The Countryman Cottage Life Book, a sample

ClareBroommaker's picture

Published 1975 in the UK, this is part of a series which included at least five other books which would make me happy should I stumble upon them. This one was edited by Fred Archer. It seems to be a series of essays and recollections about rural people from around 1832 onward. Some of them cover lots of ground, as for example, the life story of a woman born in 1877, orphaned at age 3, and who lived until 1969. The essays seem to have been written and collected over a similar period as well.

The book shows that people's lives were very hard. Many people strung together multiple kinds of work. Many had a primary education that served them well and added to their outlook. Some of the people presented seemed remarkably cheerful given the toughness of their lives, yet the book is not all sweetness and light; I don't want to give that impression.

I'm not embarrassed to say that I really like all the illustrations in the book. There are photos, woodcuts that are clearly by two different artists, pen and ink drawings.

I want to share a sample, so here is a bit about a man who cut wood for fuel, basketry, and plant supports. My understanding is that he was using pollarding methods. In the first paragraph a hazel stool is mentioned. This made me pause, because, in ornamental gardening, stooling is a method of cutting a large tree to a stump in order to make it respond with roundy-moundy growth with large leaves. But here, it is a type of pollarding and the goal is upright branches, not lush leafiness. Oh, I so want to try making a "with" in the manner he describes. Anyway, here is the sample, "A Wooden Harvest' by Peter Rosser.

Old men who were boys here in Hampshire remember bavins, those bundles of twigs which were lit inside the old brick ovens. After the burnt ash had been raked out, the plump bread-dough was put in. For household kindling today, "gas-pokers is yer bavins," the woodcutter reckoned; "nothing cut now no smaller 'n pea-sticks." All about him were the bundles of hazel; and the stools from which he had cut them stood short to the ground, like sharp yellow teeth.

"These long bean-sticks--twenties, they calls 'em. Fetch about six shillin' a bundle in the market. That's around three and threepence here on the ground when they come fer 'em theirselves from London. About eight year growth, them. Then there's yer fifties and yer seventy-fives, mostly fer the Staffordshire pots. Yer hundreds fer pea-sticks, you leaves twiggy, the others you trims into poles, like. They still reckon the best thing fer pots in Staffordshire is a hazel basket. Don't never mater how much those old goods wagons creak an' shudder, your hazel basket creaks and shudders to it, like. You won't lose a single pot in one o' them baskets. Never found anythin' to beat 'em, not at the price, an' I don't reckon the will, 'cause it's nature, see. You can't never beat nature, not at the price. Like my withs: some bundles up with wire, but what are you goin' to do with a thousand bits o' wire? But you can burn your withs."

He took up a wand of hazel about as thick as a little finger and, setting the butt under his foot, worked four or five clockwise twists in it. The he bent over about a foot of the tip and twisted that round the stem in the same direction. The loop stayed.

"I could do you a with as that as 'ud take a ton pull, they reckon. But the thick 'uns is terrible on yer hands. An' if there's any frost in the with, it don't twist at all--just snaps, like. No good to this job at all is frost. Snap yer bill-hook with a good frost. Can't buy a bill-hook like mine, today. Made local from an old blacksmith's rasp an' keeps an edge like a razor all day. But if 'twere frosty today I wouldn't be usin' it, not on yer life. Get frost i that an'--snap like a biscuit. Today it's just windy. Always windy up here on this brow. I generally has a fire, but I'll tell you somethin' I've noticed an' you haven't: fire's like water fer runnin' downhill. Light one up there, an' within the hour yer fire's down here. Yes, you'd think 'twere the set o' the wind but I've watched, it's the slope.

The woodcutter liked working up here on his own and being his own gaffer. There was always plenty to see, he said.

"I was sittin' with me thermos, an' over there come a fox to sit on the edge o' the spinney. Never saw me, an' I made a good study of him, just sittin' there wrinklin' his nose a bit in the sunshine. Blow me, come tea-time I went fer me thermos an' there he was, up on the very last joint of his hind legs, tall as he could make, havin' a good study at me. Another day I was comin' through the ride on me way here, and there was a fox cub dead. That night, goin' home, I saw its mother, I reckon, crossin' the field with the dead cub in her mouth, an all the way across, rooks was dive bombin' 'em. There's always somethin' to see, if you've got eyes."

"Course it isn't my regular job. I only does this in between, like."

"In between what?"

"Well, like between one job an' another. I can make about twenty twenties a day---cut, trim, count, with up. I've done twenty-eight one day, but that's trying to kill all your own enthusiasm, like."


Serinde's picture

Fred Archer wrote a number of books about his own childhood n the Cotswolds and stories to do with the area. (The Cotswolds are in England and cover parts of about six counties, including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire and are known for their hills which run down from the upper reaches of the Thames River almost to the Severn in the southwest -- for those who don't know.) It is still a very rural area. Other titles include The Village of my Childhood, Hay Days, A Cotswold Childhood, Grain and Chaff, etc.

Where I live, we have a wooded glen (it is Scotland!), and there is clear evidence of trees pollarded for the reasons Fred makes clear in your extract. In fact, we've recently uncovered a mill pond, and other landscape features, including a possible medieval sunken road, which had fallen out of local memory. Anyway, there is talk about pollarding the trees again for lots of uses. It's an exciting prospect.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Serinde, in this book, there is a photo of a parson stringing his tobacco to cure! I thought of you because I would have thought the environs where the events in these essays took place had summers too chilly for tobacco, just as you said of your area. I was surprised he could have grown it there... Today I looked up the town from which came my earliest male ancestor in this N. American continent. I found that summer average high temperatures in Yorkshire are 62, 66, 65 F for June, July, August. To me, those are not even the temperatures of a warm spring day. Goodness, and you are further north than that! There was no explanation for how he grew it, but perhaps under glass? Who knows. I suppose I could only grow cabbage in such a place, ha-ha.

Thanks for those other titles.

Also about the Cotswolds (sheep country) is the book named above. It is said to be a lyrical celebration of rural life but also unsparing about some of the hardships people endured.

ClareBroommaker's picture

There were a couple essays about cider making. One tells how the apprentice blacksmith's skill was needed for cider making-- keeping the huge apple press in repair. Another tickled me where it told of how various cider makers liked to add novel things to their hogsheads. One guy, for example put raw leg of lamb in there! Elchk! Another added one bottle of brandy each year to a special batch that he was saving until his son turned 21. It makes me think of how beer makers these days are putting odd things like mango, cherry-cola, and pumpkin spice into their brews.

Well I won't share the details of my own cider that smelled like paint. It might not have been worse with leg of lamb in it. And we have too much cedar-apple disease around here to grow our own apples, anyway. Fire blight, too.

Serinde's picture

Mean temps in my village for last year were 54F (May), 58 (June), 62 (July) after which it all goes downhill again. Lowest temp is in February (37F), with only 50 days of frost last year at all, and 63cubic inches of rain last year (1031.7mm). Not a huge range of temperature, you see. You'd be in your thermals and wearing a mac all year, though! And Yorkshire is positively balmy! I should say that the highest single day temps were in the 70s and once 88F -- we all thought we were going to expire.

What's the secret? Well, the growing season might be relatively short, but we have sun almost 20hrs a day at midsummer. Oh, and cold frames, polytunnels, greenhouses and seeds bred for this part of the world. Brassicas, potatoes, peas and beans, and leafy, cool weather crops do particularly well, but I've even seen maize growing OUTSIDE! Hardly any stalk, mind you, and I expect it was an experiment for animal feed... (sweetcorn up here is a rare crop and is usually grown in greenhouses, which generally astonishes Americans). Barley and oats, but not a lot of wheat around here. Certainly no tobacco. LOL No problem with apples, whether eating, cooking or cider. Oh, and some sorts of squash. So we eat well