Even after we told my Mum and Dad what we intended doing, they seemed to think this is a joke, they will never do it.
The year is 1942 and the country is still at war and food rationing is making things difficult for our mother to know what to prepare for our dinner, the main meal of the day. With a young family such as we were with healthy appetites it could not have been easy. My brother Thomas and I made a point of looking for and finding the remains of exploded bombs (shrapnel) the Germans had dropped the night before. Together we had collected nearly a whole drawer full of the stuff. What my mum and dad thought of this I can’t imagine, it sounds crazy now. Still, at school we yearned for the school holidays to come so we could plan something exciting to do in the holiday period. What could we do during that time? My school friend Reggie Blackman who had been evacuated to Wooler in Northumberland, came up with the brilliant idea. Why don’t we get whatever camping gear we can get our hands on and take ourselves off to Wooler on our bicycles, that just sounded unbelievable but not impossible. I had camped with the Boy Scouts previously so I knew what we were letting ourselves in for.
This was going to be a challenge for three young lads the youngest of which was Thomas aged ten at the time. We had cycled only as far as Hollywell Dene in the past, and at no time did we think it could not be done. Even after we told my mum and dad what we intended doing, they seemed to think this is a joke, they will never do it. Nevertheless our minds were made up and we set about packing the things we would need. Reggie had a tent and a Primus Stove, which I think looking back was a very dangerous piece of camping equipment to take. Each of us would take whatever we thought essential e.g. blanket, cup, spoon and anything else providing it wasn’t too heavy.
Without a care in the world we bid farewell to our mothers, and started off on our journey. How would we know the way to Wooler if we had not been there before, I hear you saying? Well the answer rests with Reggie, as I said previous he had lived in Wooler and when his foster father was making a trip as a Lorry Driver he took Reggie with him, Reggie knew the route. We trusted him to show us the way so he was our navigator and off we went on a glorious sunny Saturday. The road to Morpeth via the coastal route was, as you can imagine, quiet, apart for the odd short stop to walk up the steepest hills. It wasn’t long and we were in Morpeth. Here we had our first stop, it took a great effort to get started again, and it was not so easy.
Now we were on our way to Alnwick, it was a hot day and we are beginning to flag, but with determination we carried on until we reached the welcoming narrow gateway into Alnwick town. Now what do we do? It is decided we take the first road to the left out of the town and up a very steep hill. At the top we realized we had reached our Everest; this was as far as we could go. Across the road there appeared to be a farmhouse, eager to find a place to camp for the night, we approached the farmer’s door to ask his permission to put up our tent on his land. This would be no problem provided we did not light any fire, we asked if we could buy some milk to make tea, and he sold us some. With the little food we had left we settled into our tent with a cup of tea and very little else!
The farmer said we could stay as long as we liked so long as we made sure that whatever gate we opened we securely closed it after us. The sloping area of land offered to us was ideal, it was like being hidden away from everything and everybody, we thought this is our secret “hide-out.” What a surprise we were in for, as we explored our territory we came across a stone cottage, at first we thought it had been abandoned, not so! An untidy middle-aged man appeared from inside the house and asked what we were doing here; we explained briefly how we got there. Inside the house the first thing I noticed was a shotgun hanging on the wall, I thought he must shoot rabbits, there was plenty of evidence of them everywhere.
So here we were three lads and nothing to do, it must have struck our hermit type chap that here was a heaven sent opportunity to put our strength and activity to his advantage. This we learned almost instantly, come on boys, I’ll show you how we cut grass, being green as grass we followed him to where his tractor was waiting. With two or three swings with the starter handle the tractor sprang into life, this sounded exciting to us; we were putty in his hands. Climb onto the iron seat of the cutting machine he said, then pull this lever to lift the shears, then let them back down when I turn-about. It took us all our strength to stay on the seat; it was hard work traversing up and down the field cutting the grass. By the time I finished, my hands were covered in blisters, this machine had been made for an adult operator, not a boy, and the work was backbreaking.
Next in the cast-iron seat was Reggie and he had his turn at the cutting machine, Thomas didn’t get a chance to share the experience because frankly he just wasn’t big enough, and he would not have been able to handle it! With both of us working the cutters we managed to cut all of the field, the following day another field was cut and that was our lot, we couldn’t take any more, our hands were sore. Besides grass-cutting there were other jobs to do, our cunning taskmaster engaged us on a flat-board trailer attached to the tractor. “Jump on” he said, we will go and collect the dried grass (stokes), these were little haystacks littered all over the field and the task was to slide them gently onto the board, then bring them down to where the large haystack was, and put the hay on top.
This was now our third day we had spent working for the man with the tractor and I cannot remember him saying, thanks for your help. When the time came for us to wander back to the tent he turned and said, “Here’s a handful of tomatoes for your tea.”
From this experience I learned quite a few things I had never known before. One was how to tie a Sheepshank knot; it had to do with the trailer board that only had two wheels, that is so it could tip at one end and pull the stokes on board. At the top end of the board there was a long wooden roller attached with a stout rope secured to each end and a mangle handle to turn the roller. The idea was to back this two-wheeled trailer to within six inches of the stoke and pull the loop of rope over and around the heap of hay. At this stage the rope had to be gathered up so that all the slack was taken up and the Sheepshank tied, now the stoke could be slowly dragged onto the board by turning the mangle handle, simple isn’t it, and I never forgot how to tie that knot. All this took another two days.
The final day of our so called holiday was taken up with helping our befriended taskmaster with dipping his sheep. All this was grist to the mill to our understanding of country life in a small town. We found it all very exciting and in some small way satisfaction, that we could do something and be a success at it. Very soon we would be of an age when we would have to earn our living. They were Happy Days.
Boy on a bike
Image from Internet Archives Book Images (flickr)