Quiet Heroes


Six days shall you labour and on the seventh rest. Except when I took this photo (featured) it was Sunday morning, and we were pretty much guaranteed showers the day after and heavy rain on the Wednesday. So the reseeding had to be done now. And time off in lieu? That’s not an agricultural term.

After they’d finished ploughing, just out of interest I walked the field. If you plough the fields adjacent on the west of this one, the sheer amount of pottery fragments you find is impressive. In one field, there’s never more than a foot between one fragment and the next. Basically these fields were fertilised from the contents of the dry closets of Barrow. People used to drop ashes from the fire and broken crockery into the privy to help ‘soak up’ any liquid. They would be emptied onto carts and the carts would be emptied on farm land handy for town. I would say, from the sort of pottery that comes up, Dundee Marmalade was very popular back then. We find a lot of bits of broken jars.

But in the field just ploughed, there’s virtually no pottery. So obviously it wasn’t ploughed much before the First World War. Whilst steep, it isn’t ridiculously steep. I ploughed it many years ago on an old David Brown 900 pulling a two furrow plough. Given the tractor was rated at forty horsepower, and peak output from a horse is about 15 horsepower, it isn’t all that much more powerful than two horses pulling a single furrow plough. It would be faster, but probably a damned sight colder working.

One problem with the field is that the soil doesn’t bind like you’d expect. The turf somehow is never all that well attached. Given I’ve seen it reseeded two or three times over the years, it isn’t just a phenomena of one particularly unfortunate seed mix. What happens is that when you brake on the slope, the piece of turf your wheel is on just sheers off from the ground and slides across the surface.

This has happened to me during hay time when everything is bone dry and it’s happened in winter. Indeed I’ve seen it happen to cows who tried to stop too rapidly and discovered they were still moving even though they were standing still. 

One year when we were silaging my father was coming down one side of the field with the tractor pulling chopper and trailer. On the last bit of the slope he must have touched the brakes and the whole outfit jack-knifed. We had to go in with another tractor and pull the jack-knifed outfit forward to untangle everything.

My father fired the chopper up again and there was apparently no damage done so he dropped that almost full trailer off, picked up an empty trailer and carried on around the field. At the top of the field, fortunately as he was going across the level bit, the chopper drawbar just fell into two parts. My father with tractor and six feet of chopper drawbar continued forward, the rest of the chopper plus the trailer stood obdurately immobile and we had to call out the agricultural engineer to get things clagged together again.

But looking back over the last year, as far as I can see, agriculture has worked normally through the pandemic. Yes there’ve been restrictions on who can and cannot loiter around the ring at the auction mart, but you cannot plough by Zoom. Vets and agricultural engineers have continued to appear on farms, as have our usual contractors, delivery drivers etc. We’ve probably been a lot less isolated than many other people, but I know that we’re getting worn down by it eventually. So how it’s been for people trapped in flats and small houses? I shudder to think. I’ve family caught in that situation so my heart goes out to everybody in these circumstances.

On the other hand there are times when I do get a bit irritated by all these BBC programmes which start with ‘And now that we’re all stuck working from home’, and then sharing their discovery that out there are people who are buying themselves ‘fashion pyjamas,’ because that’s pretty much all they’re wearing nowadays.

Whilst in some regions anywhere up to 60% might be working from home, in other regions it’s less than 40%.

Then we have the various demands that our heroes be recognised. Actually I’m really in favour of this:

Farmers don’t feature in this list, (unless we’re tucked in among the food, drink and tobacco process operatives) and frankly I don’t think we’ve regarded ourselves as heroes, we’ve just go on with it, and the year has gone round much as years do. I found it interesting to look at the trades that have kept going. Catering had to keep going for those who still worked, but of course, also for those working from home who fancied not cooking tonight. Metal working is just keeping things going. Taxi drivers are a group I feel have been unsung. Round here I would put them high on the list of key workers. I remember following a taxi down a Barrow street and he just stopped. I wasn’t sure why and then I saw the driver helping an elderly lady into her house. When he’d got her safely inside, he then carried her shopping in. Both sides of the street were parked solid, so he just had to block the road and we just let him get on with his job. For a lot of people it’s cheaper to walk or get the bus to the supermarket, then when you’ve got your shopping, just get a taxi home. The taxi might be a little dearer than the delivery charge, but you’ve got exactly what you wanted and managed to get the cheap offers as well.

So when they talk about heroes, let’s just remember the taxi drivers.

Deaths from Covid 19 for men:

  • restaurant and catering establishment managers and proprietors (119.3 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • metal working and machine operatives (106.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • food, drink and tobacco process operatives (103.7 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • chefs (103.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs (101.4 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • nursing auxiliaries and assistants (87.2 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • elementary construction occupations (82.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • nurses (79.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • local government administrative occupations (72.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • bus and coach drivers (70.3 deaths per 100,000 males)

Deaths from Covid 19 for women:

  • social workers (32.4 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • national government administrative occupations (27.9 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • sales and retail assistants (26.9 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • managers and directors in retail and wholesale (26.7 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • nursing auxiliaries and assistants (25.3 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • nurses (24.5 deaths per 100,000 females)

The sad thing is, they’re not heroes, they’re just ordinary people just doing their ordinary job in an extraordinary time.

Then again, perhaps that’s what being a hero is?

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.