Harvest Home by Julia Jones

The scent of dew on barley
(photo credit Jack Thorogood)

Regularly at this time of year I snuff the air for that warm, baked biscuit smell and listen out for the rumble of heavy machinery hurrying past or working late into the evening until the dew falls. Harvest hymns run on a loop inside my head as the fields open yet more widely to the sky. Harvest feels purposeful, potentially triumphant, but breath-holdingly tense. This is a triumph that won’t be earned until the last load has been brought in.  There’s no other moment quite like it.   It's a vestigial response from forgotten generations of farming ancestors and the period when I was living in a farming family and would likely be found packing a basket at tea time and hurrying to the field with a flask and sandwiches and the children clamouring to be lifted up for a ride.

Two things prompt this month’s blog (three, if you count Francis’s barely concealed expression of dismay when I threatened to re-share something John’s Campaign-y. He was right of course; there’s been a lot too much of that these last weeks – though with reason, I insist.) The first was the fact that now Georgeanna is not a full-time racecourse executive and her next music festival is not imminent, she appears to have become an agricultural casual, liable to be called on for corn cart or baler duties. The second was a unexpected diversion with my current WW2 naval research.

C21st land girl Georgeanna
(photo credit Tessa Thorogood) 

Eric Hiscock, famous in sailing circles for his pioneering circumnavigations with his wife Susan, tried and failed to be accepted into the RNVR (his eyesight was too poor). Then almost by accident he found a space on board a requisitioned anti-submarine yacht as the second engineer. In his pre-war sailing career he had prided himself on never installing an auxiliary but “Well I did once have a motor-bicycle.”

The opening chapter of his 1946 memoir I Left the Navy (1946) describes a routine patrol where depth charges must launched for the first time. Hiscock is in the engine room, so can see nothing.  “I could not help wondering once again during those tense moments what the effect on a ship as slow and as lightly built as ours would be when a depth charge was dropped in comparatively shallow water.” They survive, the U-boat doesn’t but all too soon afterwards Hiscock’s defective eyesight is discovered during a routine medical examination. “Why! you’re half blind, man. How did you get into the service?” Despite his two years’ successful work and promotion to Chief Engineer, Hiscock is discharged. After a period in a pulpboard mill he and Susan find themselves simultaneously renovating a derelict cottage, unexpectedly inheriting the editorship of a yachting magazine whilst working long hours on the land.

My current favourite book production style 
His harvest chapter deserves a place in any agricultural anthology (if there are such things?). The scene on Speldom Hill is overshadowed by the threat of rain: ‘the colours were too bright and the edges of the clouds were hard and heavy’. It’s a harvesting operation on the cusp of change – tractors and carthorses working alongside one another, village labourers and Gypsy families, men and women. In some fields there are stooks of corn in ordered rows ‘each casting a long dark shadow in front of it in the slanting rays of the early morning sunlight’; others ‘which had been harvested in the more modern manner showed swathes of straw where the combine harvester had dropped them in straight or curved lines, always parallel to the boundaries of the field’.

Classic book 1944 edition

The Hiscocks’ employer is a modern farmer: while Susan is driving a tractor towing a trailer manned by a party of Gypsies and holiday-making school boys, collecting bags of corn and transporting them to the drying barn, Eric is on the combine. Unlike the gleaming giants of today this is a battered, second-hand American import that looked as if it ‘had never been designed but had just “happened”. It seemed as if someone with a bright idea and access to a scrap heap of old iron, had set to work with a hacksaw a wrench and a welding iron.’ It’s not self-propelled but is towed by a tractor. Neither is it fully automated. Hiscock is an essential link in the chain.

I stood on the bagging platform which was attached to the side of the machine opposite to the knife with a great pile of bags beside me. The grain tank in front of me had to metal spouts fitted with sliding doors, beneath which I fixed the bags on spikes with their mouths held open; as soon as one had been filled I closed the spout and opened the other one, removed the full bag, tied up its mouth and pitched it down the platform chute. Then, by the time I had fastened another bag in its place, it was time to remove the other one. With a heavy crop such as we were dealing with that morning, it was fast and continuous work; a bag containing about 100 lbs, was filled every 50 seconds, and one had to work quickly without a hitch to avoid an overflow of grain. But that was one of the most satisfactory jobs I had ever done: I regarded each bag tied as one more bag of bread filched directly from the very mouth of the weather; nothing could take that from us now, even if it snowed.

That’s the feeling, exactly. But, inevitably, there’s a breakdown. The storm is coming closer. A dash back to the farmyard reveals that the essential spare part is itself in need of repair. (Any farming household will recognise this scenario.) Hiscock must take charge of the dryer – a very modern but home-built and temperamental innovation – while George, the sweating dusty farmer, must mend the spare part, rush it to the field in his car and get the process going again before the storm breaks.

If you sense I find this obscurely thrilling, yes I do. Though I’ve absolutely no desire ever to be involved again directly, I love seeing Georgeanna set out for her 2020 stint on the corn cart and I come bumping home exhausted but happy with the Hiscocks and their fellow workers at the end of the 1940s day.

what Georgeanna drives

We all climbed into the trailer and set off homeward. The party grew smaller as we rumbled along, some getting off at the Burial Path and the remainder at various preselected gaps in the hedges from which they would plod their way by the nearest routes back to their cottage doors; so eventually only Susan and I were left to bump up the lane in the waning light and park the tractor and trailer in the cartshed.

George had stopped the drier, the barn doors were closed and the homestead lay hushed and sleeping, save for an owl which hooted eerily from a roof top as we made our way too the garden gate.

c21st land girl takes a break


sandra horn said…
Thank you, Julia, for a nostalgic trip into my Sussex childhood. I could almost smell that warm, toasty, dusty niff of a cornfield being cut.
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for this Julia, a lovely piece of writing. It reminded me of two things: first my love of Flora Thompson’s wonderful trilogy, and second, where I live now in her Candleford world, and how at the end of this month the field behind my house will have daylight then arc lights as huge harvesters cut and bag whatever has been growing - maize this year.

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