If you travel north-east out of Lewes by way of Malling Down you will arrive at a point on the edge of the town where the road forks. To your right the road to Ringmer climbs gently on to the downs; to your left the road to Uckfield takes a lower route. If you decided to ignore both roads and walked along a line bisecting the angle which they make, you would, after a mile or so, almost certainly find yourself trespassing in the grounds of a large house called Ryngmer Park. If you then had the effrontery to walk through its gardens and out the other side you would pass a rather up market house that was once numbers 5 and 6 Park Farm Cottages. It was in no. 6 that I struggled into the world with the help of the district nurse on May 20th, 1935.
I didn't know it then, but I was lucky with my parents. My father, John Garner, was a farm worker and a rather unlikely one, having been born and brought up in the maze of mean Westminster streets between the Abbey and Victoria station. Nowadays the district has been gentrified a little, but in the early years of the 20th century it was a tough neighbourhood, and from the stories he used to tell it was obvious that his upbringing had been rough and ready to say the least. For reasons that have never been clear to me, he came to Sussex in his early twenties and got work in the Lancing area, delivering milk for a local farm while lodging with one of my mother's aunts. Presumably he first met my mother on one of her visits, and they eventually married.
My mother's roots, on the other hand, were firmly in Sussex. Named Violet Elizabeth Rose Page, she was born in Uckfield, where her father was a clerk in the office of a coal company and a talented amateur artist. He had also, I believe, served in the navy when younger. Like thousands of other British children she was made fatherless by the Somme offensive in 1916, after her father joined up with the Royal West Kent Regiment. Obviously a bright girl, she had to abandon her education at the minimum age in order to earn a living, and before her marriage she was the cashier at the butcher's shop that used to stand next to the White Hart at the corner of High Street and Station Street in Lewes.
With their non-agricultural backgrounds they were not the sort of couple you would expect to find living in a tied cottage on a Sussex farm in the 1930s. My father could hardly have been less like a son of the soil or the traditional forelock-tugging yokel. He was never happier than when deflating pomposity, and his streetwise sharpness and quirky sense of humour must often have puzzled the stolid men he worked with. My mother took a quietly intelligent interest in matters well beyond the isolated world of the farm. They both valued education, so my two younger brothers and I grew up in a supportive atmosphere where knowledge was valued and ambition not discouraged. As it turned out, two of us became university graduates and the third could almost certainly have done so but chose otherwise. You cannot attribute that entirely to formal education.
Park Farm, where I was to spend the first thirteen years of my life, was one of a group of three run by a gentleman farmer named Monnington (the others were Upper and Middle Stoneham). It stood just over the wall of Ryngmer Park, a mansion invariably known as 'the big house'. (The nearby village was Ringmer, and I never discovered whether the odd spelling was genuine or just an affectation.) In 1935 Ryngmer Park was occupied by a reclusive man called Mr. Glass, reputed to be a millionaire. When encountered on one of his solitary walks he would engage in grave conversation regardless of the age or status of the person he was addressing, so we children quite often found ourselves out of our depth in his company. I am not sure whether he owned the surrounding farmland, but he did his best to act the part of squire in a shyly courteous way, counting among his duties the distribution of expensive gourmet hampers to the farm workers at Christmas. The pillars of Mr. Glass's domestic staff were Mr. and Mrs. Williamson, butler and cook, whose son I got to know sufficiently well to be invited to at least one birthday party held on the Ryngmer Park lawns during the war. Thanks to Mrs. Williamson's professional skills it featured the forgotten luxury of homemade ice cream, and the occasion is firmly fixed in my mind as an early taste of the high life.
After Mr. Glass's death the house passed to a rather aristocratic family named Crawley, and the hampers ceased to arrive. Mr. Glass's mildly eccentric regime was replaced by a conventional pony-and-tweeds household with which we peasants had little contact. For a while I was consumed with unrequited love for Henrietta, the younger of the two Crawley daughters, my passion taking the form of hanging about in the vicinity of the house on the offchance that I would hear a scream and find her being attacked by a savage labrador or vainly trying to halt a bolting horse. Neither happened (which was just as well, since I would have been useless in either case) although I once retrieved a tennis ball from a high gutter for her - at some personal risk, I may say. She thanked me politely but didn't invite me to tea.
The farm's permanent labour force consisted of five men, who all occupied tied cottages around the farm. These were not palatial. Ours had a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a small attic. There was no electricity, so my mother cooked on a kitchen range and an oil stove, and when it came to the weekly wash she would light a fire beneath the big copper in the washhouse that we shared with the neighbours. In the same small block of outbuildings there was a flush lavatory - an advance on the traditional earth privy, but involving a cesspit that had to be regularly emptied. Baths were taken in front of the fire by the light of oil lamps.
There is a popular myth that country people used to be sturdily self-sufficient, but in our case nothing could have been further from the truth. Life depended on supplies from outside. We relied on the coal lorry, the butcher's van, the baker's van, the grocer's van, and during the winter there were always times when they failed to negotiate the hilly lane. That often meant forcing a pram through deep snow to the main road, where the necessities had been left at Mrs. Gumbrill's cottage. Paraffin for the cooking stove and lamps had to be fetched from Ringmer regardless of the weather.
It was to be thirteen years before I lived in a house with electric light, and fifteen before I discovered the benefits of a bathroom, inside lavatory and gas cooker. On balance I think the experience has been beneficial - after all, it bred the kind of hardiness that most boys at that time only got from an expensive public school education. Even now I tend to think of warmth and comfort as a welcome bonus rather than something to be enjoyed as a matter of course.
Surrounded as it was by tranquil, undulating countryside and commanding a fine view of the Downs I dare say the house looked idyllic to the casual passer-by, and with all its shortcomings it was probably superior to the general run of farm accommodation at the time. Textbooks of social history deal graphically with city slums between the wars, but most of them ignore the primitive and exhausting living conditions endured by very many country-dwellers, who had the additional burden of isolation.
My birth brought with it the need to wheel a pram, and for my mother that meant a walk of two miles to the nearest shop at Ringmer or one mile to the bus stop on the Uckfield road if she wanted to get to Lewes. For most of the time she was confined to the house, producing three cooked meals a day and coping with a routine in which every operation took several times as long as it would today. No wonder the sort of advertising that invokes nostalgia for the countryside tends to drive me to quiet fury, I wish those who produce it would try the experience of getting up early when the frost is hard, the water pipes have frozen and the kitchen range has to be raked out, re-laid and lit before just one room starts to get warm.
The farm was a mixed enterprise with the emphasis on dairying but with quite a large acreage given over to cereals, and it was run on conservative lines. That meant a full team of shire horses, lovingly managed by the carter, Dick Gumbrill, who always wore the Derby tweed suit and leather leggings peculiar to his trade. The milking herd was made up of dairy shorthorns, even at that time falling out of favour elsewhere with the arrival of the more productive Friesians, and milking was done by hand well into the late 1940s. The feeding, milking and mucking out of the cows provided work for a team of four cowmen of whom my father was one. His working hours were long. Rising at 5.30am every day he would be on duty half an hour later preparing for a two-hour milking session, after which he would return briefly for breakfast. With the exception of an hour at midday he than worked through until the second milking was completed at 6pm. This was a seven-day-a-week routine and he got one free Sunday every four weeks. 'Dad's Sunday Off' was a big event in our house.
I doubt whether he ever earned much more than £6 a week in return for those long hours of work that were physically very demanding. At least four hours of his day were spent crouching on a low milking stool with his arms extended, a position guaranteed to induce backache in addition to the stress on the hand and arm muscles. It must have been a considerable relief when the frothy bucket was full and had to be carried across the yard to the dairy for cooling, which was done by pouring the milk into a tank and allowing it to trickle over a sort of radiator full of cold water before it reached the churn. I was not encouraged to hang around the farm, but occasionally I would have to take a message to my father during milking, and would enter the cowshed to find him sitting with his head pressed into a cow's flank amid an unusual hush broken only by the snuffling of the animals and the swish of milk squirting into the buckets. Delivering the message was like talking loudly in church.
During the winter months a good deal of time was spent in cutting hay from a stack and carrying it to the cowshed. Nowadays this can be done in minutes by using a tractor with a front loader to lift down bales and whisk them away, but in those days it was a much more laborious operation. For a start there were no bales, and after a few months on the stack the loose hay became compressed into a solid mass, so it was necessary to climb a ladder and cut out a section by plunging a large two-handed knife down into the hay. (Today's health and safety experts would probably swoon at the sight of someone standing on a ladder and operating this lethal tool.) The heavy cubes of hay then had to be lifted off with a pitchfork and carried down the ladder. Keeping the cows supplied with concentrates was almost as tiring because the cake did not come ready-crushed and bagged but in the form of rock-hard slabs which had to be put through a giant mincer cranked by hand.
Mangolds were the other staple winter feed. These turnip-like vegetables (always pronounced 'mangles') were grown on the farm and stored in a straw-covered clamp in the field. Digging them out and loading them on to a cart was a thankless early-morning task in frosty weather, and so was the business of slicing them up. Fortunately the job of carrying feeding-stuffs to the cows was simplified by the farm's one labour-saving device, a sort of overhead railway system. Wooden troughs hung from a rail that ran the full length of the cow-shed and could be pushed by hand to carry the feed. Alternatively metal troughs could be brought in to take away the accumulated muck, an operation that had to be carried out twice a day with shovels and brooms.
Milking, feeding and mucking out the cows took up several hours a day, and in between these rituals there was plenty of other work. The dairy had to be washed down, the churns and buckets sterilised and the young stock attended to. For a brief period during the war pigs were kept - an alien species and not popular, particularly with my father whose hand was badly bitten by one. For a cowman any injury to the hands affected his ability to milk, so this was a serious incident. Whether or not the bite was the deciding factor, the pigs departed soon afterwards.
The monotonous daily routine eased a little when the cows were turned out in the spring, but the summer months brought the hay and corn harvests, which made extra demands on the labour force. Silage was not an option then, so the hay crop was vital and, because it depended on the weather, entirely unpredictable. Haymaking began with Dick Gumbrill circling a field with his horse-drawn mower, leaving swathes of grass in his wake. If the weather was kind and the hay dried he would then hitch up the tedder with its revolving spiked wheels that swept two or three swathes into a single piled row. When the time came to lift the hay, the farm's ancient International tractor was brought out and its paraffin-fuelled engine coaxed into reluctant life. This was one of the few occasions in the year when it came into its own because the horses would have kicked and trodden the neat hay rows whereas a tractor could straddle them. A waggon was hitched to the tractor and an 'elevator' (a device for clawing up the hay and dropping it into the waggon) was attached at the rear.
Driving the tractor was my father's job, and since it had a hand throttle that could be set to any speed I was sometimes allowed to steer it along the rows while the hay dropped from the top of the elevator into the waggon, where it was evenly distributed by a man whose task became increasingly precarious as the load rose - it was fatally easy to slip off the side of a waggon of hay as it rocked and lurched its way across the field. When the waggon was full an empty one was substituted and Dick Gumbrill and his horses hauled the load away to the Dutch barn at the farm. Here another team would be waiting. One man unloaded the hay on to an elevator driven by a petrol engine while two more formed the falling hay into an even stack. By the time the empty waggon had returned to the field a full one was likely to be waiting, so there was little time for rest.
For the men it was exhausting, since most of the haymaking was done in the evening after a normal day's work, but there was overtime pay, and in any case hay was a precious commodity, so there was a cheerful air about the whole business, with much coming and going by wives and children carrying food and flasks of cold tea. And with double summer time in operation those sunlit June evenings seemed to go on forever.
Two months later it would be time for a similar combined effort to get the cereal harvest in. The machine at the centre of operations was the binder, a device notorious for breaking down at frequent intervals. Considering its complexity this was not surprising. I shall not attempt to explain how it worked, but for the benefit of those who have never seen a binder in action I shall simply say that it was a device about ten feet wide with a wheel at each end. It had a long cutting blade with a conveyor belt behind it, and as the corn was cut it fell on to the belt and was carried into some bulky machinery from which a neatly-bound sheaf was ejected every few seconds.
The binder cut the corn in ever-decreasing circles, so eventually there would be a small island left in the middle of the field. At this point everyone would stand back as the dogs were sent in to flush out the rabbits which had retreated further and further into the uncut wheat. As they broke cover a brief frenzy of shots ensured that every family would get at least one dinner apiece.
With this burst of excitement over, the business of 'stooking' would begin. The sheaves were gathered and stacked upright in stooks of six or eight, to ensure that if it rained the sheaves would shed the water and dry again quickly. It was essential that the corn should be stored absolutely dry, so as soon as conditions were judged to be right the waggons would roll again as the sheaves were pitchforked up and carried to the barns.
It would be nice to be able to say that we celebrated the ancient 'harvest home' traditions, perhaps fetching out big jars of cider, roasting a pig, decorating the place with corn dollies and holding a barn dance, but it would not be true. The end of the harvest was a muted occasion. There was satisfaction in clearing the fields, but also a certain melancholy because the evenings were now getting shorter, autumn was beginning to assert itself and (for me) the summer holiday was drawing to an end. So the last full waggon made a subdued sunset journey with the men sitting on the shafts or perched on top of the load, whistling or chatting quietly while the horses plodded a route so familiar that they hardly needed to be led.
It is often said that the need to produce more food during the war hastened the process of farm mechanisation. Not in our part of the world. Shortage of petrol and the scarcity of new machinery helped to perpetuate methods that had scarcely changed since the Victorian age. The most vivid indication of this came a few weeks after the corn harvest when the thresher arrived. If you want to see threshing now you have to catch a special event at a farm museum, but these demonstrations never capture the feverish activity and sheer sweatiness of the real thing.
Heavy contractor's fees made it essential to complete the operation in one day, so soon after first light unknown men drafted in from Mr Monnington's other farms would cycle into the yard and watch for the approach of the steam tractor. Unless it had been working at a nearby farm the day before it would have to make a laborious 4 mph journey from Hobden's yard at Paygate in Ringmer. It could usually be heard a couple of miles away, but it seemed an eternity before the outfit finally chugged its way on to the farm and began the cumbersome manoeuvres needed to place the red threshing machine in front of the stack and the steam tractor at the right distance from it. Finally a leather belt would be slung between the tractor's big driving wheel and the thresher and the proceedings could begin.
Threshing was very labour-intensive. One man was stationed on the stack to throw down the sheaves. A second stood on the thresher to cut the string and feed the sheaves into the machinery. A third was responsible for hitching the sacks on to the grain outlet and carting them away when full. A fourth forked up the straw that issued from another opening and threw it into the elevator, where it was carried up to a fifth man who built the straw stack. At least one spare man would be needed so that the others could take an occasional break in turn, because apart from a brief pause at midday the machine would not stop. The puffing of the engine, its belching smoke, the deafening roar of the thresher, the clouds of dust and the hoarse shouting produced an unearthly atmosphere that was totally alien to the normal life of the farm.
When the din finally died and the begrimed engineer started to prepare for the journey back the men would gather to chat and drink their cold tea before slinging a tarpaulin over the straw stack, which would eventually be thatched. It was a significant moment - the end of the farming year. All was indeed safely gathered in, and now the days would get shorter, the lights would be on for the morning and evening milking, and the only signs of life outside the farm would be the lonely figures of Charlie Blackman laying a hedge or Dick Gumbrill surrounded by seagulls and manoeuvring the single-furrow plough behind his straining horses to start the process all over again.
On re-reading this I can see that what started as a factual account of farm work in the late 1930s has acquired a tinge of romance, but the truth is that there has never been anything romantic about commercial farming, The end product of all my father's labour was a batch of milk churns loaded on to a lorry each day. But in my father's time there was at least companionship in work - time for chat and badinage. Technology has put paid to all that. Nowadays silaging and haymaking is done by a single tractor-driver (probably the farmer himself) enclosed in his cab and with nothing but his radio and headphones to break the monotony. Operating a sophisticated milking parlour is a solitary job that requires unrelaxing concentration. The old rituals of the corn harvest and threshing have been replaced by the intimidating combine harvester. And for the farmer the prospect at the end of the day is a session with the account books or the computer. Farming has simply become a lonely business, and mechanisation has not removed the basic anxieties of an occupation where you can only control so much - where you still have to rely on the co-operation of nature. No wonder suicide is a major occupational hazard for farmers.I can say with complete truth that as I grew up I never once felt attracted to the farming life. But it must be in the blood somewhere because my eldest daughter decided that she wanted nothing else, and she became a farm worker like her grandfather before her, eventually marrying into a dairy-farming family.