Monthly Archives: November 2017

#Northern

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You know what! It wasn’t a good trip home. The day itself was fine. I was there at Sledge-Lit 3, the Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention hosted by the indefatigable Alex Davis. (An all round nice guy and really good convention organiser.)

The day drew to a close, I loaded the unsold books, my convention goody bag, display stuff etc into my rucksack. I was carrying between 35lb and 40lb, or over 16kg so I wasn’t running anywhere.

Anyway I got to Derby Station in good time, to discover my train was running late. So late I’d arrive in Sheffield too late to get the Manchester train. But help was at hand, there was another Sheffield train coming through ten minutes earlier so I got on that. It was the 18:15, it had come from Birmingham and was packed. Absolutely heaving, so I sat on the seat with my baggage on my lap (because everything was full) and just waited for my legs to go totally numb.

But we got to Sheffield in good time, and I got on the right platform for the Manchester train. This is where the problems started. All the bits of trouble earlier in the day, whether due to cracked rails or bad weather, were beginning to multiply. Instead of leaving at 19:11, my train was stuck in the queue and left about ten minutes late. Well I did have perhaps a quarter of an hour to change trains at Manchester, so I had a little time in hand. We were OK until somebody got stuck on the Stockport Viaduct and we sit in Stockport waiting for something to happen.

Eventually it did and I arrived in Manchester Piccadilly after the last Barrow train had theoretically left. That being said it’s a train that can start late, so I lumbered (rather than sprinted) to Platform 14. If you don’t know Manchester Piccadilly, platforms 13 and 14 are almost a separate station.

I made it to platform 14, the train had gone on time, before I ever got to the station. So I went to find Northern, who had taken the money to get me home. Their chap at Piccadilly looked at the timetables, told me to get the Preston train, and the staff there would make sure I was home.

So we had a happy half hour plus, sitting in the waiting room on Platform 14. The drunks weren’t too drunk and they were courteous. A young lady with a phone was providing timetable updates for everybody there. (I think she was some sort of Paramedic at work but am probably mistaken), and the father of a small family of ‘sub-continent extraction’ had a great sense of humour and fun and we hit it off immediately. So yes, none of us really wanted to be there, but do you know what? It was OK and we all got on happily enough so by about 10pm when we finally got the Preston train, it was more like people going on some sort of outing together.

The photograph is Platforms 13 and 14, but in daylight. Actually it has more atmosphere after dark, especially when it’s been raining.

Well we got to Preston. The rail service had been replaced by a bus (this was scheduled works, I’d known about it in advance. I’d hoped to avoid it.) I asked the Northern Rail people there and they said ‘Get on the bus and it’ll be sorted at Lancaster.’

Fair enough. At Lancaster, at 11:44pm the station was shut, there was nobody about but me and a Turkish taxi driver called Ozi.

Ozi knew the system. He explained that he would take me to Barrow, give me a receipt and Northern would pay it. If I’d arrived when the station was still open, the station staff sort this and the passenger isn’t bothered for money. This is plan A, it’s happened to me before, but as there was nobody there we had to revert to plan B.

There was one problem with plan B. The taxi fare was £90, and I didn’t have £90 on me.
Ozi wasn’t bothered. He’d take me to a cash machine.

Problem number 2 is that I’ve never used one and haven’t a clue what my pin number is. I don’t bank on-line either, because no way am I going to do banking transactions on a phone with the derisory anti-virus capabilities they have.

So I went through my wallet, raided the float for the book selling, gave him £50 in notes and promised him the remaining £40 when we got home.

Ozi was fine with that, especially when I explained that home was actually a slightly shorter distance than taking me to Barrow station.

So Ozi and I set off into the night. The weather got worse but we made it. I gave him the remaining £40, shook hands with him, because he’s a nice guy and a gent, and climbed upstairs to bed at exactly 1:01am.

 

And guess who’ll be at Barrow Station a 9:30am on Monday? (I’ve got to drop somebody off anyway.) And I’ll have taxi receipts, tickets, photocopies of receipts and tickets and everything. Because, funnily enough, I’m going to put a claim in!

 

But hey, everybody was good to deal with, the midden does occasionally hit the windmill, and I got home OK. So somebody was doing something right.

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You’ve been robbed!

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If you produce milk there are very strict legal guidelines. One of which is that the proportion of butterfat in the milk must not fall below 3.5%. Before you throw your hands up in horror, remember an ordinary sliced loaf can be over 3.9% fat. Mind you, we bred and fed for milk quality and the milk we produced was over 4.5%. It’s better for butter and cheese production. Not only that, but frankly, it tastes so much better.
When I was sent to school and tried my first bottle of school milk I point blank refused to believe it was milk. It took them a week to get me to drink the disgusting stuff. Pasteurisation is as good for milk as it is for beer.

Trading Standards, Environmental Health and other bodies watch over milk. I remember one farmer being approached by Trading Standards. He had a milk round and the Trading Standards department had had complains from some people that he’d been watering his milk.

To be fair to Trading Standards, they didn’t go in gung ho, because the complaints were a bit unusual in their distribution. They came from one street. If the farmer had been watering his milk they’d have expected complaints scattered across his entire milk round. Not only that but when they took samples, there was no added water in the milk. So what they did was stay with him and watch him milk. Eventually they cracked the problem.

Cows are creatures of habit. They would come in to be milked and stand in the same place in the shippon. This meant that they were milked in the same order. Each cow’s milk would be collected, poured through the cooler and then go into the bottling plant.
As this was happening, another lad was putting bottles in the crate and loading the crates onto the pickup. He loaded them in the same order, and of course did his round in the same order. What this meant was that customers often got their milk not merely from the same farm, but from the same cow!

In the case of those customers who were complaining, ‘their’ cow was in early lactation, pushing out a lot of milk. But she was producing it with less fat and protein than she would do later in lactation. In legal terms, we have a cow who is producing whole milk which isn’t legally whole milk. It was nearer to semi-skimmed.

The answer that the Trading Standards people came up with was for the farmer to introduce a holding tank in the system so the milk was more mixed. There were no more complaints.

But back then, people got their milk in glass bottles. The average milk bottle could make over 22 trips, and a broken bottle is still recyclable as glass.
Now there was one minor problem, blue tits used to break through the foil top and eat the cream.

Anyway the supermarkets stepped in. They drove the price of milk down to undercut the doorstep delivery. This they did in several ways. One way was to skim off the cream. (I know I know, the major retailers have been metaphorically skimming off the cream for years but this time they did it for real.)
You see, in their eyes, there was a lot of wasted cream in the system. Whole milk only had to be 3.5% fat and people were getting it at 4.5% fat, and worse than that, they weren’t paying anything extra for it.

But if you standardise milk down to 3.5% you’ve got all that extra cream which costs you nothing because you’ll sell the standardised milk at the same price as real milk. Not only that but you can then sell the cream as well.

Also if you homogenise the milk so that the cream doesn’t rise to the top, nobody will ever notice. After all they’ll not be able to measure the missing cream if it’s not visible.

Trust me, the milk tastes pathetic, but supermarkets have been able to make money out of it; especially when they didn’t have to worry about bottles but just sold it in plastic containers that were somebody else’s problem.

Oh yes, and the blue tits? Well like all birds they cannot digest lactose, so milk is no good to them. And now with homogenised, standardised, and grossly attenuated milk, there’s nothing in the bottle for them anyway.

 

I did put together a collection of stories. Some about now, some tales I was told about my grandfather and farming round Barrow in the war.

 

They’re available on kindle, but you can read them on any phone or tablet if you download the free kindle app.

 

It’s called, ‘And sometimes I just sits?’

 

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077C89YDH/

 

yours for 99p

 

Point of Comfort

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Now this is almost, but not quite, real history. By that I mean it’s what I remember of what my Dad told me, and that depends on how he remembered things.

My dad was born in Askam and at the age of fourteen went into farm service because he didn’t want to go into the Yard or down the mines. He got £13 for his first half year. In 1939 he volunteered and went into the RAF. But when he reached Preston they realised he was a farm worker and therefore in a reserved occupation. So they sent him back. Until he got married and settled down he went to the hiring fairs every half year and so worked on farms from Workington down to Morecambe. Indeed he watched the bombing of Barrow from Morecambe while he was working there.

But one comment he made was about Point of Comfort at Goadsbarrow. He remembered that during the height of the Great Depression, there used to be a lot of lads camping there. Apparently if you were unemployed and lived at home with your parents, you got a shilling a week. If you lived out, you got one shilling and sixpence. So lads would make themselves a ‘tent’ out of a bit of canvas and a few bits of wood and live there. On the days they had to go in to collect their money, they’d go home, give their mum the shilling and the clothes they were standing up in. They’d put on clean clothes, collect a bag of food and go back to where they were camping.

My father remembers them camping on the seaward side of the road. Now you can still see the Scar of stones, but back then he remembered there being grass on it. It might be that they also camped on open land further along, as you can see from the picture, with the old road being so slow, nobody bothered to fence it.

The picture, an old Sankey postcard, is taken from further north up the coast. The Scar itself is beyond the house. To find it now, it’s where Long Lane comes down to the coast from Leece.

Apparently there were a couple of other places where lads would camp. They’d play a lot of football, and with sixpence in their pocket it was even possible to think of going to the flicks on a Saturday night and getting chips on the way back.

 

I did put together a collection of stories. Some about now, some tales I was told about my grandfather and farming round Barrow in the war.

 

They’re available on kindle, but you can read them on any phone or tablet if you download the free kindle app.

 

It’s called, ‘And sometimes I just sits?’

 

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077C89YDH/

 

yours for 99p

Soft Focus

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There’s no doubt about it, winter is coming in. I’ve caved in and lit the fire in the living room for one thing. Not only that but I find myself wearing a jumper and a jacket when I go and look sheep in the morning, even if it isn’t raining.

Yesterday morning was a bit special. It was a lot brighter and clearer than the photo, so when you looked across the bay you could see the cloud moving slowly down the valleys on the opposite side.

So it seemed a good day for a neighbour to lay cattle in for winter, and he was short handed to I gave them a hand.

Now laying cattle in can be an interesting process. If the weather is pleasant and cattle feel that there is still enough grass, then they’re not particularly bothered about coming in. Similarly if it’s really miserable, cold and wet, they’ll just huddle under the dike and sulk, and they can be the very devil to move.

Adult cattle aren’t too bad. Milk cows come in at least twice a day anyway so they get downright miffed if you forget them. But young stock can be ‘interesting.’ It’s like escorting a bunch of lively teenagers through a busy town centre. You count them when you set off and you try to keep an eye on them, but it’s only when you finally arrive and you still have the same number that you can afford to relax.

Before now I’ve just seem perfectly sensible heifers just set off and run. There doesn’t appear to be any obvious reason for this, even their mates in the same bunch look askance at them as if wondering what on earth they’re playing at.

Breed and character come into it. I let a big batch of cattle into the lane. At the far end of the lane people were waiting to turn them into the yard. There was apparently fifteen minutes between the first ones arriving at the far end, and the laggards who wandered in at the back with me. First to arrive were the limis, who crashed into each other and refused to actually go into the yard until the others came but instead huddled together in a shifty manner just outside the gate.

The others made their way along the lane at a more reasonable pace, until finally I turned up with some young Belgian Blue bullocks who were ambling along like a lot of elderly milk cows without a care in the world.

There again the previous March, when we turned them out in the opposite direction, it had been somewhat different. With the scent of spring in their noses they’d thundered down the lane as if re-enacting the Pamplona Bull Run, a solid wall of cattle bursting out of the lane and into the field.

Then you get those who want to be fetched in but we’ve decided that it isn’t time yet. One miserable day in autumn we fetched one group of cattle in. A group of dry cows saw this happen and ran down to the gate so they were ready to come in as well. Unfortunately it had been decided we’d leave them out another week. They had plenty of grass and were doing fine. They spent the next hour leaning over the gate looking daggers at me every time I came into sight and were still sulking next morning.

But one of the interesting things I’ve noticed is that, at some point in Autumn, my father would always say to me, “We might as well lay cattle in. It’ll be less work.”

And it was true because we were no longer carrying feed round fields for them and messing about with taking them bits of hay or straw or whatever.

Then when spring came, we’d turn them back out, secure in the knowledge that they’d be far less work outside than they were inside.

So surely, following that through logically, every year should have got easier and easier until eventually there’d be almost no work at all?

 

But anyway, it might be that you’re at a bit of a lose end yourself and are looking for something to read.

For a mere 99p you can now acquire ‘And sometimes I just sits?’

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077C89YDH/

 

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

Noises off

sheep

With farming life you get seasonal sights and scents, but you also get seasonal sounds. I remember stopping the tractor on top of the silage pit where I was buckraking grass. I sat there and listened and could hear seven forage harvesters working on seven different farms. Since then, four of those farms are no longer in existence, the houses are domestic dwellings and the land is farmed by neighbours. Mind you, round here the neighbours are still family farms. If you wander into the yard looking for somebody, the boss is probably the one with a muck fork and wheelbarrow, not somebody in the office playing Solitaire on the computer waiting for the broadband to come back on.

This morning as I walked round checking sheep, the seasonal sound was the Maize harvest. In my lifetime I’ve seen breeders produce hardier varieties of maize and a crop which was once rare in the south of England can now be seen growing regularly in Ayrshire. Because October was such a sodden month round here, I suspect that the harvest is running slightly late. As it is, this far north we can only grow maize for cattle feed, and the sound is the noise of the contractor’s big self-propelled forage harvester working away.

It has to be said that modern farm machinery looks awfully expensive. I remember seeing figures which said in the 1960s you had to sell 3,000 finished lambs to buy the average tractor. Currently it’s about 10,000 lambs to buy the equivalent mid-range tractor.

So a lot of us use contractors. For the maize harvest the contractor will turn up on farm with over half a million pounds worth of equipment. The tractors will work all year round, the loading shovel might spend winter loading salt in a local authority distribution depot, whilst the self-propelled harvesters will start with silage at the beginning of May and finish with Maize in November (or December if it’s a bad year.)

I must admit I’m not a fan of maize. I’ve got nothing against it as a crop or a feed, but I’m not enthused by the season you have to harvest it in. I remember one year when people round here were still trying to harvest it between Christmas and New Year. In this area, Milk Cows will go inside for the winter in October, and I’m old fashioned enough to get nervous if all their winter feed isn’t inside with them. Having to rely for winter survival on a crop that isn’t harvested and might never be doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.

Cattle tend to spend winters inside. It’s not that they cannot cope with the weather, more that round here our winters are so wet that the land cannot cope with cattle. It is possible to winter them outside happily enough, if there aren’t many of them, you’re feeding them on a stubble field you are going to plough anyway, and they’ve got plenty of room to lay down on dry ground with a bit of shelter from a hedge.

Sheep on the other hand are a lot lighter on their feet. Not only that but they don’t take well to being housed. I remember years ago talking to somebody who did house his ewes. He used to bring them in and shear them again. If he left them with the wool on they’d sweat, get chilled and get pneumonia.

So with sheep at this time of year we’re constantly managing the grass. Grass will grow if the soil temperature is over 4 degrees C, but at that point it’s growing pretty slowly. So at some point the grass will probably ‘run out.’ Also at some time our bottom land will get so wet that even sheep would make a mess, so we have to take them off it. So at the moment we’re trying to get the bottom land eaten off.

Yet because the tups are in with them and we’re hoping to get them in-lamb, our ewes also need a ‘rising plane of nutrition.’ At the very least they don’t want to go short.

Also we’re already hoping to get them off the lambing fields. This means that these fields get a chance to green up and have a bit of grass on them for when ewes start lambing.

At some point we’ll have to start carrying hay or silage out to feed our sheep. Later, when they’re heavily in lamb we’ll have to take a concentrate feed out to them. But the more grass they’ve got, the less expensive feed we have to buy.

So managing the grass is something you’ve got to get right.