Make hay while the sun shines

It’s eight o’clock on a summers’ evening and a hay cart drawn by two horses is trundling along the track to the farm. It’s the last load for the rick in the yard and the end of a long day spent raking and pitching the hay, an idyllic picture of rural England years’ ago, when Constable painted ‘The Haywain’ and the smell of freshly mown hay in June was as predictable as the swallows’ return each summer.

A week after the farmers sowed their barley, they sowed clover and rye grass seed in the same field, cutting the barley in August and leaving the hay crop until the following June. Before the advent of farm machinery, hay-time was done manually, scythes were used to cut the grass and forks to turn the hay for it to be pitched, or pooked, into a cart. Charles Vancover writing about the Isle of Wight in 1813 records “The grass, unless reserved for seed, is always mown before the plant has acquired its full blossom; when sufficiently withered on one side, the swarth is turned; and that also receiving a sufficient drying, the whole is gathered into heaps conveniently disposed through the field for loading upon the wagons, by which it is carried to the rick.

The word ‘pook’ turns up in an Isle of Wight farmer’s diaries. James White farmed at Briddlesford Farm near Wootton and kept an account of his work. Writing in beautiful copperplate, he says that on the 14th of June, 1848, it was “Fine all day. Finished pooking the hay in Ten Acres and began carting, made the rick in North Heath.” And the following day, “Began raking Six acres Hay and finished all but topping the rick, thunder and lightening in the evening.”

‘Pooking’ is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning to ‘put hay into heaps for carting’ and is still used in Island dialect. In ‘Where the stream roked’, a book Harold Humber and Russell Chick wrote about Bowcombe Valley, we are told that the loading of pooks of loose hay on to a cart was an acquired skill.

Farm-workers reminiscing about haytime would say that although it was one of the most physically demanding jobs on the farm, it was also one of the most pleasurable events in the farming calendar. It was the social part of it, neighbours getting together to help each other with the hay crop when they had cleared their own fields that people enjoyed.

Good weather played an important part in haymaking and three or four days of warm dry weather and a light wind would give the farmer sufficient time to make his hay. Harold Humber remembers “You could always tell the type of weather you had for haymaking by the smell of the hay.” This total reliance on good weather was one of the reasons for the change later to silage-making because this new method depended less on good weather and wasn’t so labour-intensive

Although some of the older hands disliked what they called ‘newfangled ideas’, the advent of the mower in the 1890s saved them a lot of hard graft. But until the swathe turner arrived, a piece of machinery drawn by a single horse, the hay was still turned by hand with all the family being called upon to help. Den Phillips remembers some of the farmers employed Irish labourers. “In my father’s day, we had a special stick for turning the hay,” he told me when I visited him and his wife, Jane at Compton Farm, “but you had to learn the way to use it.”

As soon as the early morning dew had dried on the turned hay it was ready to be gathered up and loaded on to a cart. The farmer might have invested in a horse-drawn hay rake but if he was a thrifty man, he wouldn’t waste any hay left on the ground; a strong lad would be employed to walk behind the rake and pick up every single bent, or stalk. (Nowadays, if the modern baler misses a lot, it’s left behind).

Haywains, carts with head-and-tail ladders, were used to carry the hay to the new rick. These were generally made in the farmyard though Den says that during the war they had to be 100 yards away from the buildings in case an enemy plane dropped a bomb and the rick caught fire. A Mr. Marshall who did a report on ‘The Rural Economy of the Southern Counties’ in 1798 and visited the Isle of Wight wrote “The ricks everywhere as round as footballs: very globes: turned with great accuracy, and neatness.”

Before the rick was built, the farmer had to be sure the hay wasn’t too dry and exhausted of its sap or too green in which case the rick might ignite later. Jane Phillips remembers when she was sixteen she helped to tread the rick. “You made a circle to tread,” she said, “then filled it in, keeping the sides up, the middle took care of itself.” Once the rick was finished it was thatched and during the winter months it was her job to cut out large slabs with a hay knife to feed the stock.

At Carisbrooke Castle, the grass was cut by hand, put into sacks and rolled down the hill to a farm in Millers Lane. Hay was produced at Meden near Cowes to feed the army’s horses in the First World War and during the last war Italian and German prisoners helped with the haymaking on the Island

What would the farm workers of the 1890s think of today’s modern techniques, I wonder? A mechanised mower to cut the grass, the tractor pulling a hay bob to turn it and a baler to compress the hay into a block and tie twine round it. They wouldn’t know that the large plastic bundles we see in the fields keep the New Zealand grass or sweet smelling vernal fresh for months. But the time for haymaking hasn’t changed. As John Heywood said in 1546, “When the sunne shyneth, make hey.”