm that had to be milked by hand since there was no electricity available. Cows do not give milk, you have to work very hard pulling and squeezing for a long time. You never forget the sound of a stream of milk hitting a metal bucket or the sweet smell of new milk or the warmth and smell when you stick your head against the cow’s flank. Cows can kick forward with their hind legs and a none co-operative cow looked as if was trying to kick over the bucket or climb into it. Horses normally only kick back wards with their hind legs.
Cows are very curious by nature. Uncle Bob told me to go into the corner of a field and to kneel down with my pullover over my head. Within a very few minutes the several cows in the vicinity had gathered round with their heads extended towards me. When one tried to lick me I retreated rapidly.
A flock of hens lived in one of the farm buildings and normally laid their eggs there in nests. Because they had the run of the farmyard sometimes a hen would lay its eggs elsewhere, particularly if it became broody. The children were sent to find these eggs, sometimes I think to get us from under the feet of the adults for a while. When needed for cooking or selling, my Grandfather would slit the throats of poultry and bleed the dead bird a little. This method produces a younger looking bird.
There is a photograph of me holding a hen while he kills it. I am supposed to have killed a chicken but there is no photographic proof and any witnesses are long dead. As well as the hens, geese and three or four turkeys were free to roam and scavenge what food they could find. The geese made an awful racket when strangers arrived. For years we received a goose, by rail, for our Christmas dinner at Newbiggin.
There was a fat pony to learn to ride but during my earliest holidays it was too broad in the back for comfort. Time and growing solved that problem although it was a long time before I stuck on when it galloped. There was always a dog, usually a Border Collie, which was not a pet but helped to work the farm animals. It was fed on scraps and if it managed to get near the table at meal times I dare not give it any bits of food.
The children played happily and mingled with the adults, who must have been very tolerant. Amusement was found for us on wet days when the house seemed to be over flowing with people. For instance, I remember sitting on a cushion on an old curtain and being pulled round the polished floor by my cousins. This was supposed to help. If the weather was too bad for outside work we would sometimes all play Rummy or other card games. No money was gambled, instead sweets or monkey nuts would be the stakes if available. Uncle Bob could never pay up, he ate his reserves as he played. Matchsticks were the normal counters. There were several unusual articles about, one was a gadget for making quill pens. You pushed a feather in and pressed a knob to produce a shaped pen with the split already cut. If the feather was big enough the pen worked quite well.
The first “grown up” book I ever read was on the farm during a wet spell. For some reason there were a number of Hopalong Cassidy books available so I found my way through these cowboy tales during that holiday. Uncle Bob explained the western terms when I got stuck, for instance fanning a six-gun is knocking the hammer back with the bottom of the hand for rapid fire. I do not think the fair sex were represented in the tales just rustlers and bad ranchers against the hero.
When I first went to the farm radio was in its infancy, they used two sets of headphones in a biscuit tin so most of us could hear a very tinny noise. The news was the most listened to programme. Later a more powerful set was obtained which used an acid accumulator that had to be taken down to the village to be charged up.
There was no mains water supply. Water came from a spring that bubbled up beside and emptied into a large stone trough. Drinking water was caught directly as it entered but water for washing etc. was taken straight from the trough. Carrying buckets of water was often delegated to the children. One day we were in trouble for paddling in the trough, stirring up the mud and green stuff from the bottom and sides. The water was unusable until it settled and cleared.
My grandfather owned a .22 riffle, a 410 shotgun, a muzzle-loading gun and pistol. The latter two used percussion caps not flints. Ammunition was available for all these weapons, including powder and shot. Preparing the muzzle-loaders was quite an effort involving measuring gunpowder, ramming in wads measuring shot and so on. A ramrod was stored in the body of the gun. To avoid accidents, the percussion caps were not put on the nipples until the gun was about to be fired.
Great uncle Barty, who had married in to the family, fancied his changes with this gun. The only birds he ever brought home were pigeons so full of lead he must have given them both barrels at close quarters. There was a small mould, rather like a pair of priers, to cast bullets for the pistol. Usually the pistol would be fired at a tin can or similar target against a bank of earth, so the lead was recovered and recycled.
My Grandfather was a first class marksman, having shot at Bisley when he was younger. He would shoot rabbits with the rifle by lying down behind a wall, then scratching it with his foot, when the rabbits sat up to see what was happening they made an easy target. A few game birds, mainly partridges and grouse, occasionally fed in the fields. They were more easily shot when they were sitting than flying and this was not for sport but to provide a meal. The birds would be hung for only two or three days. I was taught to use the rifle from the age of eight but was not allowed to use a shotgun, ever.
When a field of hay was to be cut, work started as soon as the dew had dried off. Using a horsedrawn mower, the cutting would start at the perimeter and work in to the centre. A second man was needed to clear tangles and stones with a fork. As the central area became smaller, spectators gathered waiting to kill the theoretical rabbits etc. which might emerge. Fortunately no guns were allowed and occasionally a hare or rabbit would be killed. The hay then dried for a few days, being turned with forks and rakes to speed the process. One day while playing in a field among the cut hay I lost the pistol some how. Luckily someone turning the hay found it the same day so all I had to do was clean it and leave a smear of oil on the barrel. When the hay was ready it was made into haycocks, which could stand for a few days if needs be.
To store the hay it was taken on horse drawn carts to the barn. There it was put through a first storey door into the hayloft where two people packed it evenly. Since the only light and air came from the door, this was a hot and uncomfortable job. Sweat poured all over you, hayseeds stuck to your skin and covered clothing. There was a trapdoor and ladder used to get the hay out for feed but for safety reasons it had to be kept closed while hay was being put in the
loft. One day before the loft was full someone found a neat nest, lined with wool, containing three pink newborn mice. Next day the nest was empty, probably one of the farm cats ate them.
No arable crops were grown on Andrew’s Farm but they would help a friend down the valley with his wheat crop. A reaper and binder produced sheaves of corn that we built into stooks to dry. For stability the knots on the sheaves had to be on the outside. When ready the corn was built into a round stack and thatched with sheaves to keep out the weather until the threshing machine could come.
I only once saw the thresher in action. The harvest must have been very early that year or the stack saved over the winter. The arrival was very impressive as a steam traction engine, hissing and blowing black smoke, dragged the thresher and a small trailer into the yard. Setting up the machine was a minor feat of engineering. A long belt went from the flywheel of the engine to a pulley on the thresher. It had to be straight and the tension just right. Teamwork was the secret of producing corn. Each man had to do his job and keep it up. One or two men brought sheaves from the stack and forked them up to the man on top of the machine. He cut the string and fed the sheaves, head first into the mouth. From the other end emerged separately, the wheat fed into sacks and the chaff loose onto the ground while the straw was thrown out the side. Someone attended to the sacks while two men started stacking the straw, which would be used for animal bedding. The machine owner stoked the boiler and organised everything. The farmer’s wife provided gallons of tea and, later in the day, beer to wash the dust and chaff out of the throats of the helpers. The farmyard was filled with noise, steam, smoke, dust, energy and sweat. The owner of the thresher and his mate served all the local farms during the autumn and early winter so knew all the latest gossip.
A quarry was reopened on the boundary of the property and the farm was let to a tenant farmer. My Grandfather and his tribe moved to the Hollands, a detached house in the middle of fields, about a mile from Chinley or anywhere else. The house was built on a steep hillside so Uncle Bob tried to teach me an easy stride to get to the top road but being young I could more easily run up the hill.
It was again a large house and much visited by friends and relations for holidays. Of course there were no mains services. Light chiefly came from oil lamps, keeping the wicks trimmed to maximise light and minimise smoke and smell was an art. A large cast iron range provided cooking and heating in the large living room. Fuel was wood supplemented by expensive coal. There was a scullery with a waterless sink, hot water came from a kettle and cold from a bucket. Food was prepared on a scrubbed wood table.
There were outings, we once went to Buxton to hear Richard Tauber sing in Lilac Time, we bought some small water biscuits to eat on the way back. We visited Poole’s cavern to go underground and admire the stalagmites and stalactites. Some of them had formed great pillars and others weird shapes over thousands of years of dripping water. When we came out it was noticeably warmer. Poole was a bandit but he saved some queen or other to redeem himself. A crystalline mineral called Blue John was mined in that area and made into bowls, vases and other knick-knacks mainly for the tourist trade. We found a lump about the size of two fists embedded in clay on the road. It had probably dropped off the back of a lorry. Buxton was still thriving as a spa so could support the arts and crafts.
I once went to the zoo in Manchester with an honorary Uncle Percy. All I remember of the visit is Percy poking an alligator with his umbrella. Not very pleased it swished its tail and covered Aunt Mable in slimy mud. She in turn was annoyed and let her husband know using her umbrella. These good people were friends of my grandfather, I think he was the local bank manager, eventually he would have to foreclose the loan on the farm.
The quarry was worked by hand apart from a mechanical crusher and a stone grader, which made a lot of noise. Crushed stone was fed up a rotating inclined cylinder that had graded holes through which the rock fell into the right size bins. Most of this output went to making and repairing roads. To produce the stone, holes were chiselled into the rock face using sledgehammers. The holes were cleaned out and explosives and a fuse were rammed in with a wooden pole. A whistle was blown, people took cover and the fuse was lit. The resulting explosion brought down tons of rock, which was then usually manhandled on trolleys to the crusher. Some of the rock would be selected to be cut and dressed for sale as building material for walls and houses. Many of the local buildings were stone built. There was a hand –operated crane with a long jib to move large lumps after the blast. These were broken up with chisels. There was the odd rabbit hole around the quarry. One of the men told me to put some sweets outside a hole and wait with a stick to clout the rabbit when it came out. None ever came but the sweets vanished. The quarrymen had a hard life working outside in all weather for very little money. One of their wives made shirts for most of the men. She offered to make one for me but my holiday was over before it materialised. Uncle Bob sculpted a few birdbaths and figures for pleasure.
Just outside the quarry alongside the main road stands a public house called the Lamb that had a triangle of grass in front. The landlord had a son of about my age with whom I played. From a small tent we were explorers, soldiers, hunters or anything young boys can imagine.
By the time I reached my early teens the farm and quarry were gone and the family dispersed, victims of the thirties depression.
Two other stories by George Weallans: