ON THE FARM - Part Three

In the past two weeks, retired farm workers have recalled how they went to hiring fairs to find work, and what domestic life on a farm in Westmorland was like before anyone had invented the tractor. Farmhands worked hard, lived simply, ate plain but plentiful food, slept in attic dormitories and even had time to lark about a bit with the farm girls, or dance till dawn at the hunt balls, stopping just in time to get home for morning milking. This week they recall the actual work that was done on the farm using machinery and farming implements long since hung up as exhibits in museums.

A lowland valley farm of some considerable acreage might grow potatoes, turnips, grass for hay, corn, wheat and oats; the turnips had to be sown and set up, then weeded, and the thistles had to be mowed out of the pasture fields before anyone started on haytiming; after that the corn was ready to be harvested, followed by the potatoes and then the stubble would be ready for ploughing. There was milking to be done twice daily, the animals fed, lambing time working night and day and all the young stock to be cared for. There was never a dull moment: clipping, dipping, going to market, or training a new sheepdog or draught horse. Horses were a vital part of farm life and this very old lady could remember the horse gin that most fell farms had:

"We used to thresh our own corn. We had one of those rings, they called them a gin ring, where you drove the horse round and round; that was our job, the girls could drive the horse, then inside the machinery you put the sheaves and it threshed them and separated the corn and the chaff and we used to hate it. You got so tired going round and round, 'cos the old horses knew us, and they wouldn't go on - so they used to open the door and shout at the horses to make them set off."

But there's an easy way of doing everything, as this old farmhand remembered with a chuckle:

"I used to do all the churning with the horse; you had a big pole, hitch the horse to it, and they had a round ring. Of a fine day you used to have to lead the horse around for about four times, you see, then you used to tie its head just as tight as it could walk nicely round - and then you could sit on't wall and do what you liked, the horse used to keep going round and round. And a very easy way of churning that,oh aye!"

By the 1920s, many farms were hiring a steam threshing machine, which went from village to village; but the age of steam was comparatively short-lived before the arrival eventually of the first types of combine harvester.

Mowing and harvesting using horses took so much longer in those days that it was even more difficult to bring in a good crop from some of the small, damp Lakeland valleys, because the weather could, and did, change at any time and wouldn't necessarily hold for long enough to finish the job. Not surprisingly, Lakeland farmers were reluctant to obey orders during both world wars when inspectors visited and decreed that a crop of oats, for example, should be grown in Langdale:

"We were compelled to do this during both the wars, but its not a country for oats really. You can grow the oats, but you haven't the weather to harvest it, that's the trouble."

Another farmer found his own solution to interfering Ministry inspectors. He'd been told to grow half an acre of potatoes and half of corn; but his sheep had to be on that land till mid-May so it was impossible to seed it until they'd gone:

"This fella came and said, 'Now, what are you going to grow, you'll have to grow either oats or corn.' They're both the same! Its the same crop is corn, its oats!...we never grew it, you couldn't ripen it. The first year we just grew corn - and we got to t'back end and it was still green so we had to cut it and eat it for cattle; well, it got to that late you couldn't make it in t'owt, it wouldn't dry nor nothing we got that late. So next two years what we did, we sowed corn or oats or whatever you like and put some clover in it, then mowed it like at haytime. Made grand fodder, you know, but you were really supposed to grow it for bread or summat!"

That particular farm still used horses during the second world war, and only got their first tractor afterwards, a little grey Ferguson:

"In those days you fitted your old cart up, put on rubber tyres and a tow bar, got it made at the smithy of course, and it was only pulling what a horse would pull...I couldn't get in one of these yans now, they're massive, frighten you to death!"

But automation had arrived; many jobs took only a fraction of the time and labour they'd needed before - for instance, the white-suited travelling sheep-clipping gang became two men with electric shears. Without a doubt, the world of Lakeland farming changed more in the last fifty years than it had in five hundred.