Artefactually speaking, it was a good Summer.

Eel catching fork called a Gleave

This tensile fork is called a Gleave, it can be found in many medieval psallters and drawings of gathering eels. Its design has not seen any appreciative alteration throughout a thousand years.

Wherever I wandered this summer I encountered interesting relics relating to farm history in its widest sense.  The visit to Norfolk in early August was, in part, to visit a number of museums in order to see and understand the many differences that farming in the East Anglian region displays.  The first dedicated museum was in the Cambridge village of Ramsey near Chatteris.  The displays were nicely arranged and amongst the more interesting small hand tools was an example of a very primitive, most probably Bronze or Iron age, hand drawn plough.  Made from a small pole with a sharp stone, in that region of flint, attached by leather straps, the example on display was an excellent fascimile of the real thing.  Sadly, like many of the items on display, the written information was poor.

Example of a prehistoric hand pull

A prehistoric means of tilling the land, the plough just cut a small groove in hard ground sufficient to sow some seeds.

That said I did discover a number of new names for items I have in my collection and which mostly I know by their Welsh name.  As with many museums, the ones I saw in those eastern counties lacked a certain logic.  Unlike the wonderful ‘farming year’ display at the Great Dorset Steam Fair where a journey through the farming year was demonstrated by men and horse drawn equipment of the kind that would have been used in earlier times, the standard museum displays are just ad hoc collections which give little sense as to the why and when of their use.  That said both of the major museums I visited had excellent quality exhibits which I enjoyed very much.

AtRamsey a very unusual display of old drainage pipes caught my eye.  I have several old pipes in my collection but nothing like the variety and age spread of those on display there.  Partly this reflected the very important local industry of pipe-making, itself the result of an abundance of suitable clay and the ready market for the pipes in draining the wetlands of the area.  Along with the large variety of pipes came a good display of the equipment used to cut ditches and drains and install and maintain them.  I have a particular fondness for drainage artefacts, it was a hidden part of land management but essential to the success of farming in sodden ground.

Clay pipes used for land drainage

Some very old clay drainage pipes, the 'D' shape was the early hand-made style, it was not until the mid 1800s that perfectly round mass-produced pipes became available.

Early drainage was effected by the simple expedient of cutting a trench into which the ground water would seep and either place ‘faggots’ (bundles of twigs similar to the well known ‘besom’ or witches broom) in the cut and cover with soil or stones, alternative methods were to fill with various grades/sizes of stones or indeed to build a ‘culvert’ of slabbed stones covered with flag-type cover-bands.  Such drains still exist in many places but are seldom known about or discovered until they are dug-up during re-instatement of land drainage.  Early clay drains were in two parts, a ‘D’ or horse shoe shape upper ‘half-pipe’ which sat on a shoe or flat plate.  It is rare to find those early ones which have the word ‘Drain’ stamped into them to indicate they are free of a tax that was levied in the C18th.  I have one of those and several early pipes, which mainly did not appear much before the early 1830s.  Whilst they were valuable items and were re-used if and when drains had to be cleaned out and relaid, once the onset of mechanical drainage in the post war years became the common practise the old drains were wrecked and abandoned.  A mechanical digger has little sympathy for an old clay pipe.  Rarely are they found out in the field or field edges, any I have in my collection have been rescued from a corner of an old farm building or yard.

'D' shaped C18th clay drainage pipe.

This example of an early drainage clay pipe is rare, the shoe on which it sat was absent - as it is from the one I have - as they were just left in the ground or smashed by modern mechanical drainage.

The cutting of the drain into the wet ground was an immense physical undertaking and required several specialist hand tools.  Firstly the turf was removed using a ‘betling’ (or betting) iron, a heart shaped long handled spade (often thought to be a peat spade *) then the line of the ditch was marked using a marking iron, something resembling and often mistaken for a hay knife.  Generally wet ground means rush and scrub, to cut through the roots of such plants heavy cutting spades, called ‘rutters’ were employed, generally in pairs with each spade a mirror of its partner so that two men cutting opposite sides of the ditch could work in the same direction.  The cuts would be deep and the cross cuts would then allow clods to be lifted out with a tool called a ‘buster’ which resembles a dung fork.  The tapering shape of the drain – if small pipes were to be laid in the base – was achieved by employing different widths of spade until the last cut which gave a trench bottom just wide enough for the desired pipe.  The ‘fall’ of the drain was a matter of experience and knowledge achieved over generations.  Just like the old ‘drowners’ who used to create and manage the water systems for water meadows and downward floated catchwork systems, men who worked on land drains knew all the science required, from geology, soil structure, water flow and physics.  The museums I visited, not surprisingly given the ‘drowned’ nature of the Fenland landscape and the heavy clays of the area, all had good displays of draining tools but, as mentioned above, the interpretation was poor, in general much prior knowledge was ‘assumed’.

The 'little house' at the bottom of the garden - the Privee

An amusing little exhibit which needs to be seen I feel - the 'Ty Bach' or little house, generally at the bottom of the garden.

A little exhibit I particularly liked was the outside loo or ‘Ty Bach’ (little house, as we would call it).  Every house had to have one and it was usually strategically placed away from the house for obvious reasons, and often over a stream.  I was amused too to see the ‘cut into squares’ newspaper hung on string.  What did they use before newspapers became cheaply and widely available…..

The day I visited, a Sunday, the little museum, based around an old farmyard with several superb brick built barns and old cow houses, was busy.  That was encouraging, so many such collections and museums just don’t manage to survive these days.

Whilst journeying eastwards between camp-sites I happened on the Museum of Norfolk Life near Dereham (at least that’s where I think it was….).  This grand building is an old work-house and has a range of exhibits and interesting grounds and farm.  Naturally my interest lay in the agricultural artefacts on display.  Immediately I entered I encountered a significant problem – something that was not just related to my eyesight !  The small hand tools in which I had a particular interest all seemed to be hung on the walls of the exhibition hall.  Not unusual in itself but in this museum – I guess because of space issues – other exhibits, much larger, were placed on the floor and roped off in front of the wall hung tools.  To add to the problem of being able to examine them properly, the notes and descriptions were printed in a very small font, totally illegible.  I asked a young male attendant if any printed copies of these descriptions were available, he too could not read the wall mounted written notes (clearly no-one had ever thought to ‘test’  the suitability of the notices).  Silly mistakes like that can spoil the whole effect of a good exhibition.

Mixture of hand tools at a Norfolk museum

A mixture of small hand tools that seemed to be in no particular order or relevant activity.

That apart there were some very interesting items on display, especially the collection of carts.  The size of agriculture in any given area can be easily assessed by three things, the size of the fields, the size of the barns and the size of the carts.  Norfolk is big in all three.  The carts or wains are quite astounding, massive really, much bigger than modern farm trailers for instance.

Wain for harvest and general haulage

A big wain indeed, difficult to photograph in a small area, the rear wheels are 5ft diameter !

There were some excellent displays of unusual items here too, such as straw bee skeps, artificial hives made by ‘Lip’ workers.  Straw ropes were bound into a typical bee-hive shape and bound with the pith of briars.  Similarly straw ropes were made into seed-lips and were used to hold the rush thatching onto corn ricks.

Straw bee skep

The straw bee skep was often placed into a specially built 'cupbaord' in a dry stone wall called a Bee Bole.

The fine collection of carts were enhanced by a stock wagon which had a (plastic ?) horse in the shafts and a realistic looking heifer in the stock box.

Horse and heifer, a nice little display

I liked this display despite the artificiality of the animals, the body posture of the heifer was particularly good I thought, how many animals in a stock box have I seen looking just like that !

There were some old farming items at my second camp-site and I even had chance to peruse a couple of antique shops in the small north Norfolk town of Holt.  I wanted to take something home that was particular to the area (and hence different from its Welsh equivalent or maybe not even known here).  I happened upon just the thing in one of those shops, it was an exceptional large and heavy hay knife which was cheap enough to buy as a little keepsake of my holiday.

Hay Knife - 70cms blade

My Norfolk knife, it is about 70 cms on the blade and is exceptionally thick and heavy.

The large heavy blade is clearly designed to slice easily through heavy compacted hay.  I can only suppose that the haysel produced in these eastern counties must have been far superior to that achievable in the western hills of Wales where hay knives are smaller and lighter.

At the end of August came the visit to the Great Dorset Steam Fair.  I have mentioned in an  earlier post this event and the array of implements and displays of tractors and steam, horses and carts, that were there in great number.  So too there were smaller displays of hand tools and collections such as dairy and woodland management. Strangely, apart from the Ransomes, Simms and Jeffries Pony Mower which I mentioned earlier, I saw nothing to inspire me to part with my hard earned cash.  The display in the Vintage Horticultural and Garden Equipment Club tent was particularly good with displays of tools and walk-behind machinery as well as some interesting saws and dairy equipment.

The last trip of the summer came a few weeks back, at the end of September, when I visited the wonderful Acton Scott Victorian Working Farm near Church Stretton.  My American guest was anxious to see the place having become an avid fan of the (now famous) BBC series ‘The Victorian Farm’.  There’s no doubt that for anyone with the slightest interest in past farming Acton Scott is a must.

Acton Scott

Apparently I spent much of the time saying "I've got one of those", well I do !

The big thing is that the equipment and tools are used, they are not in some polished static display.  Of course many items I have are a little too rare and delicate – often through long use and woodworm – to use but one of my most precious artefacts did see some use this summer.

Wooden Drag Rake for hay making

Here my rare wooden Drag Rake is being used to make hay in my little meadow; the effort required is well demonstrated by dear Whitney who did a good job of rowing up.

I am always interested in unusual and rare agricultural artefacts and hence I often look at auction notices and try to attend if there is something of interest to me.  Such was the case a week or so ago when a rather interesting farm sale took place in the border area near New Radnor.  The auction was well advertised and not surprisingly the attendance was impressive.  Not as impressive as the prices however !  I was interested in a couple of ‘smalls’, a trio of  costrells – small barrels in which ale or cider was carried to the field by farm workers – and an unusual whinberry comb nicely made from sycamore (I think).  I have several costrells of differing sizes and a couple of combs.  I am therefore very very rich !  The farm sale saw the trio sold for nearly £300 and the whinberry comb for £275 !  Crazy, bonkers, barmy prices.  Having seen that I decided it was not really worth staying for the field items even though there were a few nice lots.

Grinding wheel at farm auction

The Badlands farm auction had some items of interest, this grind stone for one, but having seen the money small items in the barn were fetching.... I went home early.

Apparently the general farm sale – of most of the machinery and farm tools – had been undertaken some time earlier, and I missed it.  However, for some reason the MF35 had not been put forward at that sale, instead it was auctioned at this sale.  It had potential as well as an interesting cab but I’m afraid I have not heard what it made.

Vintage MF35 with an interesting cab.

A friend would dearly love a 35 with bug eye lights (no cab though) but shipping is looking a little expensive at present...

The autumn is traditionally the time when I get stuck into some preservation and restoration.  Items need to be made ready for winter storage and I usually get inspired to finally restore on of the long-time items that inhabits each of my old farm buildings.  As some of you may know,  I had a new set of cart wheels made back last year; as yet the very rare cart for which they are intended has not received any attention.  Inspiration to get stuck into its restoration came from my visit to Acton Scott.  To my great delight and surprise – given it is in England – hiding in one of the smaller sheds was a Radnor Wheel Car.  I know there is one hidden in the deep dark vaults of  St Fagans National Museum but was not aware of this one.  It too was made in Llanbister – which, given the farm mine spent its working life on is just a few miles over the hill, is where I suspect mine was made – as was the nicely displayed example at the Victorian farm.

Radnor Wheel car at Acton Scott Victorian Farm.

This Radnor Wheel Car is in excellent condition and served as a real inspiration to me to get on with the restoration of mine.

Within a couple of days of visiting Acton Scott I moved the chassis of my cart up to the barn ready to begin the fabrication of the new front runner ends and the general restoration of the rare cart; I’m determined it will see the light of day next season.

I have not had a very busy season in terms of attending and displaying, but visiting the various museums and sites as well as a couple of auctions will carry me through the coming winter months when long dark evenings are best spent either in a well lit but somewhat cool barn or in the kitchen, where paint dries much more quickly and hard in the warmth of my old Rayburn stove.

I hope you enjoyed this little extra post, I enjoyed writing it up, adds to my enthusiasm to get going;  feel free to call me to task if I fall short in my good intentions.  Newly restored items from my collection will appear !


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