Country folk know the dangers of ragwort to horses and cattle, although I didn’t realise that most cases of poisonings come not because an absent-minded animal ate some by mistake, but because it has been hidden in contaminated feed, such as silage or hay. Due to the bitter taste of the plant, the animals sensibly give it a wide berth while grazing in open fields.
In his column from 16th September 1978, my dad tells the tale of some of us children bringing home a bunch of yellow flowers gathered from a nearby farmer’s field, not knowing that this wild flower was in fact that troublesome weed. As far as we were concerned, this tall, handsome bloom could rival any you might find in a shop.
A large part of my childhood was spent helping (or hindering…) the farmer who owned that field. He had a herd of Friesian cows and a number of pigs and my best friend Rhiannon and I would regularly spend all day on his farm, just a short walk from home, mucking out the cows, feeding the pigs, helping with milking, or making dens in the haystacks.
Some of my favourite memories involved harvest time. The farmer, who ran the farm with his son, had some fields high above the village where he grew straw and hay. Once they’d been turned into bales and placed into square stacks of about 24 each, they would attach a piece of equipment to the back of the tractor that could grab the stack, enabling them to transport it down to the barn.
Rhiannon and I would climb on to this metal grabber (apologies to aficionados of 1970s farming equipment, I have no idea what it was called!) and hang on for dear life as he bounced and rocked up the hill to the top fields. There was one particularly steep bit with deep trenches that would send the tractor lurching from side to side as it navigated the ruts. We were tossed about like damp tea towels on a windy washing line, and the threat of losing our grip and being flung off never seemed far away, which of course is why we loved it so much.
The return journey was even more thrilling, and the fear of mortal injury was ever present (imagine the Kumali roller coaster at Flamingoland, but much cheaper and without the queues). After he’d loaded the bale stack into the grabber, we’d clamber on top, and sit there, both hands gripping the metal frame, as he made his unsteady way back down to the farm. When we reached the extra steep bit, the sensation of tilting from side to side was even more exaggerated from atop the bales, and I’m still not sure how we never came a cropper. Thank goodness our mums never knew what we got up to!
The farmer and his son were the most tolerant and friendly of sorts, typical jolly North Yorkshire farmers, and didn’t seem to mind that we hung about so much. In the winter, the cows needed fresh hay and bedding straw each day, and we sometimes helped the son with those tasks.
Like his father, he was ever cheerful, and used to whistle and sing constantly. There were a couple of phrases he’d come out with that I never questioned, but now wonder where they originated.
If he expressed surprise, he’d often say: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”
Or sing: “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” To which we’d respond: “Underneath his bed, looking for some matches!”
I have found that ‘Heavens to Murgatroyd’ is first recorded as having been said in the 1944 film musical ‘Meet the People’ starring Lucille Ball, but was popularised in the 1960s by the Yogi Bear TV show. More interestingly though, I also discovered that in 1371, a constable called Johanus de Morgateroyde was appointed to the West Yorkshire district of Warley, and his name meant ‘John of the district leading to the moor’.
As for ‘Where was Moses When the Lights Went Out’, it is the title of a song that has been around for a couple of centuries, although we must have made up our response, as our words do not appear in it at all! Can anyone else shed light on these expressions, I wonder? Source: phrases.org.uk).
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