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Making hay when the sun shone

Reminiscences by Margaret Crittenden

Life on a local smallholding in the middle of the C20th - Glynderi on the slopes of Mynydd Ddu

 

(Glynderi is found by going to the bottom of Neuadd Road, then turning right and up the hill past Tir Sir Walter towards the crossroads at the top. Then turning left takes you down past a few old buildings towards the Black Mountain and Llandilo. Glynderi is one of these on the right.)

When I look back over my childhood days, in the late Forties and through the Fifties, it is the time spent out of doors on the farm that is most vivid in my memory. And haymaking in the summer was best of all.

The farm was a small-holding really,  a cluster of fields on the lower slopes of y Mynydd Du - the Black Mountain. It had been a hard struggle for my grandparents to claim it from the mountainsude - to dig drainage ditches, to eradicate the all-pervasive reeds and gorse. But in the end, they 'reaped their harvests' - large pasture fields on which grazed a small herd of Ayrshires and four hay fields which produced the sweetest, tastiest fodder a cow could wish for in the depths of winter!

We farmed in the traditional way - what would now be called organically - with equipment which was old-fashioned even then and with labour-intensive methods. After all, what better use to put a large, extended family to? When the men of the family finished their shift at the local colliery they too would join our labours - part of the dual-economy of the area in those days.

The most important part of all was played, however, by Chess, our Welsh cob who worked untiringly and goodnaturedly. She drew the harrow that prepared the fields in Spring, then hauled the haycutting machine and finally pulled the hay cart with its towering load. I loved Chess. Loved watching her muscular body rippling as she moved along, her rich chestnut brown coat shining. When she paused for a rest, I would run up to her, looking into her huge, soft brown eyes, being nuzzled by her finely-proportioned head. She was part of my childhood, part of me, seemingly eternal, indestructible...

As soon as the grass reached a good height, we all anxiously listened to the weather forecast on the wireless - in absolute silence at Dad's command. A promise of a few fine, sunny days sent the whole family into a paroxysm of activity. Then the cutting would begin with my youngest uncle, Llew, perched on the iron seat. For long hours, Chess plodded in straight lines, up and down field after field until the waving fronds lay in gleaming, smooth symmetrical lines.

The rest of us would follow behind, unclogging, with our wooden rakes, the thick green clumps of moist grass when necessary. With us trotted our Welsh, black and white collie dogs, Prince and Juno. They were in their element, seeking out lurking frogs disturbed by all the activity and pouncing on them with great leaps and yelps! I would break off from working to go and inspect their latest find - and distract the dogs so that the quivering green creatures could slip away. It is difficult to decide who enjoyed these interludes most - me or the dogs.

Then came the hours of the hay drying in the fresh mountain air and warm rays of the sun. The grass had to be turned at regular intervals so that the undersides also lost their moisture. Like the workers in the pastoral scenes in old paintings and those in Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels, we worked our way with rhythmic strokes, flipping the grass over, hour after hour. As the youngest, I found this very hard and frequent rests were necessary, until Mam's voice urged me back into line, blisters or no blisters!

We were allowed periods of respite, however. Then, flinging down my rake, I would collapse like the rest of the family onto a soft fragrant cushion of hay. Out from the willow baskets would come dark flagons of sparkling 'diod fain'- a marvellously refreshing concoction of dandelions and stinging nettles from my Aunt Ivy's collection of home-made wines! I would sit there contentedly munching my favourite H.P.sauce sandwiches and sipping the (slightly alcoholic) nectar. Simple pleasures with not a bottle of Coke or packet of crisps in sight; pure bliss until the call to arms rang out once more.

When the hay was judged ready, we pushed it with our rakes up the lines to form large tumps. Nothing was left ungathered. These heaps of hay provided excellent opportunities for jumping games with visiting young friends and cousins - until the adults stepped in. I can feel even now the crisp texture of the cut stalks, smell the sweetness, see the dried, wild flowers. And always, it seems, there was the call of the curlew high above cutting through our childlike cries of delight.

Loading the cart with hay was a skilled job as stability was essential, especially on the steeper slopes and during the swaying, jolting progress back down to the farm buildings. The hay had to be packed down firmly around the tall, wooden corner poles to provide a firm base. As soon as I was considered heavy - and sensible - enough (aged about ten), I became the one to stand on the cart, stamping down the hay, moving rapidly the whole width and length of the cart - and making sure that I avoided the pitchforks which, metal spikes glinting in the sunlight, tossed the clumps of hay at me. The level of the load grew higher and higher until it rose above the wooden poles. To a young girl, it looked a long way down to the ground...

Eventually, the load was complete and I would throw myself down onto the hay on my stomach and clutch the tops of the poles as firmly as I could. Then would begin the ride back to the rick over rough grassland with the cart lurching from side to side as the wheels hit a pothole. I would cling on for dear life, the cut grass etching red patterns into my skin, only lifting my head occasionally to try to catch a glimpse of the safe haven ahead.

The hayrick was a magical place for me - dark and enclosed with weak sunlight filtering through gaps in the wooden sides like pale searchlights, their beams dancing with the dust of dried hay. I helped strew the hay across its base, the level rising nearer and nearer to the roof until, for the last few loads, a ladder had to be perched against the outside wall of hay to allow access through the small hatch at the top. As I was the smallest and nimblest, I was the one who clambered up and into the increasingly small and claustrophobic space to bed down the last few cartloads.

It was a strange, dark, dislocated world up there. The heat of the mass of new hay produced almost tropical temperatures and the soft, springy hay made moving around physically exhausting. All I could see was an increasingly narrow ribbon of sky and mountain top until, at last, there was nothing left at all. Then I would squeeze out through the hatch and nervously dangle my legs in mid-air until they found the top rung of the ladder which would lead me down to the ordinary world again.

Eventually, inevitably, Chess, our faithful old servant and dear friend, was retired and we moved somewhat belatedly into a more mechanised, modern world. We bought a secondhand Massey Ferguson tractor and, well under the legal age, I learnt to drive it, revelling in the power and relative speed of the gaudy, red monster. But it was less reliable than Chess had been, more expensive to maintain and more dangerous on steep slopes, we were to discover.

The first step had been taken, however, and soon a baler churned out neat, rectangular packages of compressed hay. Like some gigantic child's building blocks, these were stacked onto the wagon and into the rick. A way of life was even then disintegrating before my uncomprehending eyes.

Today, there is no haymaking at all on the slopes of the Amman Valley. All the well-husbanded, little small-holdings have more or less been returned to the mountain, have disappeared as completely as that community of farmer-colliers itself. Large tracts of open-cast mining cover the north-facing slopes, a municipal golf-course has swallowed up land once grazed by sheep and cattle. Few of the original, Welsh-speaking families have survived, except in isolated, ageing pockets. Only the backdrop of mountains - and the ghosts of the past remain, silently hanging up their wooden rakes after the last of the hay had been gathered in.

 


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3 March 2005

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