Tough to Farm

BY JIM WEBSTER

Falling asleep at the wheel when mowing isn’t something you do too often. I’ve never managed it. My father did. He was mowing whilst I was greasing round the forage harvester. The field he was cutting was on a slope, so I could hear the tractor get nearer and then get further way as he was mowing. Then I realised the note hadn’t changed.

So I went to investigate.

Now some people reading this won’t know the details, but as you come to the end of a run when you’re mowing, you lift the mower, turn the tractor to line up for the next run and then lower the mower again. All this is with the tractor running at ‘pto rev’. So the mower (a two drum mower with two drums spinning) was making a lot of noise, and the tractor engine was making a lot of noise too.

Because my father had come downhill on one run and was going uphill on the next, he had to change gear. So he’d come downhill, got to the end of the run, picked up the mower, turned the tractor, dropped it out of one gear, and in the brief spell when the tractor was out of gear before going into the next gear, he’d fallen asleep. Given that by that point we’d had well over a week of starting at 5am and finishing at between 10pm and 11pm with some meals eaten on the move, this isn’t entirely surprising.

So I walked up to the tractor, knocked the revs off and then knocked the power take off out of gear so the mower slowed down and stopped. The ensuing quiet woke my father up. At that point I asked if he wanted me to finish off the field. He merely commented that he’d had a nice nap so felt good to go.

My Grandfather’s generation was as bad. He was once clearing a gutter out. He picked up a fence post that had fallen in and several inches of a nail stuck into his arm. Carrying the fence post with him, he walked across two fields to a neighbour who got him to the doctor who got the nail out of him.

Neither generation thought this sort of thing was unusual. My father had volunteered for the RAF in 1939, but they’d discovered he was a farm worker and sent him back. I remember in the early 1980s the pair of us went to a farm sale. There my Dad met somebody he’d last seen in 1938. They’d worked together for a couple of years and the other chap had had enough of farm work and had joined the army. He’d spent the war fighting in Burma, and as the sale continued, he and Dad had forty years of catching up. Burma had been rough on him, he didn’t look well then, and he died a couple of years later.

Fast forward to the banana slide…

In Barrow Park they had a banana slide. You see the picture, more than twice the height of a man, with no safety rails and good old-fashioned concrete to land on. When I was in the first year of secondary school we were still allowed in the children’s play area so we could take turns on the slide. The basic rule was if you were still wearing shorts, you were young enough to be allowed into that area.

We had a whale of a time on it. One lad would fetch the wrapper from a block of butter or marge and he would slide down the slide first, sitting on the wrapper with the greasy side down. Then we’d all pile down behind him, and by the time the first ten or a dozen had been through, it was polished. I’ve been down that slide and shot straight off the end. The technique was to get your feet under you so you came off the slide running rather than just hitting the ground.

Of course the slide has gone now. I must admit I don’t remember any serious accidents, certainly nothing that demanded hospital. They had one of those heavy wooden playground roundabouts as well. I remember they were more dangerous than the slide because if you got your foot under it, it could really hurt.

From memory the girls tended to monopolise the roundabout and the boys just played on the slide. It might have had something to do with the fact that the roundabout was more forgiving for somebody wearing a school skirt.

I remember talking about our time on this equipment to somebody a generation younger than me and they just looked horrified. The question was asked, “How could they install such dangerous equipment for children?” Given that the men who had installed the equipment were men who’d jumped out of a landing craft and run up a beach under fire, how dangerous would they have regarded it?

Similarly, due to blind chance, quite a number of Barrow lads ended up in the 1st Airlanding Brigade and took part in the fighting around Arnhem, (A bridge too far.) They went in not by parachute but in gliders. This was apparently terrifying, you hadn’t a clue what was happening, and every so often you’d be shot at and shrapnel would go through the thin plywood fuselage. Then to put not too fine a point on it, your glider crash-landed, and you were in the middle of a war. Of the 2,526 men of 1st Airlanding Brigade who left England for Operation Market Garden, there were 230 killed, 476 evacuated and 1,822 were missing or prisoners of war. Banana slides? Not a problem

I am lucky enough to have worked with men of that generation. I remember working at hay time. One of them men helping was a police sergeant who’d already put in a full shift but was up for three or four hours of hauling bales by hand to keep his hand in. Others were fitters in the shipyard or worked for the council on the roads or the bins.

We talk about today’s soft generations but looking round there’s a lot of good people of a younger generation working in agriculture now. Running their own businesses and doing a good job. I suppose you’d expect it, they’ve been properly brought up. But I’ve come across others, out of town, who aren’t afraid to put in a long day in the rain. Talking to them, next summer they might go to university, hopefully they’ll do well there. They’ve got the work ethic.  

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.