OPINION: Back when the harvest took precedence over everything

Seasons roll one but the modern corn harvest is no more than a crash-and-grab exercise coated in dust

Seasons roll one but the modern corn harvest is no more than a crash-and-grab exercise coated in dust - Credit: Archant

Norfolk’s lingering summer symphony in two alluring movements, slow and slower, provides an ideal backdrop as I take my memories to the burnished corner of a harvest field.

I know secret farmland where the year grows ripe and the wheat finds gold to encourage more interest than usual in glancing back to see where we’ve come from. This little bit of the past is not a foreign country but a wonderfully familiar and fertile acre for constant sowing and reaping.

There’s far more romance in treating it as an archaic rite rather than a crash-and-grab operation smothered in dust. Even the noise and pace of a modern harvest’s mechanical giants cannot totally eclipse yesterday’s “hold-gee” boys and girls as they reflect on their first job in a grown-up world.

It meant leading the horse as the wagon was loaded up and shouting warnings to men on top to hold tight: “Howld!”  for the men and “Ge!” for the horse were often followed by “Sorft tewl!” and a clip of the lug for the lad if he failed to synchronise effectively.

Constant shortcomings on the part of apprentice harvest workers could turn the generation gap into a chasm and transform refreshment breaks into a star chamber with stubble. The four o’clock interval, abbreviated to “fourses” or “farses” for veterans with broader tastes were designed to sort out grievances that might have cropped up since the dew had taken flight as well as to catch up with local gossip over a mug of ale.

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Women and girls brought our beer and food, “wittles” as we called them and then tactfully withdrew as blame was apportioned and retribution organised neath the shadow of hedgerows or rising stack.

I can’t remember which was worse – waiting for the inquisition and chastisement on the 4pm menu or working overtime to avoid any more lurching incidents before calling it a day at dusk.

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Useful character-forming material, no doubt, with that classic incentive to take care of fellow workers responsible for your supplies of fags and liquid refreshment over the harvest period. But it left me twitchy. No wonder I had considerable trouble keeping the clutch in check when horses made way for the Fortson Major.

The old Norfolk custom of Ten Pounding might have put me right. Any worker caught contravening harvest rules was subjected to a swift court martial. If found guilty, the culprit was seized and thrown down on his back.

My report from some rustic ringside continues: “Some of the party keep the head down and confine his arms while others turn up his legs in the air so as to exhibit his posterior. “

The person selected to inflict the punishment then takes a shoe and with the head of it studded as it usually is with hobnails, gives him the prescribed number of blows upon his breech according to the sentence.

The rest of the party sit by with hats off to see that the executioner does his duty, and if he fails in this, he undergoes the same punishment It sometimes happens that from the prevailing use of high-lows, ankle boots, a shoe is not to be found among the company, in this case, the hardest and heaviest hand of the reap is selected for the instrument of correction, and when it is laid on with a hearty good will, it is not inferior to the shoe”.

Instant rough justice, confined these days to the odd Cabinet reshuffle or sacking of football managers. On reflection. It could be one of the reasons behind dwindling numbers of workers on the land.

I reckon most people, even those decked out in full country garb, merely catch a glimpse of the modern corn harvest from a passing car. It can all be done and dusted and next instalment of the farming year started in the space of a journey to and from the closest supermarket.

Harvest used to take precedence over everything else in the country -our summer weeks away from the classroom were always called The Harvest Holidays and most folk in the village were involved to create and nurture a strong sense of community since shoved over the headlands into history by the march of mechanisation.

The Coronation of the Year has been stripped of its majesty and we now rely on little postcards from the past to find glimpses of gold in what ought to remain the most evocative of seasons.

Skip's Aside: 
Sheringham Shantymen nipped over the border to stage their own version of “Last Night of the Proms” on Cromer seafront.

Saturday evening entertainment clearly designed for friends and neighbours went down well in front of an enthusiastic gathering l and afforded the warbling troubadours a perfect chance to I spread the word about their annual charity show on Cromer Pier on Sunday, November14, with curtain up on the Pavilion Theatre stage at 7.30pm.

All tickets £15 from theatre box office on 01263 512 495. Proceeds from The Shout, celebrating the Shantymen’s first 30 years, go to Cromer and Sheringham RNLI and the Sir Norman Lamb Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund.

I hope to be on hand to welcome the Sheringham contingent and remind them how to behave in North Norfolk’s other premier resort. A few jokes at their expense may be on offer.

Meanwhile, North Elmham’s tireless fundraisers are ready to bloom again in the name of their splendid parish church A flower festival next weekend is called Sing a Song of Colour , the first such event since 2016 and is bound to attract plenty of visitors to St Mary’s.

There are several other reasons to pay a call next Saturday between 10am and 5pm. Or Sunday between 10am and 4pm. Light refreshments daily. Chance to climb the tower on Sunday, a village archive exhibition, stalls in the churchyard. Free admission and car parking.

There’s a car boot sale opposite the church at 10am on Sunday. Music in the church both days.

The restoration fundraising weekend culminates with a Sunday service in the church, welcoming the new Bishop of Lynn, The Ven. Dr Jane Steen and James Lillwall with the All Saints Choir.

All inquiries to 01362 668525 or 01362 668302

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