Wednesday 28 August 2019

Farming practices around the village remembered

One of the few recorded memories of Eton Wick in the nineteenth century is that of a young girl over eighty years ago watching her mother making straw binders. The ends of the straw were attached to an iron hook and the straw was then plaited to make a binder long enough to tie up a sheaf of corn. Later in the day long lines of farm workers worked their way steadily across the harvest field reaping the corn with scythes, and behind them followed the
women tying up the cut corn ready for it to be made into stooks. Only the oldest inhabitants can remember such a scene, for in this century the horse-drawn reaper took the place of the scythes; but the long lines of pyramidal stooks stretching across the South Field would have been a familiar sight until the advent of the combine harvester.  To the children the harvest field meant many things, but more memorable was the frantic flight of the rabbits and hares. Many tried to hide in the standing corn, only to be forced to flee in a flurry of dust over the bare stubble when the last patch was cut.

For one or two weeks the stooks would be left to dry before being carted away, some to be threshed immediately, but most to be stored until the slack months of the winter. When the fields were clear the gleaning began. Once corn was gathered in this way to provide the families with flour, but no memory of this seems still to be with us.  Early this century, however, the stray ears of corn were gathered to feed chickens kept in cottage gardens. Though tiring and back breaking work, it was a worthwhile task for the mothers and boys of the family.

The season, however, brought more pleasurable activities to privileged boys who helped the
hayward during the summer holidays. The cattle were brought to the common each morning by their owners and then driven on to the lammas lands to graze on the pasture and   stubble.  Most of the fields of the parish would be used in their turn, including even the recreation ground but this happened on only one day as a token gesture to maintain the lammas rights. Some of the fields were the best part of a mile from the common, and there was plenty of work for the boys and the Hayward in keeping the   animals from straying on the way. Occasionally there were disputes where the cattle could go; it is still remembered how 'Grandfather' Stannett, hayward in the 1920s insisted on taking the cattle into particular fields. On one occasion the bailiff refused to hand over the keys to the Masters' Rec. so he instructed the boys to keep the cattle off the road while he broke the padlock, and then 'whistled up' the boys and drove the cattle in. The piercing sound of the whistle could often be heard during the lammasing season, for the hayward used it to remind the boys of what they should be doing during the day.

Perhaps the most vividly remembered event connected with the old ways of farming is the turning out of the horses on the common for the first time after the winter. This happened on the first day of May at six o'clock in the evening. It was a red-letter day for animals and children. The cows showed their appreciation of their freedom and the new grass by milling around, but it was the horses that reacted most. They would madly gallop up and down, round and round the common, to the accompaniment of excited shouts from the children and cries of consternation from the mothers. They were anxious lest anyone should be hurt, for no fence separated the road from the common in those days.

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