Skip to content

Haymaking

The pictures chosen as the feature image for the farming topic are haymaking scenes. FarmingIt is no coincidence that many pictures and stories about farming feature haymaking, probably because it is the epitome of bucolic bliss. To refer to the smell of newly cut grass and nicely dried hay may be cliché’s but they are very evocative smells.

George Speed  on a horse rake 1926

This picture shows George Speed on a horse rake in Grove Farm. The picture was taken in 1926.

Haymaking had to be done in good weather so memories of haymaking are dominated by sunny summers days. The reality is that haymaking used to involve a lot of hard work and very long hours. The saying ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ is an  exhortation to take the opportunities presented to you and to work hard, not an invitation to enjoy yourself.

The basic steps have not changed in millennia. The first thing is to select the right time to cut the grass when it has reached the maximum height but before it ‘goes to seed’.
The next stage is to let it dry which is where the sunshine is essential. English summers are rarely hot enough to dry the grass without shaking up or ‘tedding’ it to give the technical term. This was still done by hand  or by horsepower.
Tedding tended to scatter the drying hay so it needed to be raked into neat piles. This was more important when mechanical balers were used which required a continuous, even mound of hay to picked up. The may need to be tossed and turned to help it to dry. This process was called tedding.
Durk Family and horse rake

This is another extract from the picture of the Speed family making hay in Grove Farm in 1926.

Some art is required in deciding when to pick up the hay. Too wet and it will heat up and ferment and go ‘fusty’ or even catch fire. Too dry and all of the nutrients will be dried out of it. Some raking was done by hand but various forms of horse powered rakes were used. The people shown are the Durk family who worked for the Speed’s but the close up of the horse-drawn rake is the reason for including this picture.

Speed family haymaking in 1926

The Speed family haymaking in 1926

The hay may have been transported to the farmyard and put into a barn or a ‘rick’ of hay would be built in the field. It was necessary to use ‘pitch forks’ to built stack the hay  and the height that a man could pitch the hay from the wagon used to transport it  determined the maxim height of the barn or rick until mechanical elevators were developed. There was also some macho pride involved in how high you could pitch a bale by hand. This picture is also taken from the 1926 featured image and shows the Speed family in front of the elevators with pitchforks in their hands. The young lady sitting on the floor is Norah who is still with us and provided the picture. Her brother, Mervyn, was not born when this picture was taken but appears in several other pictures.

 Horse drawn rakeThis picture, courtesy of Arthur and Margaret Green, shows a young Arthur driving a horse-drawn rake used to collect the hay. This was taken on Dudwell Farm.
Building a hay rick 1947This is another picture from Dudwell farm and shows the construction of a hay-rick in a field with the aid of an old style elevator.The figure standing by the side gives an idea of the height. This picture could have been taken at the same time as the one showing Arthur Green on the horse-drawn rake.I can remember using a similar elevator in the 1970s. It was powered by an ancient  petrol engine that made a distinctive ‘put put put’ sound. The power was transferred via a canvas belt designed to be used with a traction engine that ran between two smooth wheels. One on the engine, one on the elevator. A tar like substance was applied to improve the traction but the belt kept slipping off.
Building a hay rick with a tractorThe hay was collected loose until after the Second World War when machines were developed to compact the hay into bales. The early bales were designed to be picked up by one person, usually a man was required because they were quite heavy. The loose hay elevators were not designed to cope with the weight which caused a lot of frustration and delays.
Haymaking with a carFarmers are inventive people and were into ‘recycling’ before it became fashionable.This is another picture from the Green collection showing how a car had been adapted to rake up hay.The date estimated for this picture is 1947. The ‘modification’ was made by Reece Uphill who was a farrier who taught himself how to be an agricultural engineer.
Loose hay on truck 1947It is assumed that this load of hay did not have far to go because it is so untidy the hay would have been blown away if the truck went to fast. The figure on the top is trying to stack the load neatly.  This picture was probably taken at the same time and place as the picture showing the car rake.
Hay rick 1947The desired result. A Hay rick may only have to stand for less than a year but it had to withstand Mendip weather which includes a lot of wind and rain. The neatness had a functional as well aesthetic function and the rick had its own thatched roof. Basic thatching was considered one of the skills required by a farmer.Ken Bishop and Brian Green  were both local farmers who were recorded by Gerry Brice talking about their memories of haymaking when these pictures were take.
 Ken Bishop farmed at Eakers Hill and he had no problem getting straw to thatch his ricks. He grew some cereals himself and was able to buy in more if necessary. The straw had to be sorted as only the long straight stems were suitable. The rest was used as bedding or feed.
 Brian Green who farmed at Dudwell had to buy in his straw and later switched to Norfolk read which was more durable. He found he straightness of the reed deceptive at thatching competitions. The judges assumed that it should have ben possible to have completely straight and flat thatching using reeds but he found that more difficult to achieve. Lance Gillard worked for him and was one of the last ‘champion thatchers’ who was employed to provide training in thatching to other farm laborers.
 Surprisingly it was not only straw that was in short supply. Brian Green stated he had to buy in hazel stakes or pegs used to keep the thatch in place due to a shortage of suitable hazel bushes on Dudwell farm. He also explained who some farmers on the Somerset levels would cut the long strands of brambles that grew in the hedges and soak them in a ditch to soften them. They would then scrape of the thorns and use the strands as ropes to tie down the thatch.
 Brian also told how it was considered a local ‘law’ that no haymaking was done on a sunday. no matter how ready the hay was. This ‘law’ was broken by George Gane who had a small holding based in Lower Street. George was WW1 veteran which may have made him ‘independently’ minded. He broke with convention one day and was making hay rather than attending church one Sunday. News of this spread throughout the village and a number of people, including Brian, watched in silent disbelief as George drove his horses to rake up the hay. The only sounds that could be heard was the tinkling of the harness and George’s shouted commands. Nobody tried to stop George and other people made hay on a Sunday after that.
Haymaking was still a labour intensive process when I was living on a farm in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The men from the village would help my father after everybody had already done a days work. Cows still had to be milked and animals fed. One field would be cut one day and grass that had been cut previously had to be tedded, raked and bailed. Specialist contractors were used for some processes, such as baling, but a full days work would have been done before the strenuous task of picking up, transporting and stacking the  bales was done. The men from the village had also done a full days work before they came to help my father. They were paid an agricultural worker’s hourly rate, which was not much, but part of the payment was a ‘harvest supper’ of bread and cheese with beer. My father did not make cider but both my parents remember the days when an experience farm worker would receive a gallon of cider a day as part of his wages. My mother used to say it was a good job the horses knew their way home because the driver may not have been in a fit state to make the decision.I left the farm in the 1970’s and my father stopped farming in the 1980’s.
His old elevator was given an honourable retirement the Agricultural Museum whilst several people remember the Speed’s loose hay elevator rotting away quietly in Grove Farm. Haymaking has been replaced by silage making in many cases. This is a different  method where fermentation is encouraged as the preservative process. The cows enjoy the end result but the sour smell of silage does not have the same romantic appeal as well made hay. Where hay is still made, it is almost completely automated and large round bales protected in their own wrappings are produced. Richard Loxton 2012.
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: