June 11th is St Barnabus’ Day, and as my dad writes in his column from 12th June 1982, he is the patron saint of various things including Cyprus, hailstorms, peacemaking and hay gathering. Years ago, country folk would celebrate Barnaby Fairs, which in some places were traditional horse fairs, while in others they were more like village fêtes, with sideshows, stalls, music and dancing.
Dad recalls seeing horses pull trailers piled high with the crop, and having picnics in the fields as the whole community rallied round to help gather it in. The carnival atmosphere of these fairs was lost once mechanisation became the norm, and farmers began to use tractors, trailers, binders and bailers, no longer needing the help of their fellow villagers.
The gathering in of the hay was one of my favourite times of the year when I was a child. I’ve mentioned in columns past that my best friend and I spent many hours on a local farm, becoming very fond of a particular cow that we named Rocky. I would get up really early in the morning and head up to the farm to help with milking, feeding livestock and the mucking out of the barns and stalls. I say help. I’m not sure how much help I actually was, but the farmer and his son were very tolerant of me loitering about. He had a herd of Friesian dairy cows which had to be fed and milked twice a day, and a number of pigs that also needed looking after.
It was such a thrill when a sow gave birth to piglets, and I’d watch in fascination as mother and squirming brood basked beneath the heat of bright orange lamps. I don’t know whether it is the stark contrast in size of mum to baby, or whether it is the cute porky faces, the tiny trotters, or the curly wee tails that melt my heart, but there is something so unavoidably cute about a baby pig.
The farmer grew hay in fields that lay at the top of the hillside, and used a machine to make rectangular bales out of the cut hay. The bales would be stacked up, and then a grabber attached to the back of a tractor was used to transport the stack back down to the hay barn in the farmyard. One of the best things about being on a farm in the 1970s was the freedom to do whatever we wanted without anyone worrying about boring things like health and safety. Riding up the rutted farm track to the top field while clinging on to the swaying bale grabber with our bare hands was such scary fun, especially with the ever-present fear of falling off at any moment.
Once the stack of bales was picked up, we’d clamber up to the top and cling on like limpets for the perilous journey back down to the yard, at no point considering that we could be thrown off. We were immortal, so the prospect of death or serious injury just didn’t enter our heads.
There was one occasion, though, that we did almost come a cropper. We loved to play among the bales once they had been stacked into the barn, and would clamber up as high as we could go. We’d occasionally shift them around to build dens, and could spend hours up there absorbed in our make-believe world. We were very high up, close to the roof of the building. But one day, we must have misjudged the where we were standing, and the whole lot, with us among it, came crashing down. We were very lucky that there was a big pile of loose straw below, and we landed in it, while the bales all fell on top of us. Although we were shocked, and relieved that were not dead, our main fear was that the farmer would find us and give us a well-deserved rollicking. So we did the decent thing, and scarpered in the hope he didn’t realise that it was us who had destroyed his carefully constructed tower of bales.
I never did find out whether he knew that we had caused this mishap because he never mentioned it. He sadly passed away some years ago, but his son still leaves there. So if he is reading this, I’d like to finally come clean and apologise!
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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 10th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 8th June 2022