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Safe Home

“Drift from the land continues.”   Thus was I informed by the ‘Farmer’s Weekly’ one Friday morning as it lay open on the breakfast table.   This drift from the land affects not only agriculture but also the structure of the village community.   Of those who leave the land, many also leave the village their forefathers had inhabited for generations and go to the towns to find employment in industry, and of those who stay, most become commuters and spend most of their lives working in and travelling to and from the city.   It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to find the Coopers or the Charmans, the Thatchers or the Reeves whose descendants had practised their crafts in the same village for centuries, and I am saddened at the thought of these links, these direct human links with the past slowly withering away.   Of the hosts who patronise my own local pub, there are but five or six who are connected in some way with farming or country life.   The normal topics of conversation (apart from the usual British subjects of cricket and the weather) are now the trials and tribulations of a day at the office, the trouble one has had with the car or the recently installed central heating system and a somewhat heated discussion on ‘That’ programme on telly last night.

The truly rural community is not only dwindling but is also being diluted by the absorption of the townsman in the form of new towns and from the expanding ring of the more prosperous classes as they move out further and further from their place of work as life in the city becomes more and more intolerable.

A small but interesting side effect of this movement of the population can be noted not only in the topic of conversation, but also in the mode of dress.   At one time it was only the more prosperous members of the community who could afford smart suits of fine materials and were able to drive around in ostentatious cars while the remainder had to make do with serge or rough tweed or any hard wearing material which could weather many winters.   Now, prosperity has increased to such a degree that, on a Saturday evening, the car park of the Nag’s Head is full of shining cars none of which I swear is over five years old, while inside silk rubs shoulders with worsted.   What is left of the local gentry now distinguishes itself by arriving at the pub in a battered Land Rover covered in muck and mud and dressing in rough tweeds and cords, and if it were not for his public school accent, he could quite easily be mistaken for a tramp.   You will find him mostly in the public bar playing dominoes or cribbage and drinking pints of bitter while his city cousins monopolise the saloon discussing the affairs of the day over a scotch and dry.   No matter how affluent the society or how adamant is one’s denial of the existence of ‘class’, the differences will always be there to be seen.

Nag's Head

One such a tramp visited me yesterday to confirm some arrangements with regard to the harvest festival.   He was a man of my grandfather’s generation who had lived in the village in pre-dilution days.   The common bond of farming had drawn us together when I first visited the Nag’s Head in Ramsden Heath, and ever since we have discussed, gesticulated and argued about farming, I, learning something from his methods and he (I am vain enough to assume) learning something from mine.   So it was that two tramps (and I call myself a tramp simply because I had not yet changed from my working clothes, not because I make claim to being part of the local heritage) sat at an open window one late summer’s eve discussing and reminiscing about the harvest.   The heat of the day had left its mark upon the still air and golden rays slanted through the window picking out the curling smoke from my friend’s pipe before it disappeared into the gloom above.   His eyes ascended with the smoke and his thoughts went with them.

“`Course it’s not the same now – never will be, harvest has lost most of its true meaning.   Today it has become merely another chore that has to be dealt with.”

I thought of the congregation that would attend the little grey church on Sunday.   Ninety percent of them would be townsmen whose only connection with harvest is the bread roll eaten at their game of bridge.   My friend was speaking again.

“Nowadays the only people conscious of harvest home are those who reap it and of those few involved, only a fraction are aware of the full solemnity of the occasion.”

That’s true.   In the days of scythes and flails, even up to the time of the threshing machine, harvest time, that milestone of true country life, was steep in ceremony.   First a ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ of the harvest would be elected to lead the reapers into the field.   This was a solemn occasion for the sweat, toil and the blistering work was still ahead of them.   The long days of drudgery passed slowly as acre by acre the long stems fell to the scythe and backs bent continually cutting, gathering, binding and stooking.   Finally, upon the last day and in the center of the last acre stood the last sheaf.   If one man was to reap this final sheaf alone, he would be courting disaster.   The entire company therefore, would gather round and, at a signal form the ‘Lord’ or the ‘Lady’ (depending upon local custom), they would all hurl their hooks at the few remaining stems.   The corn dolly would then be woven to appease the spirits, then the back slapping and the chasing and kissing of the girls would begin.   More merriment would take place that evening when the whole company would assemble at the farmhouse for refreshment in the form of rough (very rough) cider and ale.

When the crop was fit for carrying and the last load had been carted in from the fields led by the ‘Lady’ of the harvest, then would come the harvest supper with its eating, drinking, toasting and singing, and soon after, the gleaning bell would ring out across the still fields.

There is always a stillness in the fields when harvest is over and yesterday was no exception.   There was such a calm in fact, that as the old gentleman opposite me knocked out his pipe on the window sill, our Jersey heifer Molly, who lay half asleep on the other side of the hoppit, turned her brown face lazily in our direction.   Nowadays there is no ceremony.   Like most milestones, harvest has been enveloped in the growth of progress and forgotten.   The old man spoke again.

“Of course harvest was of greater significance in those days, for if harvest was poor, hardship and deprivation would be the farmworker’s constant companion throughout the year, that’s why there was such joy and genuine thanksgiving when the crop was safe home.”

I received a mental picture of a field heavy with ripened wheat, the hard fat grains shimmering in the heat of summer and gold sheathed stems, faint bowed by heavy heads, stood as if they themselves were in prayer.   Then I saw beneath this deeply moving scene, the reality of sweat and toil, of aching backs, parched throats and calloused hands.   And yet the workers could still infuse a gaiety into the drudgery; even at the end of the last long day, they still had energy to laugh and sing and chase the girls across the fields.   Although there is still much hard work to be done at harvest time, the worker’s nagging fear of a crop failure is gone; the direct contact between harvester and Mother Earth has been severed and much of the toil has disappeared – but then so has much of the gaiety.

My old friend stood up and stretched.

“Even if it was a bad harvest,” he said glancing at his watch, (it was two hours past opening time), “there would always be a sheaf put to one side for the festival, partly as thanksgiving for that already received, no matter how little this might be, and partly as a prayer for the future.”

I took down my leather-bound jacket from the back door and thought of Longfellow’s words: ‘Like flames upon the alter shine the sheaves,’ flames that took a year to kindle, a year of energy which, if funnelled into a second, could move a mountain.

Strolling towards the Nag’s Head in the cool, green evening, my face stinging from the noon day sun, I suddenly remembered something.

“By the way,” I said, “what exactly was it you came to see me about?”


read the collected work as it is published: here




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