“If Only… If Only…”

What is it in human nature that always makes us long for the exact opposite of what we are getting at that moment?  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m constantly wishing for something different for I’m pretty easy-going – well I think so, anyway 😊   But over the last few days I’ve heard myself saying “if only…” a lot more often than is usual. 

Until Brexit changed our outlook somewhat, as a nation we were brought up to believe that talking politics (or religion) was taboo, it wasn’t something to discuss even amongst close friends or family. It was always said that the reason for not doing so was to avoid offending anyone.  I think that may just have been an assumption and that the real reason for not talking about these things is because we Brits are always taking about the weather.  There’s no time left to discuss anything else. One of the certainties in an uncertain world is that in the UK the weather will never be the same two days running.  Now even that certainty has been take away from us for we have been suffering from high temperatures and prolonged drought.

Parched earth
Wildfire – a little too close to home for comfort. (We’re ok!)

I have extended family scattered all over the world and as a child lived in a house where foreign accents and languages were frequently heard for not all of our visitors spoke English.  One of the phrases that was a constant, for we lived in the countryside, was how green our landscape was.  Those that came from more tropical climes couldn’t believe how cool our summers were either.  This year they would feel more at home for our fields and woods are tinder dry and our grass parched and brown.  It is for this reason that I have been saying “if only…”   As a relief from the arid conditions, I have decided to write about cooler, wetter times not because I really want it to snow in August but so that we had some images to look at to remind us that, unlike many other places, our drought and oppressive heat is unlikely to last very long in comparison.  If it helps to make me feel slightly less grumpy about our present state, then so much the better.

View from our garden in a normal year – nice and green!

“If only it was colder” – to wake up at the break of day to cloudless skies and sunshine is, to put it frankly, un-British.  There’s nothing worse than to lie in bed overheating only to find no relief when you get up.  Give me a crisp, frosty morning any day, when the sky is blue, the air cold and our little river shimmering, not in a heat-haze but a cold-haze.  Of course, in reality, our winters aren’t like that very often.  Far too often the days are grey and gloomy but I’m highly unlikely to say “if only…” about one of those.

A rare day when it’s bitterly cold but sunny – just how I like it!

“If only it would snow” – I love the white stuff even though it does make life more difficult.  Whether the drifts are across the road or not, we have to be out in it to attend to our horses for they need feeding and watering whatever the weather.  Snow in southern England is a very hit or miss affair and we have had none for the last few years.  Only once in the past twenty years of living in the secret valley have I had snow deep enough to ski on and it is a great source of pride and pleasure that I managed it even once.  There is nothing like clipping on a pair of skis and swishing through a landscape that has been silenced by snow.  The photos below were taken some years ago – just looking at them makes me feel pleasantly cool.

Wintry view from our house
The road leading out of the valley

“If only it would rain” – these words are almost never spoken in this island nation for rain is constantly being blown inland on a south-westerly from off the Atlantic Ocean.  However, at the moment, it is rain we need more than anything.  Our garden plants are shrivelling, the winter corn cannot be sown for the ground is rock hard.  And as inferred to earlier, we miss our green grass, our wildflowers and the verdancy of our woodlands.  The last couple of days the forecasters have been telling us that rain is on its way and that it will be torrential when it arrives.  So far, we have had three light showers lasting just a couple of minutes.  What we need is two weeks or more of gentle, refreshing rain.  Whether we get it we shall have to wait and see.  Our valley looks rather splendid when it is flood but I don’t really think we should wish for that. 

Our little house sits high above the river so flooding isn’t a problem
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that the little river can flood so much

There is one more “if only…” that I know I shall be saying before long and that is “if only it would go back to that lovely summer weather we were having.”  Some people are just never satisfied!

A glorious sunrise over the valley

All is Safely Gathered In?

The air is heavy with the scent of harvest.  Is it the summer heat that produces the heady smell of fresh straw or the act of cutting it?  Probably a combination of both but the result gives mixed emotions for, whilst there is something very comforting about knowing that the corn is safely stored and the livestock will have plentiful winter bedding, there is also a tinge of regret for it is the first sign that autumn is rapidly approaching.

Harvest is one of the few events in the modern farming calendar which gives an insight into the ways of country life of generations ago.  These days, for most of the year, farming is a solitary occupation with a skilled tractor operator carrying out the tasks of many people.  Now the fields often seem empty, quiet places, devoid of human life or activity. Even fifty years ago there were more people working there but go back even further, say another hundred, and there would have been the sights and sounds of dozens of people working from dawn until dusk, racing against the weather.  A poor harvest then meant months of hardship and hunger for many.  Modern harvesting, albeit for a much shorter time is when the fields seem alive once more with combines, grain trucks, straw wagons and the like. 


The image below is taken from a nineteenth century farming manual belonging to my great, great-grandfather, and it demonstrates just how many people both men and women, were required for harvest. There were the mowers with their scythes, the gatherers, the bandsters who bound the sheaf together and then set them in ‘stooks’ to keep dry. Finally, the raker would clean up all fallen straw and grain for none could be afforded to be lost.  Harvesting by hand was surprisingly speedy for a skilled mower could cut over an acre of wheat in a day.  However, by the 1880’s virtually all corn was harvested by horse drawn machines.

Many attempts were made to design a harvesting machine throughout the centuries – the earliest, using oxen, is described by Pliny two thousand years ago.  The binder – as seen in the wonderful engraving also taken from g-g-grandad’s book – which cut and tied the corn into sheaves in one operation, first came into use in the 1850’s; it continued to be used for another hundred years: by 1979 when the photograph below was taken it was an eccentric rarity. 

the binder can just be seen on the middle right of the photo
 
Combine havesters are giants compared to the binders of old and when they travel through the secret valley they take up the full width of the lane with very little room to spare.  First to be cut is oilseed rape, the crop that turns vast swathes of the British countryside bright yellow in spring.  The resulting stubble, unlike that of corn, is sparse and sharp and makes for uncomfortable walking on.

 


Barley, oats and wheat – which in the UK are collectively referred to as ‘corn’ – then follow with each crop (and its straw) having its own requirement and characteristic.  Modern technology may have shortened the number of days it takes to bring in the harvest but the working day is just as long as it ever was for the combines work from early morning to late at night, providing the crop doesn’t become damp with dew or rain. 

Harvest has always been dependent upon the weather so it is not surprising that upon completion celebrations take place.  Although the traditional Harvest Supper is now mostly a thing of the past, the Harvest Festival church service is still one of the most popular.  On Exmoor – where I helped with harvest in my early years – and typical of a remote, tightly –knit community, every window ledge and the altar of the church would be decorated with flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Pride of place was given to the first stookof corn cut from the field. Packed with families that had been too busy to meet one another for several weeks the hymn ‘Come Ye Thankful People, Come’, written by Henry Alford in 1844 a line from which the title of this blog post is taken, and a great favourite of the farmers, was sung with gusto.

Exmoor church

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