On Christmas

For some time now I have been thinking about this post. Mainly it has been brought on by two people I follow on Twitter, so thank you to @herdyshepherd1 and @AmandaOwen8; if any of you out there do Twitter and don’t follow these doughty shepherds, then you should. Their Tweets over the year, and a difficult year it has been, have reconnected me with my own past and in particular my childhood and for that I thank them.

I was fortunate enough to grow up on a farm. After the war my Dad came home from a rather cushy sounding gig in the Army of Occupation in Austria (lots of good food and drink plus skiing) to the job as farm manager for a thousand acre farm in Buckinghamshire – a large farm in those days. He spent most of the next fifteen years persuading me not to follow him into agriculture, he nearly achieved it but I did spend a short time pig keeping with him in Sussex later on.

Anyway this year I have been thinking about Christmases spent on the farm when I was but a lad. Although we were a mixed farm Christmas Day was about the animals; there were cows to be milked, cattle to be fed, sheep to be shepherded and pigs to be fed and all to be done twice. As well as the ‘other’ things that crop up, bulls and boars had their jobs to do and sometimes there were new animals arriving too.

Christmas Day started unusually early so that we could get people away home early; all the stockmen were in and usually some of the tractor drivers would come in as well to help with feeding or littering up. The milking was the main event but it was all hands to whatever else had to be done. I remember one year I was ‘messing about’ by the dustbins (as little boys do) when the bull came charging round the corner, unhappy from being rebuffed by a lady, he appeared to be intent on taking out his frustration on a small boy fixed to the spot. I don’t know how much my Dad had seen but his arm appeared over the wall and I was hoiked out by my collar – much relieved. I had to promise him “not to tell your Mother” and she’ll never know.

I remember another Christmas Day when a heifer chose to calve. When delivering a calf the ideal situation is for two little hooves with a nose between them appear at the appropriate orifice, sadly that doesn’t always happen and I won’t frighten you with descriptions of ropes and stout men pulling! On this particular occasion everything was all over the place and everything was in the wrong place; the stockman tried to sort it out, my Dad tried to sort it out I think I even had a hand in it – literally, all to no avail so the Vet was called. I will never forget the sight of a large, stout man who everyone in the county knew as “Uncle”, stripped to the waist on a freezing Christmas Day morning, both arms up to the shoulders into the rear end of a cow ‘sorting things out’. And he did, a real star, then broke the ice on the cattle trough to wash off after being sure that mother and calf were doing well; very appropriate somehow for Christmas Day.

There was a ritual to the Christmas on the farm; as each man finished his allocated task they would come to the farm house where we had a huge kitchen with an Aga on the go. Everyone got a mug of strong tea laced with a generous shot or brandy or rum and a large slice of pork pie for breakfast; it takes a real man to breakfast on pork pie I think. After that they would be given twenty Players (cigarettes, this was the nineteen fifties) and sent on their way with our compliments of the season. And then there was Old James . . . . . . .

When Dad took over the farm there were twenty six heavy horses which did all the ploughing, carting etc. and the first thing he had to do was to replace them all with tractors. He hated having to do this and made sure that they all went to good homes but he had a large farm to turn round into a profitable business and they had to go. The last of the horsemen was Old James. He was something of a character and head of quite a clan of sons and nephews who also worked on the farm. Each year after he left he would appear at the scullery door on Christmas Day and say “I’ve come to pay my respects to the Master” (this was a different generation) and would be brought in and sat down at the table with a glass, bottle of whisky and jug of water . . . . . . and became a sort of background music to my early Christmases. When we were eventually ready for lunch he would be encouraged to return to his long suffering wife for his Christmas lunch; he lived a couple of miles away and would set off with his bicycle intent on lunch. However to get home he had in theory to pass the village pub and always felt the urge to pay his respect to whoever was in it.

To the best of my knowledge he never actually made it home for lunch, when the pub shut for the afternoon the landlord annually took Old James home, snoozing happily, in a wheelbarrow!

Incidentally years later when James was very ill my Dad used to visit him every week and he was confined to bed and was an absolute old horror. He had a walking stick beside his bed which he used to hammer of the floor to summon his wife upstairs. Beside the bed was a large old fashioned alarm clock but James couldn’t see it so he’d say “what’s the time Missus?” and she’d tell him. Only trouble was that he’d do it several times every hour. When he finally died my Dad went to pay his respects and his widow said to him “You remember that bloomin’ alarm clock? Well it’s in the box with him!” Poor Dad had a very nervous time at the funeral worrying if it would go off.

Christmas demands turkeys and every year we bought in turkey chicks to bring on for Christmas. The estate was owned by a well known merchant banking family who generously gave a turkey to all employees, former employees and to a number of other beneficiaries. So December meant plucking and, again. all hands to the pumps. Of the plucking shed all I can remember is a lot of shouting and laughing and feathers ……. everywhere; I used to help weighing, labeling and despatching. Everything was labelled and hung up in an old dairy ready to be sent out. Local deliveries were done by us, my earliest memory is doing it by horse and cart but later with a tractor (little grey Ferguson) and trailer. The long distance ones were wrapped in straw and put in lidded willow baskets and taken to the railway station; British Rail would ship them out to the nearest railway station and then did the final delivery from there by road; and would send back the empty baskets later. The main customer however was the bank; they took lots and they wanted them BIG! When everything was ready they would send down their armoured car (yes honestly, an armoured bullion van!) to collect them; some of them would be over sixty pounds in weight and I observed something that many years later I recognised as overloading! Some years the wheels were quite literally dragging on the  bodywork. Love to imagine those London bank clerks struggling home on the bus with a sixty pound turkey.

Christmas was very busy then as there would be a big shoot on Boxing Day with V.I.P. guests and a meet of the Hunt later in the week as they had their kennels on the estate and before I knew it I had to be off back to boarding school, but what memories I had and this year I have been coaxed back to a position of remembering and enjoying many of them all over again.

I could tell you tales of other Christmases and piglets in the oven to warm up, “move that bl***y turkey, I’ve got a piglet needs reviving here.” but that will have to wait for another year or so.

To everyone out there who is kind enough to follow and comment on my blog, and to anyone else who stumbles upon it by chance or through being blind drunk, I wish you all, and your nearest and dearest a wonderfully Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year

And to quote the late, great Dave Allen ” Goodbye and may your God go with you”.

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