Rural life: why does everything have to keep changing?

PUBLISHED: 10:41 03 August 2019 | UPDATED: 10:41 03 August 2019

Harvest time in Norfolk when country folk and horses played leading roles in Coronation of the Year Picture: Keith Skipper collection

Harvest time in Norfolk when country folk and horses played leading roles in Coronation of the Year Picture: Keith Skipper collection


Keith Skipper has seen many Augusts. What does he feel about this one?

I don't know how much Lord Byron cared or knew about climate change, but the old romantic must have sent shivers down one or two spines when he mused: "The English winter, ending in July, to recommence in August."

Frankly, I would rather be in the same boat drifting down the river as humourist Jerome K Jerome as he hints: "We shall never be content until each man makes his own weather - and keeps it to himself".

Or the same pub where some amiable cove sees August as a gentle reminder for not doing a single thing so far about your new year resolution… and not doing it for the next five months.

I found too much of July overpowering with soaring temperatures making it hard to stay awake or get to sleep at sensible times. "Drink a lot of water" carries bit of a hollow ring as violent thunderstorms accompany regular trips to the bathroom after midnight.

My main calling in August is to renew annual vows with Norfolk's rich soil by treading softly along a stubbled headland. Then I can warble "All is safely gathered in" with a degree of smugness afforded that dwindling congregation of folk who actually set foot in a harvest field.

While holiday traffic builds beyond hungry flocks of crows and pigeons, we can slip back into the confidence of Mother Nature. The old girl doesn't change, just the circumstances in which she has to operate. Intensive farming and chemical sprays have altered so many ground rules.

There are fewer spontaneous thanks for bounty or the benevolent way in which it is delivered. Happily, there are still a few rare beauties to take to the larder as the sun goes down on a freshly-shorn field, the throbbing combine, all dusty mayhem, leaves some charm in golden stubble for an ageing howdgee boy.

Bales become haphazard, Strawhenges gazing sternly upon giant wheels frolicking nowhere on next-door acres. Find a hedgerow seat and flip through summer's pages to savour a little sustenance. Take stock for dark cold days to come in warmth and comfort of preparing.

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There's plenty of class company to help me reflect and embrace Adrian Bell's beautifully cropped text for any harvest reverie. He lamented: "The coronation of the year has no majesty left. Harvest has been stripped of its ceremonial robes."

John Stewart Collis, poet among modern ecologists, worked on the land in the 1940s, a full decade before my ill-starred efforts to find any sort of smooth track from horses to tractor.

He summed up deep feelings in The Worm Forgives the Plough, sheer power of the combine harvester clearly going against the grain: "The centuries-old tradition of gathering up the year's work is taken away from the labourers. In their place, the one big machine."

"We look across the land for human beings, and we see - one engine. And in its wake the bare field. No rick meets the eye and no work for thatchers or threshers."

Another fine rural writer, A G Street, no stranger to Norfolk meadows, drew comparisons with his native Wiltshire and reminded us how dear old Richard Jeffries had claimed in 1879 that the next generation of country folk would hardly be able to understand the Old Testament story of Ruth.

Mr Street's misgivings still strike a powerful chord: "The combine harvester has robbed the harvest field of as much charm for me as the self-binder did for Jeffries. He mourned the passing of the gleaners, and I feel tempted to mourn the passing of the sheaf and the stook.

"It is the same old story - each new method, while it may increase the efficiency of farming, robs my calling of some of its romance and charm".

One of my favourite furrows ploughed in his Country Calendar book, first published in 1935, deserves a "Streetwise" plaudit as we seek some reassurance about our countryside avoiding a government-inspired future as an exciting factory with fresh air: "Norfolk is a farming county. There one talks farming, thinks farming, dreams farming and lives farming, almost to the exclusion of all else. But the only farming considered worthy of notice is the type of farming which has been carried on in Norfolk since time immemorial.

"Change, any change - even change for the better - is regretted."

Chew that one over until next muckspreadin' time.

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