The first chapter of the rewrite of THE FARMHOUSE TREE with added material and more of a poetical style. Any grammatically/spelling errors to be corrected when I redraft.
For as far back as I can recall, and until I was sixteen, there was always the scent of grass changing into hay during the months of June and July, wafting in from the meads, filling the family farmhouse, known by me from the age of nine, as my farmhouse tree. In those mid-summer, swallow-filled months, the scent from swathes of drying grasses and wild flowers pervaded front and back courts, floating in from the two newly mown meads in perfumed waves. A sea, which washed through every branch-room in an ebb and flow of nose-tingling fragrances, saturating the two feet thick, seventeenth century, cob walled trunk. They came, not only from my father's fields, but also from the green sward of the two other farms in the tiny village of my childhood, until it seemed as if the whole parish was submerged beneath one gigantic hay field sea, the waves crashing over me and drowning me daily.
Through the winter months, the scent of freshly cut drying grass, was replaced by the sweet smell of hay from tallet, loft and and hay shed. A musky aroma oozing out, my father, kneeling each morning at dawn in the summer harvest, as if in prayer, plunging the two feet long iron blade of the hay knife downwards, releasing a hot scent to thaw the frost-filled air, and flow over Higher and Lower meads, where Red Ruby Devon bullocks waited impatiently to be fed with a roped wedge of summer goodness.
I would like to say, as I look at an old black and white photograph, one of the first to be taken of me, aged nine months, sitting, propped up between proud parents in the hayfield, that I can remember the hay-filled afternoon, but that would be stretching credulity to the limit. My mother in a late nineteen forties floral-patterned short-sleeved dress protected by her hand-stitched apron, and my father in his collarless shirt, cord breeches and a waistcoat taken from what was once his Sunday best suit.
In another photo, snapped within a few days of the other, my proud parents are joined by my aged maiden aunt - Aunt Nell who lived with us, and another aunt, Milly, who lived with her sister Marjorie at the bottom of the village. As a child, I always thought Milly and Marjorie were great aunt's, but decades later I discovered they were, in reality, cousins of the numerical and I believe removed variety. Coloured tints had been added to enhance the scene, my mother with lips a bright temptress-scarlet and a backdrop hedgerow the most technicolor verdant green ever seen.
Pride is writ large on all of the faces, probably due to the fact that my mother and father had waited a long time for their prayers to be answered, and for what had seemed the impossible to happen. The winter of 1946, which ran over into 1947, was a bitter one - roads and hedge troughs snow-drift filled, and certainly the coldest one in my mother and father's fifteen-year long marriage. Snuggling up close together for warmth, was the order of the night, in a farmhouse without electricity and with only a stone hot water bottle in their iron and brass double bed for heat. Nine months after that first cold week at the end of December, I was born. "After all those years the stork finally located the gooseberry bushes in top garden," said my mother with a laugh, one day, when I was visiting her in the nursing home where she spent the last years of her life.
"Yours was a hard birth," my father once let slip, as I was watching him in the shippen as he heaved, sweated and strained on a rope attached to the legs of a calf which he was attempting to pull free. "Harder than a calf coming out backwards, so your mother told me." Nothing more was said, and many years elapsed before I discovered that my birth had been a Caesarean section which had left my thirty-seven year old mother, scarred both mentally and physically.
Only a couple of months after I was brought home from the hospital to my farmhouse tree, she suffered a mental breakdown, which was described to me, many years after her death, as - 'Your mother was down on her nerves.' Back then 'post natal depression' and 'baby blues' were unheard of terms, and it was only when she was told by the family doctor that if she did not go into a rest home voluntarily, then he would have no choice but to section her into a mental home, that my mother made the decision. Taking the pen, she is alleged to have scrawled her signature in letters large enough to go across the page, marched to the awaiting ambulance and without looking back at her forty six year old husband, was driven to a private nursing home where she remained for almost six months. When I was taken to see her, I was told that she clutched me to her in the manner of a mother cat with a kitten, and she could barely be persuaded to let go of me when my father and aunt were preparing to return home.
The hayfield photographs were taken soon after she returned, and during her absence I had been looked after by my aunt. For the rest of my childhood, into adolescence, and until my aunt died, when I was twenty four, I had two mothers.
As a baby I only had to sit up in my carriage-sized, pram-nest, flap my wing-arms, give off a loud squawking cry, and immediately two mother birds would fly down and thrust table spoons of NHS cod liver oil, or concentrated orange juice into my upturned beak-mouth in the manner of two reed warblers feeding a nestling cuckoo.
As soon as I could talk baby-talk words, and sit up in my posh push chair, I was wheeled around the countryside by either my mother or my aunt, during the hay making months of June and July. Years later, whenever I brought a girl friend home, my mother with a smile would recount the tale of how, hour upon hour, she wheeled me, mile after mile, around the roads and lanes. It was an oral photograph for the listener, of how we shared a game of I-Spy ricks and pooks ( heaps of hay ready to be carted to either rick or shed) and of how, each time I spotted one, I would shout out in a loud voice that I had seen a pooky-heap. I was reminded that we played the game each day, and that one afternoon we found a cane with wild yellow raspberries. My girl friends were told how much I loved those rides around the countryside. The tales were designed to tease me in a harmless way, words full of fun told by my still doting mother about her grown up son, who, in her eyes, was still a little boy. All through the telling of the tale her eyes were an album of memories..
For the last six years of her life when she was in a nursing home, I collected her, when time permitted, and inwardly cursing her second childhood, pushed her along the pavements in her wheelchair, our roles reversed. Surrounding us, as far as the eye could see, views of suburbia, with open-plan estates, and a skyline of tile and Cornish slate roof. Occasionally the scent of a newly mown lawn. Once, while gazing at distant fields, she looked at me and said, "The raspberries were very sweet in those days and so was the newly carried hay."
I never tired of those hay-making days of my childhood, the yearly countryside ritual, so important in the farming calendar. In those hay-making days, bringing in the crop with horse-sweep and long cart was a summer highlight. The two meads, totalling just over three acres, contained a variety of grass species including meadow foxtail, dog's tail, sheep's fescue,Timothy and sweet vernal. The names, which I was taught by my father, were evocative and mysterious. He also told me that there were approximately half a million seeds to every pound in weight of sheep's fescue.
Cresting the wave upon wave of rippling wind-blown grasses, was a school of flower fish - red and white clover, meadow buttercup, orchid, lady's smock, trefoil, pig nut, yellow rattle, betony and yarrow. At the edge of the green sea, close to the hay shed a beach of fragrant chamomile.
In the ancient banked Devon hedges, a flutter of flimsy dog-rose petals. Through the beech and hazel branches, a turn-twist of honeysuckle flowers - bee and moth sucked.
The chosen days, providing the weather was set fair on the weather glass, those flaming days in June, were an annual extravaganza in the manner of the Cecil.B.Mille epic film The Ten Commandments. Director and leading man - my father. Leading lady - my mother. Best supporting actor - our next door neighbour, my octogenarian farming hero. Best supporting actress and catering manageress - my aunt. Hero of the plot - Charlie the shire horse, all stamina, strength and sweat, decked out in a costume of leather, iron and brass. His acting lineage dating back to armoured-warrior bearing stock. Best boy and extras - Myself and Jim and Derek, my imaginary friends
Housed in the galvanised iron shed between the round house and the hay shed, the props required for the epic - mower, turner, rake, sweep and hand tools- forks, prongs, wooden hand rakes and scythe. In the open fronted linhay at the top of front court the long cart and the set of wooden lades.
Each morning, before the milking ritual, he gave the banjo barometer hanging on kitchen wall a sharp knuckle-tap. On what could be the hay-making days he gave the glass an extra fervent rap. The words I'd been waiting to hear as soon as I was awake, echoing up the low narrow back stairs - "Goin' up. High for a few days. Fine weather."
The wireless weather forecast at five to eight on the Home service, listened to with rapt attention, and the piece of seaweed hanging on the cob wall next to the cider press and the hogshead barrels, brought home the previous summer, from the annual Sunday school seaside outing treat trip, checked between index finger and thumb for any sign of dampness. When all of the auguries had been checked to his satisfaction his voice once more echoing up the stairs, "Cutting today."
Before I had been born, and for the first couple of years of my childhood, the grass laid up for hay in March, was cut with a pair of horses, one borrowed from my octogenarian hero, the other from a farmer at the bottom of the village.The last of my father's horses having died in the mid 1940s. In my hay making childhood, the farmer at the bottom of the village,who was highly mechanised, came in with his Ferguson tractor and mower to cut the grass. In the sky-hearth the fire blazed with a white-hot intensity. Mirages melting and flowing. Dew drenched chamomile bruised and crushed by hoof and boot electrifying the air, sending a shock through my newly charged body.
Above the sound of the tractor and the click-click-click of the mower blade, the mew of the mouse hunting buzzard hawks - The Lord and lady together with their squire son, heir to be, inspecting their feudal estate.
Moths, alarmed by the blades, flickered blindly into the light from their dark grass clumps, wings fluttering; guttering candle flames. Occasionally the squeal of a mouse sliced by the clicking blade.
At the end of the cutting, the beached flower fish lay stranded on the flat still sea while Jim, Derek and I ran across the mead in a frenzy of excitement, chasing my shadow over the swathes, before feasting on crisps and drinking a bottle of Corona pop.
One year, in the corner of Higher mead where the grass had been left uncut, and in a spot hidden from the prying eyes of fox and human - the treasure chest of a partridge's nest. The first of the olive eggs cracking open at the end of the day's mowing to reveal a Faberge jewel, priceless beyond all wealth.
In the banked beech hedge,the leg-chirp of grass hoppers and the squirm of the escaping lizard through the wild strawberry plants with their tiny ruby fruits. Between my finger and thumb a stub-inch of tail. In the corner, by the gate leading into West Furze Close, a prickly gooseberry bush bearing fruits the size of alley marbles, golden, succulent and sweet in a juice-flow of pips over my chin and chest.
Over the following two days, as soon as the early morning dew had evaporated, Charlie the Shire horse, borrowed from my octogenarian farming hero and stabled over night in our stable, was harnessed and hitched to the hay turner. Beneath a skin-burning sun, the swathes were turned and tossed into the air to allow the grass to dry evenly and more quickly. Across the mead, my father and the shire horse fused as one and haloed in flies tramp-tramp-tramped the hours away. Forward, turn and back again. Turn, forward and back again. Tramp, tramp, tramp. The implement wheels and cogs revolving in a soak of oil. Man and beast in a soak of sweat. The stickiness of hayseeds in a glisten on chestnut flank and bronzed arm.
One afternoon, the bite of a rogue horsefly on sodden flank caused Charlie to rear up.Two iron shod hooves madly beating the melting mirage-filled shimmering air. My father almost losing control as the terrified beast careered off in a tumble-turn of wood and iron shafts and turner. Brought back under control with his firm but gentle voice, "Whoa boy. Whoa there."
Filling the air, and overpowering my senses, the scent of hay mingling with chamomile flowers crushed by iron horse shoe and leather hobnail boot; sensuous and intoxicating. And all through those hay making days the buzzing of bees bustling around in the gentle breeze. My father's chanted verse each summer, 'A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.In June a silver spoon, but in July not worth a single fly.' A babble of buzzing around their Tower of Babel flowers in the ancient banked hedge. Eden-like the bank brimming over with vetch - tufted, pea and yellow, fox and cubs, boots and shoes, a floral plate of bacon and eggs, white bindweed, foxglove, meadowsweet and rosebay willow herb yet to break bud. Cascading down the bank in a tumble of petals, a floral rainbow. In the hedge trough, brittle porcelain shards of the pink and white dog rose.
On the final day, another tramp-tramp-tramp, and the final turning. My mother and aunt hand raking the straggle of grass stems back from the hedge trough with rake and prong. Next, the hay raked into windrows with the Blackstone iron rake before being swept in Higher mead, and carted from Lower mead to the hay shed.
My father pressing the foot bar with his hob nail boot, while his hand worked the hand-lever to raise and lower the rusty curved tines. The clunk-clunk-clunk echoing across the field. All the while me and my imaginary friends cartwheeling, somersaulting and skipping with the red wooden handled skipping rope, "Salt, mustard, vinegar and pepper." The skipping rope chant from the playground.
In Higher mead, the windrows heaped into pooks for the sweeping. The shire horse hitched up to the wooden sweep. Pulled over the grass the sweep tines piled high.
"Higher, dad, higher.Sweep it higher. Build it up to the sky."
The sweep swept heap of hay pulled back to the shed by Charlie. "Whoa, there. Whoa boy. Back up." In a strength-wrench, his hands pulling the sweep back and tilting it upwards and forwards. "Move on boy." The sweep rising into the air, before somersaulting over the swept heap. My father moving nimbly around the side of the tipped heap, righting the sweep as it landed, to prevent the wooden tines from smashing. "Whoa boy. Good boy." A click of his tongue. "Move on."
Once again over the field to gather up another heap of hay. Back at the hay shed the swept hay pronged with picks up to the rick builder by two villagers, brought in as extras for the epic film. The stack shaped and trampled down by my octogenarian hero, built up on foundations of beach faggots from the wood ricks in back court to prevent damp from seeping up into the hay and causing mould to develop.
When the hay from Higher mead had been swept up, Charlie was unhitched from the sweep and harnessed to the long cart. Crafted before the beginning of the First World War, in the carpenter and wheel wright's shop directly opposite my farmhouse tree for, it consisted of an oak framework, a floor and wheel hubs of elm, and spokes and shafts of ash, and had taken many weeks to construct and had cost eighteen guineas. As well as carrying hay it was used for bringing in sticks and faggots when a hedge was laid, and in previous years when my father had grown corn it was piled high with sheaves brought in to the barn where they were thrashed by the stationary barn thrasher powered by the oil engine
Pulling the cart was a lumbering of strength. Heaving and straining. Plodding hoof and the head bowed. The jangle of harness. The creaking of axle and hub.Iron rimmed wheels rumbling through pot hole and rut, and the ground dust-dry. The ton load lurching to the left and to the right. Hay wisps in a straggle, snagged on beach branch and bramble. Swift wings scything the sky in an arcing flight. Pitch forks thrusting upwards, and the rick growing ever higher.
An oil slick of sweat staining the chestnut coat, flanks flecked in foam. And the horse piss in a gush steaming, leaving a froth pool in the grass. Seconds later, small bubbles still bursting.
That never to be forgotten first time ride atop the final load with instructions from my father to hold on tightly as the first dew of twilight began to dampen the air. Exhilarating and at the same time frightening. My small hands gripping the rope, which clamped the load tightly to the cart, my knuckles white.
For a few minutes the horse drawn cart became a galleon, its grey timbers creaking and groaning, as the craft with its stacked cargo made its final voyage to the hay shed quay across the meadow-sea. Honey suckle rope rigging and white bind weed flower sails.
Lying out full length, flying above the farm-field world. Head down, face buried in the hay stalks, nostrils soaking up the scents of the dried grasses and flowers, their fragrances mixing with the chamomile crushed by boot and hoof. The first twilight moths fluttering into the banked hedge. Beech leaves brushing my naked back as the cart passed under the branches of a tree.
Plucking up the courage to lift up my head and take in the hay-world as the load lurched and swayed beneath me. Apprehension in the pit of my stomach as I anticipated getting down from the load. Sitting up and the feelings of fear disappearing. A smile filling my face.
Coming to a halt. The pause. The deep breath before sliding down the side of the load and into my father's safe arms. Crop and boy, all safely gathered in. The final load, the final act in the film. Hay in a cascade tumbling.
On a June night around ten-o' clock the hottest place on the farm was at the top of the hay shed in the three feet of confined space between galvanised iron roof and the stack, as the final load was pronged up. This was an oven, where sweat oozed out from the octogenarian rick maker in the manner of grease from a chicken roasting on Christmas Day. The scent from the shaken cocktail of dried flowers and grasses with the aroma stirring my senses leaving me giddy and intoxicated.
One summer a whirl wind on the final afternoon, just as the carting was beginning in Lower mead, blew from out of nowhere and lifted swathes of hay, depositing them over the hedge in the adjoining Bull's Mead where they were hand raked into pooks to be carted as the last load to the hay shed.
Tea times at hay harvest time were times of delight, with a feast laid out for the cast of the epic. A white linen table cloth taken out from the withy baskets for the finest picnics of the year. Home baked pies and tarts. Thick slices of home cured ham between doorstep slices of freshly baked bread smothered in home churned butter.
Even when meals were eaten out of doors, grace was always said, together with the unspoken words of thanks, for a crop almost safely gathered in. Under the shade of the centuries old towering beach trees the contented munching sound of Charlie enjoying a well earned rest. A glut of home baked riches. A smothering of butter on slices of recently delivered crusty loaves. A treat Corona bottle of fizzy pop, the Orangeade bubbles exploding up my nose. The first long draught from a glass tumbler, followed by a loud belch. A look from my aunt, my father chuckling, "Where ere you be, let the wind go free. In church or chapel kept it rattle. Let it rip through either door."
A shake of her head, a "Tut,tut,tut," and an admonishing look followed by - "And don't go losing the bottle, there's thrupence back on it."
As well as the hay harvest affecting my senses of hearing and smell, there was also a new sense slowly waking in my body. Rolling over and over, face down, my body fully outstretched between the windrows, into the windrows and through the windrows Feeling the prick of dried stems on my naked arms, legs and chest. The new sensation mingling with the scents, tingling through my skin and into the very fibre of my being. Enjoying it, but at the same time feeling wary of it, almost afraid of this new feeling.This was the beginning of my gradual awakening.
A buttercup held under my upturned chin by my aunt with the words, "Yes, he likes mum's pat of butter. See how the yellow spot dances on his skin!"
Two buttercups held. My aunt smiles. "Two dancing spots. He likes dad's separated cream as well!" The words exclaimed with joyous laughter which, in that split second, erased the lines from her sixty-five year old face. A fleeting glimpse of much younger features which I had only seen previously in the photo from her youth, taken when she had posed for the photographer on her twenty first birthday. The tips of her fingers lingering briefly against my neck in a stroking motion as she withdrew the flowers.
"And here's a chain for our little prince." Mum fashioning the daisies into links, as she had done at every hay making time, since I was four, from flowers growing at the base of the stout pine poles, which supported the galvanised iron roof of the hay shed. The chain lowered over my tousled head and placed in position around my neck. Her fingers ruffling my curls, moving down to caress my glowing cheek. The lingering scent of chamomile on her finger tips from when they had brushed against the flowers while picking the daisies.
The two women in my young life, vying not in competition, but in a loving way for my attention and affection. The awakening continuing. The first tactile, sensuous sensations beneath the rays of the evening sun which would remain with me forever.
With the hay shed stacked and the cob-walled tallet filled, the dark descended. The afternoon wing-surfing-the-clouds swifts, the sky-swimming house martins and the soaring, diving swallows, were replaced by the fluttering wings of the tumbling brown-black velvet coated pipistrelle. The first dew of twilight on newly mown grass, sun-bleached and beginning to grow again, and the darkness startling us with its sudden arrival. The air a shaken smother-scent of hay and chamomile. A cocktail rich and intoxicating. In the hedge, in a tendril-twist of tender limbs, the honeysuckle twirled her body in a gyration of spell-binding twists and turns through the beech and hazel branches. Her perfume drawing in the twilight travelling moth as she serenaded the harvest home.
In the language of the film director, we had a wrap and the epic film was in the can. The actors and actresses congratulating one another. The hero of the action unharnessed, fed and watered. On the director's face a look of quiet pride of a job well done as he quietly left the set. In our nostrils a scent, incense sweet. If I was lucky my father would lift me up on Charlie's back and lead him across the meadow before returning him to be unharnessed, fed and watered in the stable. Bouncing along as he muffle-clomped his way over the grass. In my head I was a Grand National jockey, as I looked over the winter-laid Devon banked Beech hedge - my Beecher's Brook which I knew I would only jump in my imagination.
Coming to a cinema near you, if you're very lucky, the cinematic epic - HAYMAKING.
My family was a Methodist family, consequently no farm work, and that included hay making, was ever done on a Sunday, even if rain threatened. My father commenced his hay-making early in the week as soon as fine weather set in, and because of this his hay was always carried by the end of the week, and the need for Sunday carting never arose. I know for a fact however, had he had a field which, because of inclement weather needed to be carried on a Sunday, when rain was forecast, the hay would have remained in the field
He only ever lost one field and that was in 1963. Soon after he had decided to cut a field, which he had never harvested before, but which had an abundance of lush grass in it, black rain-filled clouds moved in overhead which refused to budge, and over the next few days there were heavy storms. Unable to turn the grass, he watched as the crop was ruined and at the end of a fortnight the thin remains of the grass stalks were loaded on to the long cart. "Poor stuff," he told me on my return from boarding school for my summer holiday. "Barely a load. Only fit for bedding in the shippens, barely better than rushes. I never want to see a crop like that again."
In the implement shed at that end of that summer, turner, rake and sweep, all stored away, cleaned and oiled. The hand rakes and prongs leaning against one side of the galvanised iron shed. The scythe, used to cut the grass by the hedge troughs to open up the field, was honed in readiness for his next hay harvest which would never take place under my father's custodianship of the fields of my farmhouse tree.
At the farm sale the long cart, together with the lades, hay turner, rake, sweep and assorted hand tools was sold for less than ten pounds.