On the day that I noticed that Nelson, atop his column, was proudly standing in front of a large skep, I went on to the British Library. The main reason for the visit was to ascertain whether they need a copy of ‘Getting the Best from Your Bees’ and was told they they don’t NEED one but they’d like one.
Browsing around the place I found a feature in which you could listen to local accents and also record your own. I listened to an old chap from Abbotsbury talking about cornstacks and another from Yeovil talking about the gloving industry there, and then went on to record my own contribution.
Anyway, this got my mind tuned into the way things were done in my younger days in the countryside. You have hay ricks and corn stacks. Why? Well, hay is heaped haywire into a hump and it doesn’t matter if it gets ricketty as when it is needed it is just forked down loose for the animals to eat. Corn, on the other hand, (for readers from exotic places I should explain that I’m not talking about Indian Corn or Maize, but wheat, oats or barley the grains commonly grown hereabouts when I was a lad) before the advent of combined harvesters but when horse or tractor towed binders (I am not old enough to remember further back than that but I knew a man who, with 2 others, harvested a field of corn with scythes) was harvested differently.
Sheaves of corn coming off the binder were stored in stooks to season and dry while the harvesters got on with the rest of the fields while the sun shone. Then they were pitched with pitchforks into a cart and taken to the stackyard where they were carefully stacked so as to shed any rain and then thatched. It is at this stage that the skeppist should ideally acquire a sheaf or two.
Getting towards Christmas time the threshing machine would arrive, towed by a steam driven traction engine. This then provided the power for the thresher via pulleys and belts. When all was ready, the men tied string around their trousers, just below the knee and assembled around the stack and machinery, pitching sheaves down into the top and retrieving the corn and straw at the bottom. I can’t remember whether the straw came out loose or baled. I think loose, but there were bales around at the time as I remember building tunnels with them in a barn, unbeknown to the farmer.
Why the string around the trousers? Mice! They had been living and feasting in the stack and now were running in all directions seeking a dark hidey hole, a trouser leg being ideal for this! We kids were in short trousers (or skirts for the girls) so weren’t troubled in that way. Family dogs had a tremendous time hunting the rodents down and many people used stout sticks for mouse bashing. I can still picture in my mind, after more than half a century, one poor mouse which had been heavily pregant and a cluster of tiny pink mouselets each about the size of a child’s little finger tip came bursting out!