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