Harvest helping hand

Corn stooks, Sedrup, Vale of Aylesbury 1954

I remember so well playing in my red wool swim trunks among the “Stooks”.

This was in the lush arable Vale of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, where the locals called these fresh harvested corn bundles Stooks. With the Bucks burr, the vowel was lengthened into a sliding diphthong /əʊ/, like the vowel sound in “know”.

Our Hazel Cottage is listed in the Domesday Book [1086 AD]. Mud and wattle walls nearly a yard thick. A bread oven in one wall. A barn extension where a donkey was housed. Until the early 1960s, we, like the other thatched cottage residents in this tiny No Through Road hamlet set around cow pasture, had no running water, no mains gas and no electricity.

Hazel Cottage, Sedrup Green,
Hartwell, Bucks.
Listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 AD

I was a little lad with sandals. The standing corn stubble scratched and made tiny bloody incisions in our ankles. We cheerfully ignored the discomfort.

Peter Pilley, Sedrup 1954

I and a couple of friends, children of the farm labourers, tried to heave these sheaves of sisal bound corn together to make a cosy “den”. It was hot work in the early 1950s summer. I must have been very young, because the stooks were almost too heavy to lift!

Gilly Osborne, Peter Pilley, Wendy Miller, ‘Splendid’ Graham.
Sedrup Farm in the background

My mother was an accomplished painter in oils. Hanging on our wall today is her painting. I know that field well. I cherish it for its powerful childhood memories. It shows a field of such stooks after the huge great big noisy clattering harvester binder had passed.

The next group of farm workers would come with pitchforks to heft the stooks up onto a flatbed cart drawn by tractor.

Literally as happy as the day is long

At the impressionable age of 8, I was invited to climb up into the iron seat of a Massey Ferguson diesel tractor. I was shown how to keep the clutch depressed while the engine was idling. On the shouted signal, I was to let the clutch engage to let the wagon crawl to reach the next group of stooks. I corrected myself after a couple of juddering stalls. 

My being coopted as driver was not simply a benevolent treat. No one watched over me to see I did it right, or to be “nice” to a kiddie. I released an extra pair of hands to load more sheaves. I guess this was one way the local children got a taste of “real” farm work.

I remember to this day (after 69 years) it was supreme fun. The next time I would be driving a motor car would be around a field at school in 1963. My Mum, when she heard about it, became quite anxious after the event. When we kids came home for tea from frolicking in the corn fields, our Mums had to pick from our skin the tiny long thin black Harvest Bugs. The bugs were biters, though gentle ones.

Happy-go-lucky summer 1954
Hazel Cottage in the background

Sometimes we’d take home leftover lengths of baling twine. In 1965, I had my first car. It was an old Austin A40 in a shocking state. I named it Gertie. I bought it from a schoolfriend for a fiver. I was able to securely re-attach its faulty windscreen using a few yards of this excellent twine!

New Austin A40 – Mine was an old banger

In the 1960s, the machines were Balers. They left heavy rectangular blocks of compacted straw strewn over the stubbly fields. They made up into impressive haystacks which looked like houses or castles.

My Dad and I in wellies
Wendy fielding Peter. Her cottage in the background. A giant elm tree, too.

Haystacks composed of stooks were also huge. They had the charming look of an unkempt dog.

Haystack of stooks dwarfs Peter P

More recently, and less picturesque, corn is harvested and the straw is compressed into giant cylinder shapes. They are left covered completely in black polythene all solitary on their empty fields.

Big bale silage wrapped in six-layers

Nodding off to sleep

Painted c.1950 by Sebilla Nora Pilley

Nodding off to sleep to the collective hooting of owls in Hazel Cottage, Sedrup Green, Magicshire.

As a very young chap in the early 1950s, there was a time, while the summer light faded, when I would gradually fall asleep to the hooting of owls.

Many, many owls, some nearby, others responding intermittently at a distance.

I was cosy under the huge dome of a delicious feather eider down, I used to call The Lump. My room was at the north gable end under the thatch. 

The cottage is at the edge of a tiny hamlet called Sedrup Green, a scattered group of wychert dwellings set loosely around a wildflower meadow cow pasture to be found after the No Through Road ended and a muddy track began. 

The hamlet and some of its cottages are listed on the Domesday Book map, which dates from 1186.

These raptor calls I learned from older boys to imitate by blowing between the thumbs of my cupped hands.

Their hooted conversations held a startling, timeless and inescapable otherworldliness.

I recall these memories, and I am once more lying very still – a small breathless boy with calloused knees and a head full of the wonder of the unseeable sound makers marking out the dark hedges of approaching night.

~ Love’s presence EveryNow

My heart did beat with the same exquisite archeologist’s excitement

A paste diamanté broach, abalone, a big and a small Southbourne beach shell, a Guy Fawkes nite rocket cone, an aluminum (sic) cocktail stick, a fractured quartz crystal, a Psion Organiser motherboard, and all these are supporting cast to a precious shard of circa Victorian china with partial inscription.
62 years ago, two friends used to delve into a Victorian rubbish heap. This communal midden was only about two yards long by one yard wide. I never revisited it again. But I still keep its precise location in my head.
We discovered it on a field edge just over the hedge from a freshwater spring beside a farm labourer’s thatched cottage vegetable garden. This freshwater spring served the households in two cottages across from my parents cottage. It was one of six or seven thatched cottages which are shown on the map in the Domesday Book completed in 1086AD.
It is in a hamlet whose signposted name “Sedrup” is suffixed by the intriguing word “Only”. It is at the end of a winding single track lane, marked as a No Through Road where it branches off the A-road at a historic coaching inn.
The Lane, as we affectionately referred to it, is this No Through Road. It was where a flock of sheep were driven the half mile from the farm at the top to the grazing pasture of the lower farm. It used to be bordered by bountiful hazel bushes that filled the cottage wives’ wicker baskets in the autumn. It ends at a large, roughly oval open green, with the thatched dwellings scattered around it.
That green space, removed from traffic, much munched by comfortably bulky milking cows, used to be Commonland. The cottagers had the right to graze their donkey, horse or goats on it. We’d been told a donkey used to live in the barn portion of our own cottage. I remember the beaten earth floor and the faint smell of hay. In the early 1950’s my parents converted it into living space. The architect for the plans was my father’s brother, an FRIBA.
In the 1960’s, the farmer put up a barbed wire fence. The cows were thus prevented from accidentally wandering into the garden, an occasion for high drama. And the small boys and girls of this sleepy hamlet found they were cut off from the delights of insect-filled flowering grasses.
My Father petitioned and lost a well-argued claim to have this ancient Right Of Commons preserved. I still have the judgement document. It disappointed him greatly.
There is no vehicular way beyond the small collection of cottages. But a long straight Bridle path bordered by arable lands leads away towards views of the distant Chiltern Hills.
Fantastic adventures on this path! Discovery of sun-smelted cornfields, and mad March hares, incredible coloured butterflies, wonderful complicated hedge tangles, and cornflowers, crickets, small limestone fossils. My own voice and I, chatting to one another, and singing songs out loud, as loud as I pleased, singing out loud to the four winds!
In one of the thatches, with yardthick mud and wattle walls, I spent some of my earliest and most formative years. There was no electricity, no gas, and no running water. We drew water up in galvanised buckets from our garden well. My parents bought the pair of cottages in 1936.
Electricity arrived in early 1960. Mains gas and running water had still not been laid when I came to sell the cottages in 1982 in the year of my Father’s death.
My older pal, next door neighbour Graham, and I would search by hand for pretty pieces of broken crockery in the Victorian midden. Among these we found many fragments of blue Willow Pattern, a few mysterious mauve pieces whose colour deeply moved my boyish mind.

We unearthed broken stems of old white clay tobacco pipes, and decorative opaline glass shards.

But what we were both concentrated on unearthing was Gold! A very few broken plates, cups and saucers bore gold leaf trim. These and the other windfall were our currency and our Treasure Trove.
The name my ‘Splendid’ Graham friend and I gave to this old midden was “The Gold Field”.
We boxed our finds. We kept them close. I came across my hoard recently in an old SMA baby milk powder tin. It had remained close through at least six home relocations over six decades.
Until the day of Heike Jenkin’s art workshop “Recreating Reality” on December 10th 2016, in Southbourne-on-Sea, I had not set eyes on the inscribed fragment (pictured) for 62 years.
As I glued it in place on my canvas, my heart did beat with the same exquisite archeologist’s excitement of that young boy so very many brilliant summers gone by
~ Love is present EveryNow