Tatworth Village/Cottage contents and farming pursuits

Chapter IV: Cottage contents and farming pursuits


All country cottages had a constant fight against damp. Rosalie Cottage had no cellar nor a damp-proof course -the ground floor was on a level with the outside garden. Other than the lean-to, kitchen, and scullery, whose floors were of sandstone brick laid on compacted soil, the rest of the ground floor rooms had flagstones. These were quite uneven and in some places loose. These were scrubbed and remained damp even on the warmest of days. There were no floor coverings except before the fire and at the side of the beds. Because the banks of the stream was slightly higher than the floor level of the cottage, although several feet away, there was a permanent rising damp problem. Two cast-iron down pipes lead from the gutters to soakaways leading back from the house.

The parlour: leading off the tiny hall, was to the right of the front door. An eleven-foot square room furnished in an Edwardian style with lace and chintz. The curtains: masking the edges of the sash windows were partially pulled back leaving the room dark and intriguing. The carpet, somehow, never imprinted its colour nor design on my mind… hidden under many pieces of furniture of highly polished dark wood, which included a whatnot and other small tables draped with lace held in place by a highly glazed pot, holding a fern, and dried flowers. The walls hung with faded engraved prints of cattle and highland scenes framed in dark wood; a mirror framed in ornate gilt hung over the mantle piece. I do not remember the room ever being used…

The living room… onetime the kitchen and scullery, was to the left of the font door and hallway. It was a large imposing room running from the front of the house to the back. It held an enormously heavy oaken table - which could be extended, perched on thick turned legs planted firmly on the stone slab floor. Over the table was spread a green-baize, fringed, tablecloth, which almost touched the floor. Single chairs, with their turned back posts and stretchers, darkened by frequent applications of beeswax and polished by much use, were tucked under the table. Behind four chairs, a line of coat hooks screwed into the sidewall. From these hooks hung all the family’s jackets, coats and scarf’s, all hidden by a heavy green curtain, which hung, from a pole close to the ceiling, to the floor. There must have been a love for green by my grandmother, much of the soft furnishing were that colour. The large oil lamp, hung over the table, had its wick trimmed, bowl filled, and glass chimney cleaned every morning. It’s warm gentle light emitted a flickering glow in the evenings… whose beams, hardly touched the furthers extremes of the room; the spluttering wick drew a circle of soot on the ceiling and perfumed the whole house with it’s familiar burnt oil smell. There was a small deep-set window in the front wall behind granddads chair, its curtains drawn back at the bottom. The ledge was always filled to overflowing with books and papers, which prevented the window ever opening… its intended task not given a chance, even on the brightest and warmist of days!

The low ceiling and exposed beams were covered in various artefacts from: an ancient sword, drying mint, horseshoes, mousetrap hanging from a hook, and resting on a wooden shelf the stub of a candle. Dominating the room, the great fireplace takes up the whole of the centre of the sidewall. The brick chimneybreast - forming the bulk of the cottage structure, supports the floor and joists. The range, probably a Bodley of Exeter of more recent times, is built into the back of the fireplace - its iron flue and canopy leads up into the chimney. Bread had been made in it and meat baked, both giving the room a homely smell… Above all, a large, champhered, and smoke darkened beam, supports the breast - from which a short curtain hangs… to prevent smoke billowing out into the room. Above this ancient beam is a bracketed mantle-shelf, which carries an ancient French clock… It ticks away the hours… Behind the clock, a walnut framed mirror hangs reflecting the green curtained opposite wall. The remainder of the shelf houses the household’s spare-change box, a couple of porcelain ornaments, granddads pipe and tobacco, fire lighting spills and a used candle in a brass holder. There on the shelf, prominent even to the casual observer, a special box marked, ‘For the burial club’, received its sixpence a week with a ritual nod of grandads head - in recognition that he had made another week... to continue the fund…!

Emitting a plume of steam… a large blackened kettle sits on a hinged, fretted iron-plate - over the fire…, hissing gently. The kettle was there all the year round, day and night… filled always to the top ready for immediate use - for making tea or washing. Our meals were all cooked in a large iron pot suspended from a bar set into the chimney. Meat of all persuasions, puddings, and vegetables all put in together, the potatoes held within a string cloth prevented from mixing with the pudding. On special occasions, we had roasted meat. Grandma twisted a skein of wool to make what she called a twisting jack fixed to the mantle shelf. It was our job to see that it did not stop spinning. Occasionally grandma retwisted the jack to set it in motion again. Bacon the most common meat. The eggs came from the chickens at the bottom of the garden and milk from the farm at the crossroads. Logs, stacked on top of the side-ovens and either side of the hearth - dry off… a sweet pungent smell pervades the room…; a brass-studded bellows, hangs from a nail, and there, on the opposite side, the warming pan - its polish brass reflects the flickering fire. The objects have been there for years… lovingly polished and dusted… now having a right to their place. Numerous nails, some of enormous size, protrude from the fire surround… the family long since forgotten why they were put there. To the left side of the fireplace a shelf carries the ancient wireless worked from an accumulator, above, a bookshelf filled with novels of long past authors…

To the left of the fire, in front of the window, was a large rocking chair clothed in chequered knitted blanket and cushions of deep red…my grandfathers. To the right, ‘a smoker’s chair’ – an oak wooden carver with curved horizontal arms, turned vertical rails and curved back. Colourful knitting and needles tucked down beside the arm; the whole, softened by a crocheted multi-coloured seat cushion… declared reservation - for my grandmother. The back wall was almost totally taken up by a welsh-dresser, behind which the shove halfpenny board was kept. Plates lodged upon the shelves and cups hung from brass hooks. Its solid construction and much used appearance gave it a status undeserved by its value… upon its broad shelf resided the salt and knife box.

A hearthrug, framed one side behind the fender, and much pitted with scorch marks, set the two chairs apart. No one, other than granddad or grandmother, ever sat on those chairs! It was quite impossible to read at night… the paraffin lamp, suspended from the ceiling, cast its wavering chequered light across the ceiling… its halo of light cast upon the table, leaving the outer extremities of the room in darkness. All those present, except my grandfather - who sat staring into the fire smoking his pipe, played whist, dominoes or shove-halfpenny? Whatever the season the room was always dark and smelt of burnt wood and lamp oil… and depending on the time of day, smoke from grandfather’s pipe. His habits were as ordered as the clicking clock. Every movement, action and breath tried before and found fitting. Nothing disturbed the ritual through the day. The clump of his boots on the stairs - both morning and night, gave voice to the time of day. I only ever saw him with a collar and that was in my parents wedding photograph. He was undoubtedly the king of all he surveyed – outside the home, his rule was law, inside however, my grandmother ruled the roost. It was a standard held firm in most country homes… The living room had a comfortable feel - secure and warm, with the ever-lighted fire flickering in the hearth. The front door and the two ground floor inner doors panelled to the same design, six-foot high, three feet wide and at least two and a half inches thick, sporting large brass doorknobs. Like the house and the people within built to last.

In the morning, those awake hear the doves cooing to each other from the school roof… as the thin pale sun lights up the garden. The scent of lavender, box and honeysuckle begin to percolate the air whilst a spiral of smoke starts to trickle up into the sky. A blackbird sings and the cock crows… grandma rakes the fire and clatters the pots. All this heralds another day just like all the others… Prior to smokeless fuel, all chimneys had to be swept annually to prevent chimney fires. This was even more important if the house was thatched. Most villages had their own chimney sweep that included selling manure in slack periods. It was normal for the sweep to inquire if the soot were to be taken away or left - to spread on the garden to prevent slugs. As the annual visit coincided with the cottage spring clean - the most popular period, he was always fully booked up. All the ladies of the village saw to it that they had their slot well booked up ready for the annual spring-clean a time had been set by grandma for the last day in March – a Monday. The previous evening the fire was allowed to die out and the hearth cleaned, removing all the usual paraphernalia that littered the range and fireplace. My mother recited how she hated the sweep coming for it meant a lot of work cleaning and putting everything back in its proper place.

The sweep appeared early the next morning his cart announcing his prescience as it was trundled to a noisy clattered outside the gate. All the furniture had dustsheets draped over them and the most important sheet of all was arranged by the sweep before the fireplace. The round bristle broom was inserted and the process begun – as the sweep jerked the broom up and down gradually lengthening the handle as the upper reaches of the chimney was penetrated… At last, with a jerk, the passage of the brush became easy and the sweep rushed outside to check that the brush had reached the top and was sticking out of the chimney. It was then, as the brush lowered, that the main work was done. Gradually the brush lowered until with a thump, the range was covered with soot and the brush appeared. Now the remains of his labour were collected up in several bucket loads. The price for the job had included whether or not grandad was to receive the soot for the garden. Each bucket load was taken outside and several piles appeared on the vegetable plot to be scattered and dug in or retained to deter slugs. With a nod from grandma, the cleaning job done to her usual high standard and the sweep disappeared for another year. Now, the annual spring-cleaning could begin…

Rosalie Cottage, in company with all the other village houses, held its annual spring-clean. No family admitted that this celebration of the end of winter was not carried out. The rugs and carpets taken outside to be slung over the washing line to be beaten. Net and lace curtains washed and hung out… windows cleaned and woodwork painted. Floors polished and walls distempered. All the sweeping by broom and dustpan… the flagstone floors scrubbed on hands and knees. The feather beds hung out of the windows to air. All the work in the house was done in the mornings leaving the afternoons for preparing the evening meal, bottling, pickling, jam making, sewing, knitting, and socialising with neighbours and friends.

The Collins’ cottage stood next to the old ford, now bridged over. On a summer’s day, the parapet afforded a convenient leaning place for members of the community to gossip over – discussing questions of the day and those things that concern the village. It is quite narrow, only allowing the easy access of hay cart, and driven flock or herd. It was originally built to save wet feet in times of flood and allow the passage of packhorse and drovers cart… It is like many others - picturesque, with a single arch; the swift flowing water opens out downstream - where the depth lessens, allowing the rounded pebbles to make the water chuckle and gurgle on its way to the reed bed lower down.

The garden gate opened onto the lane linking The Crossway’s corner - past school and shop… over the B37767, to Crewkerne, and on to Chard Junction – the nearest railway station. The name ‘street’ has a Roman origin, for paved way, this one linked all the main features of the village making it a frequent meeting place for passers by. In the twenties… on to the thirties, cars were a rarity – if a car went by children rushed to see it disappear up the road. Other than these rare moments, there was no traffic noise. Villages similar to Tatworth were self-sufficient; there was no necessity to travel afar. Many workers had bicycles and the carrier ran his delivery. There were very few changes to the village structure… for the same families existed - from generations past; everyone knew everyone else… there was no need to write the full address on an envelope for the persons name and village was sufficient. The exodus from the village final began after the war, in the 1950s, when young folk leaving school looked beyond the village. The change was remarkable for not only its completeness but also its speed. Still, I must not hurry the time along, the change was fast enough. Back, we must return, into the thirties and forties, as the robin’s bright eyes peered over the nest – his head swivelled, registering neighbouring birds calling to each other… the chattering swallows, heard in the eaves.

Occasionally a clatter of hooves announced a herd of cattle or sheep being driven by, off to Chard market… The accurate passage of time was not recognised, for very few people had wristwatches and only the older men wore a fob watch. On Sundays, the church bells rang for each service. The churchgoers filed past the gate. When the single bell stopped ringing the late comers ran… Past summer memories return… the chirping of the crickets, the buzz of the bees… and the cock’s crows, to the cackle of laying hens.

In outlying districts, oxen would provide the main pulling power, horses in areas with lighter soil. Women and men would follow along to break up the clods. The only relaxation from the grind of every-day work is a trip to market for the family. The wives and daughters would be in their best dresses their husbands in cord, cap and tweed. The rat and rabbit catcher was still an occupation each dead animal paid by the tail. Hunting was a fashionable sport. Sheep grazed on light arable land like the Dorset Downs. The shepherd and his dog could still be seen standing guard over the flock. Repairing his pens, erecting hurdles, setting up his troughs and hayracks whilst living in his movable corrugated hut on wheels where he sleeps in a bunk warmed by a small cooking stove during lambing time Hand shearing, sometimes done by a single shearer and at other times a gang… began in early spring.

Chard market, which opened each week, was one of the main cattle and sheep sales for the area and covered a large site with hundreds of pens. The auctioneer could be heard calling out the prices whilst the sheep gave voice and the cattle bellowed. This weekly market was what the rural community looked forward to each week. It gave the chance to sell their produce, hear the latest news and to keep up with prices. Streets would be sealed off, completely flocks, and herds driven in to be placed into their stalls and pens. The occasions were take for the wives to visit the shops and buy the produce that could not be purchased at the village shop. There were many customs and festivals all eagerly looked forward to and if possible attended. Mumming plays, May Days with a carnival procession - following the hobbyhorse, raising the Maypole, Morris-dancing, the harvest customs, bonfire nights and wakes… wassailing, on twelfth night and the local hunt ‘meet’.

Every year there were flower shows, fairs, fetes and feasts. Showmen’s vans and carts displaying garish and colourful posters; merry-go-rounds, stalls, roll a half-penny, coconut shies, gingerbread and lolly-pops. The showman’s drum would beat and calls made to gather in the customer; bells would ring and the one-man-band starts up. The jumble sale gave the villagers the chance to acquire cast offs and the unfitting given a new lease of life. Chipped plates a-plenty and broken children’s toys; all were queued for long before the opening hour. The stall, which held the greatest attention, was the children’s clothes. There was little ‘bye-your-leave’ but an undignified scramble… jumpers and blouses held up to the child to assess the correct size. The Rector circled the heaving mass never ceasing to be amazed by the aggressive tactics of the mothers. He was still due his tithes - one tenth of the annual produce from each parish. Even though this was reduced in 1836, many refused to pay it. There was much unrest and many court orders were issued. Even at the turn of the century through to the end of the First World War, and shortly after, tithes were paid. His control and standing soon began to fall-off never to assume its previous privileged position.

The farm-worker who looked after the horses was on many farms also the ploughman. He rose early to tend his horses that had to be fed two hours before they started work. During this time of cleaning, feeding and watering the ploughman had his own breakfast. When all was ready, the horses were led out to the field previously marked out for ploughing and an aiming stick planted to give a guide for the first ‘up’ furrow. The second ‘down’ furrow leaned against the first, making a ridge -a centre-furrow. The ploughman only worked for one continuous hour giving the horses a rest before starting again.Ploughing was an autumn job always a rush to see who could start first after the harvest over and the old ricks broken up to be spread – to be ploughed in, along with stable scrapings and contents of the dung heap.

Even during the Second World War, those working the land continued to follow old customs and attitudes. The ploughman, who worked alone, and his fine team of horses would plough and harrow the field ready for the seed to be sown by drilling. He lurched all day long with one leg down the furrow and the other up turning the fire blackened stubble of the previous year… watching the lifted turf roll off the mouldboard - to compost down the top surface. During their breaks the horses would be given their nosebags contained oats and chaff. Huge flocks of seagulls that came straight from the sea at Seaton and Lyme Regis always followed the ploughing horses. Most of the fields had their attendant rusting farm implements stored away in odd corners - the sprouting corn, weeds and brambles slowly hid them from sight until they formed part of the hedgerow.

The productive arable land was not so intensively managed in the early thirties. Later on, when Britain tried to be more self sufficient, every spare piece of land was used to produce food. It was known that lime and sulphuric acid wash out of the soil and should be replaced. Lime was the chief dressing, which then began to be used extensively - in the autumn.

When my mother was born, and for some years after, it would not have been strange to see oxen ploughing. Oxen had been used for farm work long before the horse in all corners of the world. Their working ability, after training, was the same although the ox stronger – could deal with land that is more difficult but they were slower. Their keepers took as much time over their appearance, with the tips of their horns capped in brass and bells beneath their necks. A farmer would use an ox because they existed on courser food and were fast eaters, withstood worse weather, and after a couple of years could be fattened and sold at market. They were a cheaper option – needed no shoeing; horses were mainly for personal riding and carriage work. When fat beef cattle were preferred for slaughter the life of the ox became less secure… the advent of the tractor finished their working life completely and that of the ox-carter.

After ploughing in the stubble, manure spread, and yard waste added, the field was left for the frost to work, ready for harrowing in spring. The cereal varieties have changed over the years to ripen quicker and have shorter stalks. Although this is good for the farmer it is not so for wildlife. The poor unfortunate field mouse no longer builds its nest at the top of a swaying corn stalk… Some of the field were left in fallow for the next year and others planted with pink clover, vetch, yellow mustard or broad bean. These were used as animal fodder - whilst the livestock fertilized the ground as they fed… Swedes were grown as an animal crop… either dug up or fed to the cattle… or the sheep turned into a fenced section of the field - to graze… the shepherd daily moving the hurdles, until the whole field covered.

Later on, the flock would be moved into shelters, still using the hurdles and bales of straw to enclose an area for the ewes to have their lambs. Coupling up a horse to the shafts of a horse-drawn hut-on-wheels, the shepherd would tow the hut to a convenient spot close to the flock and out of the wind. The hut was necessary, for him to stay with his dog, day and night, to guard the flock and to administer to the needs of the ewes shortly to give birth. The shepherd’s hut contained a bed, chair and small stove to provide some heat and cook his meals… he would stay there until lambing was over.The shepherd’s son was thirteen, coming on fourteen, entrusted with looking after a flock of sheep on the common. He drove the sheep taking a number of different routes - to crop new grass along the way. The path bypassed sown crops and populated hamlets keeping off roads and highways. Taking in the lie of the land, the larks soaring overhead, the growing wheat, and frisking rabbits. Along the path that lead to stream and brook giving water to the hurdle flock as it passed. This was a treat, a change from turnips. In the past, forty years previously – at the turn of the century, there had been a recovery from the imported corn and lamb. Once again, the farmer who had survived the bad years started to receive the benefits of patience and perseverance. Not those things got back to pre 1870 but they were certainly better than the nineties. In the good old days the farmers planned a succession of crops for the sheep mainly vetches, clover and turnips. With the hurdle fold moved daily the shepherd rationed what food was available.

Lambing occurred in February and within the hurdles were bales of hay placed to afford shelter and food. Although it was a bad month for the uncertain weather, it did take regard of the coming spring and the new shoots of grass. The coming summer markets were the goal of the shepherd… his every working moment now directed to achieving the best fattening for the new lambs. Farmers who had the space built lambing pens in the barn but we are more concerned about the shepherd who did not have this luxury. Often you could see, as you passed along the lane, a corner of a field sheltered by high hedges – the lea protected from the prevailing winds. Close to the corner a rick, placed there since time immemorial for the same reason… It was to be the forth side to a pen using the meeting of two corner hedges and a set of hurdles, the third… Perfect for the job. As the lambs were born more individual coops constructed from bales and hurdles inside the main pen. This was no spur of the moment devise but one handed down through the centuries.

The shepherd’s life was an exacting one for about six weeks. His hut-on-wheels emitted smoke from the bent chimney from his tiny round stove. The morning fry-ups always with ample early morning mushrooms smelt fantastic as the sausages spat and sizzled. He tramped his rounds every few hours with his trusty dog, who’s post the at the foot of the steps leading to the shepherds hut, remained his domain. The bed, with the colourful crotched cover remained unmade... no need to be worried about being chastised for not being tidy. The small table and rickety chair, the only furniture, softened by a dusty print hanging askew and from projecting wooden pegs an assortment of aprons, straps and topcoats. For this period, he was the key worker receiving due deference from passers by and other farm workers who acknowledge his importance. His boss kept him supplied with bacon, sausage and bread, and topped up his jar of ginger beer.