Part of Marldon Local History Group Social and Oral History Archive
A CHILDHOOD OF SUMMER HOLIDAYS AT PETER'S FARM, MARLDON
The following memoir was written by Mr. Basil Sutcliffe, now 93, when he retired in 1976. As he says at the beginning, it recalls his annual visits in the Summer holidays to his grandparents Richard and Sarah Jane Stranger at Peter's Farm, for the 16 or 17 years from when he was born. The memoir therefore covers the period from 1916 to 1932/33, when the Stranger family left the farm following the sale of the Compton Castle Estate.
This Memoir is the property and copyright of Basil Sutcliffe, and may not be reproduced or copied in any format without his written consent. Marldon Local History Group is grateful for his kind consent to reproduce it here.
Mother was a farmer’s daughter, a Devonian, born on Peter’s Farm, Marldon, some three miles inland from Paignton, and living there until she married and went north to live. What a contrast and traumatic experience it must have been for her to exchange the beautiful Devon countryside for the drabness of Albert Road. Strange, looking back that I never heard her talk about this turning point in her life. But what luck for me - and Muriel - to have been born the grandchildren of a farmer and to spend every summer holiday from birth to 16 or 17 in that wonderful world of animals and plants. These annual visits must have been one of the biggest influences of my life and outlook and are so much impressed on my mind and still giving me so much pleasure and delight, that I vow never to return to Marldon. Progress - so called - has invaded Peter’s Farm. Paignton has pushed its frontiers over the fields which swept down to the farm itself from Marldon Cross Hill and Five Lanes. The meadows of Cross Lomardy, Middle Lomardy, Cow Lomardy and Five Lanes Lomardy now echo to the noise of children playing in their gardens. Washing blows on clothes lines and cars are washed and repaired in the suburban drives where once the red Devon cows and sheep grazed, and grasshoppers jumped in meadows where a profusion of wild flowers and grasses grew. I’ve never seen this desecration nor wish to do so - it would shatter a long held and cherished dream.
Peter’s nestled in a hollow not far from the centre of the village. The house looking L-shaped from the front, its walls plastered and whitewashed, consisted of three parts which had been built at different times. The upper kitchen or higher kitchen as it was called was the oldest part, an original cottage. Its sloping floor was made up of irregularly shaped flat stones. One almost oval in shape and five foot long was of blue stone and time and many feet had polished and smoothed its slippery surface. At the foot of the wall opposite the front door was the ‘well’; this had the only tap in the house. There was no drain and surplus water collected at the bottom of the square shaped depression. I suppose there may well have been a well at one time but I never heard it mentioned. At the top end of the sloping kitchen was a white-washed larder in which milk for sale was kept. Most of the milk was sent to a dairy in Paignton but some was sold at the door. Village folk would come with jugs or enamel cans to collect their pint or quart. The milk was served out by a pint measure, a cylinder with a vertical handle which looped over the edge of the can. The only thing in the higher kitchen was an oil stove with four burners, two below pan rings and two below an oven. Close to the well a door opened to the back stairs. These were old and almost rickety, uncarpeted and led up to two bedrooms. These were unoccupied, a few odd items, an old chair, a black trunk, were stored there but they were mainly used for keeping apples during the winter. Our holidays were always in August but the smell of the apples still lingered.
Part of the other arm of the ‘L’ which had been built much later contained the main kitchen, a large airy room with its paved flagstone floor. On one side was a wide open fire place, big enough to take the largest logs and though possibly there was room for seats inside at each end, there was no evidence that there ever had been. From a point up the chimney (what fun to look up and see the sky) hung the toothed metal hook from which hung a large oval cauldron, the outside thick with soot. Across the ‘dogs’ lay a faggot of wood. This was lit first thing in the morning and soon there was a cauldron of hot water available for use. The water was scooped out with the ‘dipper’, a metal half sphere to which a handle was attached. It was one of the duties of one of the farmhands to bring in a new faggot from the faggot stack before leaving work each evening. This early morning fire held great attractions for me and I revelled in blowing up the grey embers with the bellows and adding logs to keep it going, especially when my Grandfather ( Richard Stranger) came to rest for a while in the old armchair by the fire. From an early age I was called ‘the good stoker’. I loved the smell of wood smoke and when in later years I romanticised about the blue haze which sometimes hung about the kitchen when the wind blew in the wrong direction, I was told off in no uncertain terms by Aunt Sue who had to suffer the discomfort of a smoke filled kitchen on many a day.
Projecting from the wall was a large open stove. The stove fire heated a hob above and an oven to its right whilst above the oven was a shallower tank of water. This was sealed with a brass top into which were affixed two brass lids, some 18 inches to 2 feet wide. When these were removed, two large bowls of milk could be placed in the circular holes and slowly scalded by the boiling water below. Gradually the cream rose to the surface and after a period of time the bowls were taken to the dairy to cool and the thick rich cream formed a firm crust. This was skimmed off and was of course the famous Devonshire Cream. Nothing sold in tubs in supermarkets these days bears any resemblance to the real thing. What memories of Sunday teas with bowls of fresh raspberries and spoonfuls of delicious cream, or cream spread thickly on a thick slice of bread topped with golden syrup - thunder and lightening as it was called.
There was a very large white wooden table in the kitchen which had been scrubbed so white and hard that the soft parts had been worn away and the tough lines of annual rings stood up in ridges. A bench was let into the wall along one side of the table and on this at meal times the men - and the cat - sat. I always sat there too and felt very much a recognised worker on the farm. There was a strange ritual that dinner was eaten at the bottom end of the table near the door, whilst tea was always served at the top end close to a wide window seat on which stood Aunt Sue’s geraniums. At both meals Grandma presided at the head of the table clad always in the Victorian/Edwardian black dress reaching the floor, its dark colour, relieved by a small white collar which matched her lovely white hair upswept into a bun. At this table she would draw chickens, pointing out to us the various organs and giving us our first biology lessons, and grind down huge blocks of salt for household use. And sometimes on a Monday she would patiently sit and chop the left over joint of beef to make the best meat and potato pasties I’ve ever tasted. Against the wall near the door stood a small bureau which contained a jumble of farm bills and receipts and above it a calendar supplied by Bibbys, the animal feedstuffs manufacturers with pictures each month of bulls, cows and sheep. The opposite end of the kitchen was taken up by cupboards which reached to the ceiling. Here were kept the cups and saucers and all the dry foods. Aunt Sue would stand with her head in one of these cupboards about mid morning eating a bread and butter sandwich. On the other side of the fireplace was a window high up on the wall and overlooking the front garden. Any letters for posting were placed behind a loose metal bar of the frame and the postman on seeing them would call in to collect them. Such was the courtesy and service of tho
se days. Below the window on a narrow ledge was a shallow wicker basket containing a selection of old keys. Their use was long forgotten and yet year after year they languished in their dusty container. Above the mantelpiece on the wall hung two shot guns, whilst on the mantelpiece itself stood several ornaments and the clock which was always kept ten minutes fast. Uncle Stanley had little sense of time and Aunt Sue reckoned he might just be ready for Newton Abbot Market if the clock were kept fast. She would have his best leggings polished bright in time but more often than not he was late and it was not unknown for him to dash out to the bus which stopped outside the farmhouse with his leggings in his hand and on some occasions even his boots.
The dairy was up two steps from the kitchen, a cool airy room whose stone floor could be wetted to keep it so. Three or four trestles stretched the length of the dairy made specially to hold the bowls of colling cream.
A small outer kitchen led from the main kitchen on the farmyard side and in which there was a back door. It had whitewashed walls and a stone floor and here the spare faggots were kept with the chopping block and billhook. At the far end, cupboards contained various medicines and drenches for the livestock. On the windowsill stood the lanterns for use in the winter. In this room too, Grandma slit the throats of hens for the table whilst Muriel and I looked on in irresistible horror and morbid fascination as the blood dripped into a bucket and the poor birds frantically flapped their last moments. But the main purpose of the room was to house the milk churns before they were taken to the dairy by milk float. The milk was brought in in buckets from the cow houses (hand milking) and strained into the churns. The hygiene of those days would hardly be acceptable today.
The sitting room led off the kitchen and faced the main road. During the summer this room was rarely used except on Sundays and it possessed the atmosphere of a museum. Each piece of furniture, each ornament seemed fixed, never to be moved. A living room is alive, its character changes every day as papers lie around, flower petals drop, a pair of shoes is pushed under a chair and unfinished work lies on the table. But Peter’s front room was static. Sometimes Grandma would sit by the armchair by the window and she seemed to take on the quality of a wax model at Madame Tussauds. The room came slightly to life when we could persuade Aunt Sue to play a hymn on the old out-of-tune piano which stood in one dark corner. In the opposite corner a door opened onto the main stairs (the sitting room and bedrooms above were the last to be built). When I was first old enough to notice such things, the lock on this door was broken and throughout the years we holidayed at Peter’s, a pair of old scissors rested on a ledge by the door, ready to prise back the catch to open it and go upstairs. These stairs were carpeted and led to a short landing at the top of which was a glass case of stuffed birds including a kingfisher. The landing led to my grandparents undistinguished bedroom above the kitchen. A door on the opposite of this room led to another landing off which were both Uncle Stanley’s and Aunt Sue’s rooms, both functionally furnished and situated over the kitchen and dairy. The ‘guests’ used the front stairs and the guest bedroom was just off the landing overlooking the front garden. This room had character. A brass knobbed bedstead was fitted with a soft mattress and feather pillows and light rose-patterned eiderdowns: sleeping here was a luxury. On the wall opposite the bed were two samplers, each with a Biblical text embellished with roses and other flowers, all
beautifully worked by Mother and Aunt Sue when young. On the washstand stood a large wash bowl and jug. No question of hot water here unless brought up from the cauldron in the kitchen - and really no need in summer. The small windows looked out over the front lawn and a main road (i.e Village Road - MLHG). Few cars passed by, instead the bright clip clop of a pony and trap or the heavier sound of a horse and cart echoed into the bedroom, and on a Sunday morning the peals of Church bells floated over the grassy hill in front. The windows on the landing overlooked the farmyard and above them under the eaves the martins built their nests. By August, the young were almost ready to leave the nests and we woke to the music of their chatter. How enchanting to start a new day in such surroundings on a fine sunny morning. When I grew older I had a bed in Aunt Sue’s room. I often woke later in the evening to find Aunt Sue on her way to bed sitting on her chamber pot giving her back and bottom a good scratch. When propriety decreed that developing youths should not share with maiden aunts, I ended up in Uncle Stanley’s room. There was no modern lighting system; candles were taken flickering to bed and as the evenings began to draw in towards the end of August, we spent the hour or so before bed in the soft yellow light of the oil lamp.
One room I haven’t mentioned was the bathroom - there wasn’t one. The only tap was in the upper kitchen and water had to be carried upstairs in the large china jugs. The other necessity was across the bottom of the front garden. This was a little stone building with a slate roof. It was divided into two, one half facing the garden and the other the lower orchard. A wooden seat provided the comfort and was affixed over sloping ground. The products of the visits accumulated and slid slowly away down into the lower orchard in a foul stream. Toilet paper was provided by neatly torn squares of the Western Morning News, strung on a string hung from a nail. A relaxing 10-15 minutes could be spent here reading news items one had missed but always experiencing the frustration of finding that the continuation of a particularly interesting item had been on the previous piece of paper already used. Again propriety was in evidence. The ladies of the farmhouse and visitors used the garden side, the men the orchard side. Whether the mess was cleared away at intervals, I don’t know, but certainly during our month’s holiday the ‘pile’ grew. In very hot weather, slug like creatures bred and crawled up inside the hole but I never saw one actually reach the seat.
There was a cobbled area outside the back door and a large stand on which the churns would be stood before being lifted onto the cart. To the west, the wide outer yard sloped gently upward to the higher orchard, a level ground held back by a retaining wall. The orchard was reached by a stile typical of a wall stile in Devon in which stones projected from the wall to form three or four steps. To the east of the back door in the corner of the yard, there were often the remains of a hay or straw stack which provided the chicken with a good scratching area. Beyond was the lower orchard. A small stream trickled down through the higher orchard, disappeared under the farm buildings and reappeared in the lower orchard. Watercress grew in the stream and the scent of crushed water mint wafted upwards as feet walked along the edge. Most of the trees were cider apples but here and there an eater or cooker had been planted. The Orange Blenheim whose wrinkled apples were include in the Christmas hamper was in the higher orchard, a Devonshire Quarrenden in the lower where there was also a Crimson Bramley whose branches hung over the front garden. Behind the farm buildings a gate and path in the higher orchard led to a small hedged area which served as a kitchen garden. Here the potatoes and carrots and runner beans were grown. Farmers are notoriously bad gardeners (Aunt Sue kept the front garden beautifully and loved her flowers) and by August the crops could not be seen for a tangle of bindweed and speedwell. But the potatoes they grew, some redskins and an all blue variety were of superb flavour. Much of the yard in which the hens ranged free, was covered with Mayweed which gave off a pungent smell. I loved this smell not only for itself but because it was so characteristic of my much loved Peter’s.
The main farm buildings were arranged in a square round a sunken midden into which the liquid manure was swept. In the heat of the summer a crust would form on top and once the farm workers told me it was quite alright to walk across. When I did so I sank down to my knees in muck much to their amusement. A wooden gate closed off this inner yard from the outer and inside to the left was the harness room. Here ferrets were kept - but there was always something a little sinister about this room. From an early age we were teased that a bogey man lived in it and Muriel was always very nervous when passing it. Then came the pigsties with a ring set in the wall just below the roof. A rope attached to the pig’s nose was threaded through to hold its head up when the poor thing was to be stuck. I never was allowed near at such times but had to stay in the kitchen listening to the agonised squeals though I could go and watch the next stage as the still body lay on its bier. A loose box and the stables completed the left side. Harnesses hung from the walls and heavy wooden chests contained grooming brushes etc. and the horse brasses.
Across the top of the square were two calf pens and cow stalls for six or seven cows and above this the barn. Here we played on wet days and here each year we were measured against the barn wall. The right wing consisted of four cowsheds each with stalls for five cows. A corridor ran right round the cowsheds to allow fodder and cake to be carried from the store houses at each corner to the feeding troughs in front of each cow stall. In the storehouses, each with its ladder going up the wall to its loft above, there was a turnip cutter and a similar machine for breaking up large slabs of linseed oil cake. I never used the former but enjoyed feeding in the linseed slabs. There was an oil engine in the barn but it was rarely used in August but outside at the back of the barn, covered with lichen and surrounded by nettles was the long wooden arm of a ‘machine’ which provided the motive power before the oil engine was installed. A horse used to be harnessed to the arm and encouraged to walk monotonously round in circles. Just beyond this under the huge elms was the faggot stack, refurnished each year by the hedge trimmings when layering was carried out in the winter. It was general policy amongst farmers to try and have a seventh or at least a proportion of their hedges layered each year to keep them in good condition thickening out the bottoms to make them stock proof. But the hedges of those days were very different in character to those of today. Devon hedges were generally grown on banks of soil and consisted largely of hazel. Rabbits infested the banks which were often covered with primroses and red campion, harts tongue fern and a large variety of wild flowers. Guelder rose and honeysuckle managed to survive the hazel in places and this proliferation of Nature’s beauty made a lasting impression on me - I could take you back today to where the yellow toadflax grew on the top of a bank
on the road to Ipplepen.
This then was my paradise, this my heaven ! To live on the farm - what more could one want. Of course this was August, but even when the West Country drizzle swept across the farmyard and fields, the magic remained. Muriel and I would take our bread and cheese lunches, my bread liberally spread with Lazenby’s piccalilli, and our bottles of lemonade made with Eiffel tower crystals, into one of the linnies (open fronted buildings housing the carts) and sit on one of the carts whilst the rain swept by. The chickens, seeking refuge from the wet scratched about in in the bone dry dust of the linney earth floor - no rain ever fell on it. Sometimes old Tuckett would work there when outside work was impossible, making spars out of the flexible hazel sticks, like giant hair pins to be used to peg down the thatch on a hay or corn stack. What a character he was and how we admired the skill with which his gnarled hands twisted the hazel stick in the middle, separating its fibres without breaking it in two, then sharpening the ends. Every now and then he would take a swig from his small keg of cider, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. I thought him a fascinating old fellow. Aunt Sue didn’t share my enthusiasm and called him a ‘dirty old man’!
The farm itself was about 180 acres with most of the fields scattered here and there in groups in the parish. Even their names had for me a magic all their own, - Blue Church, Nell, Yelland, Big Peak and Little Peak, Stone Church, Compton Meadow, Stringsland and Peter’s Field. Stringsland was reached by a short lane from the main Marldon - Compton Road, by the gate to Compton Meadow but even in a dry August at one point the lane was flooded for 20 or 30 feet as a small stream flowed across. One picked one’s way close to the hedge, balancing on the high dry ridges thrown up by the wheels of the farm carts. Many of the other fields were in West Lane which led into the wilds of the Devon countryside from just past Church House Inn. For the first fifty yards it ran as a sunken lane between 15 foot high banks topped with hazel bushes whose branches met over the lane to form a living tunnel. It was often deep in mud but the sun filtered through sufficiently for the primroses and harts tongue ferns to dot the banks. Farther along, the lane opened out to allow more light; the ground became drier and the sides of the path became massed with flowers. Gates here and there led into the fields, belonging to Peter’s and other farms - but what a job in those days to get even a self binder into a field. No wonder today farmers remove hedges and knock the patchwork of fields into huge areas where mighty combines can move more freely. Towards the end of the lane the grasses and flowers grew more and more undisturbed - few ventured that far and one had to push one’s way past the clinging stems of blackberry and clumps of ‘sticky buttons’. It was up in this remote area to which the cows were banished when Mother, Aunt Sue and Uncle Stanley developed diphtheria when children. The cows were milked in the fields and the milk brought down West Lane before being taken to Paignton.
Our holiday on the farm was the highlight of the year, almost surpassing birthdays and Christmas. Excitement grew as the prospect of the long train journey drew nearer. Muriel and I discussed at length what sweets we would buy to take on the train and mother laid out the clothes for the holiday ready to pack in the skip. This was sent luggage in advance and when the railway van collected it, we knew the holiday was imminent. It was a ten hour journey to Paignton, travelling by the Devonian from Leeds. I always enjoyed train travel - and I still do - despite the fact that on nearly every journey I would get a smut in my eye, something not experienced with Diesels. About mid afternoon we were speeding through Gloucestershire and a certain drowsiness would creep over us. The train perhaps got held up; there would be a heavy silence in the hot hazy countryside. The poem ’Adlestrop’ must surely have been written under such a situation, on a hot still August day. But spirits rose after we’d left Taunton for soon the most exciting part of the journey was at hand. Exeter behind us and we now caught the first glimpse of the Exe estuary. We reached Starcross, from where a ferry sailed across to Exmouth and where until only a few years ago, a small rowing boat with its bows in the shape of a swan was moored by the jetty. Dawlish Warren flashed by and Dawlish itself where the railway ran along the edge of the sea almost brushing the elbows of the holiday makers who walked along the seafront. There are few more picturesque journeys with the train racing in and out of the tunnels cut in the red Devon Sandstone, past the Parson and the Clerk, hard pillars of rock left standing when the softer rock was eroded away by the sea. Teignmouth and up the Teign to Newton Abbot and before long we’d left Torquay. As the train ran along the Torbay coastline, we stuck our heads out of the window to ca
tch the first glimpse of Aunt Sue waiting on Paignton Station. She was always overcome with excitement and giggled her way through her greetings. Into a taxi and a three mile drive to Marldon, past well loved landmarks, Java Cottage and Windmill Hill, to the village itself. We drove past Barby’s Corner where outside the big house were the mounting steps to help the less able to get on their horses. (Barby's Corner is the junction with Kiln Road at the bottom of Marldon Cross Hill - MLHG) Excitement reached its climax. Grandma sat in the front room window. Muriel and I dashed down the path, gave Grandma a perfunctory kiss and flew out of the back door, across the yard and up into the higher orchard to the Lemon Pippin tree. This was an early eating apple of unusual shape, long and cylindrical, a pale yellow when ripe, crisp and juicy. The holiday had begun.
I woke on the first morning with the sun streaming through the window and the sounds of activity in the farmyard. Bed was no place to be on such a morning and I was soon dressed and out to find Philip, a young man who worked on the farm. Morning milking was over and the cows waiting to be driven to the meadow. The hens scratched happily in various parts of the yard, wandering where they would and often laying their eggs away from the hen house in quiet spots. The loud clucking of a hen boasting of her achievement in the higher orchard would bring Aunt Sue rushing to the back door to pinpoint the area. Later there would be a search there amongst the nettles, or the bottom of the hedge and when the nest was located, perhaps 8 or 10 eggs would be revealed. Sometimes a nest would remain undiscovered and a proud mother would one day come across the yard with a dozen chicks around her. After breakfast, I would join Philip as he harnessed one of the horses to one of the carts and off we’d go to a job in one of the fields. Even the old carts had a romance about them, the two wheeled (called a putt in Somerset) and four wheeled, the hay wains with their wooden framework to hold the hay, or sheaves of corn. Remains of their last load lay about the cart, wisps of hay, dried lumps of manure or a light covering of red soil. What more could a lad ask than to sit up behind the broad back of a strong but relaxed cart horse. There is even nostalgia in recollecting when the horse raised its tail to break wind, almost in your face or dropped its large but neat pile whilst still walking. So different from cows which splattered their way across the yard or down the road. The sun soon dried their splats into thin crisp ‘pancakes’.
After dinner the cows were fetched from their morning grazing ground, a task I was allowed to do. Animals have a great sense of time and routine, and one only had to stand at the gate and call ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and they would amble slowly across the field, udders bulging with milk. Then after milking, I would take the cows down the road again to the meadow. I drove them with a great feel of professionalism, though the cows knew just where they were going. An occasional car, fairly rare, might wish to pass and I imagined the occupants seeing only a sunburnt country lad, sleeves rolled up, stick in hand, urging the cows to the side of the road, with basic everyday familiarity. As we neared the meadow, I would have to go ahead of the cows to open the gate, the cows placidly and dutifully stopping or stepping to one side as I walked ahead murmuring softly ‘steady now, steady’. How disciplined the herd were - and how well led!! It was a different story with the sheep. Uncle Stanley asked Dad and I to take 15 or so sheep to a field in West Lane. All went well until one stupid animal suddenly darted up the bank and through a gap in the hedge. Of course the rest followed and Dad and I spent a very frustrating hour trying to get control of them and get them to where they were supposed to go.
Sometimes in a poor summer, there would still be hay-making to be carried out. The grass was cut in swathes by the mower and after a couple of days in the warm sun, had to be turned by hand using a two pronged fork. I would join the men in the field and try to keep up with them and the next day would help load the hay onto the hay wains. As I grew older I was probably quite useful as an extra hand and took my place on the cart. Here I learned to pack the hay around the sides - the middle always filled up by itself. What a joy to sit on top of the sweet smelling hay as we rumbled across the field to the corner where the stack was being built. I helped to build the stack and used the same principle - ‘Don’t bother about the middle, - a principle I still use in building up my compost heaps. Of course when one is young one is often naïve. Public toilets weren’t provided up West Lane and one disappeared behind a hedge - I’m not sure who’d be watching if one stayed in front of one. Once when young I had recourse to visit behind a hedge and called to Uncle Stanley for some paper. I received the curt reply ‘Use grass’.
But of all the farming activities, harvesting was the most exciting. In those days the headland round the field had to be cut to make room for the self binder as the blade stuck out to its left side. This had to be done by hand using a scythe, the corn gathered into a sheaf and tied with a rope of twisted straw, a skilled little operation in itself. This was then thrown up against the hedge out of the way. Cutting didn’t start till the dew was off the corn, usually not before midday so that in most fields cutting went on until the evening. What a sight to see three straining horses pulling the binder which rhythmically threw out the bound sheaves. Tea had to be taken in the field and somewhere around 5 o’clock, Aunt Sue would walk out with a stone jar of tea and a large apple basket, lined with a clean white cloth and filled with cups, raspberry jam sandwiches and Chelsea buns - always the same menu. The workers which included me and sometimes Muriel, would sit under the hedge and quietly refresh themselves, an occasional word being spoken or piece of gossip exchanged. Above our heads the hazel nuts were already swelling and wasps and flies would come down to share our jam. Back to work and the oblong of uncut corn began to get less and less. Villagers came out to the field after their evening meal to help put up the sheaves into stooks, six or eight sheaves to a stook. Then a shout! The first rabbit broke cover from the uncut remnant and went galloping away to the safety of the hedge. Work on putting up the sheaves stopped and men and boys fetched their dogs tied up by the gate. Philip who drove the binder sometimes let Muriel or me have charge of his whippets, Flossie the large grey one, thin flanked and long legged with alert bright eyes and gasping tongue; and the smaller Fly. Another rabbit made a run for it, twisting and turning to avoid the dogs, diving over sheaves or through stooks
until with a piercing squeal it succumbed to the teeth of the leading dog. Those without dogs armed themselves with stout sticks and lashed out wildly if the rabbit turned in their direction. The corn patch grew less, more rabbits ran and the field became a scene of barking, chasing dogs and panting, shouting men. Occasionally a poor animal would run into the blades of the binder and have its legs severed amid horrible squealing. Philip would stop the binder, get down and quickly despatch the victim. Sometimes a man walking alongside the corn would spot a petrified rabbit crouching close to the ground unable to move and would reach down to pluck it from the corn. Rarely did the dogs kill the rabbits and they had to be finished off with a sharp blow behind the ears or a sudden twist to its neck. But for us the excitement was always tinged with concern for the rabbit as its life was so violently ended. The ‘catch’ was laid out in rows - it could be half a dozen, it could be a hundred - and as the sun dropped down on a calm, still, summer evening, the last strip was cut and the last sheaf stooked. Uncle Stanley would distribute the rabbits, keeping some for the farmhouse. The workers came first and then onto the helpers, probably Uncle Stanley had his own fixed order of precedence. The binder was covered for the night and the village folk drifted home. The men paunched their rabbits by the hedge, cut a hole in the skin between the two bones of one rear leg and threaded the other one through it. Then back home with rabbits looped onto two sticks carried over shoulders as the sun sank behind the hills. The smoke rose upwards from a house in the village - there was peace and contentment. For Muriel and me there was still joy to come. We rode back to the farm on the horses, Farmer and Britain, sitting somewhat uncomfortably on the harness as the horses plodded their way back, knowing that their day’s work was done and a night of feeding and sleeping lay ahead of them. We clopped into the farmyar
d, the heavy harness was lifted from their broad backs and their bridles replaced by halters. Then out to the field with a much lighter step, through the field gate, halter removed, a run, a kick of joy and freedom and down to the serious business of supper.
One evening I was riding Britain bareback after work, out to a field up West Lane, when Philip on Farmer gave Britain a sharp blow across his flank with the end of his halter rope. Britain took off in a wild gallop up the lane. A halter has a rope attached to only one side, unlike the bridle where the reins are attached to both sides of the mouth. I clung on frantically with the halter rope in one hand and grabbing Britain’s mane with the other. Riding bareback I slithered from side to side but somehow managed to stay on. Britain stopped at the top of the steep slope and Philip rode up, laughing uproariously at my obvious discomfort. Some years after, Britain was pulling a cart down Kiln Road past the two disused lime kilns and the quarry when he bolted and tried to jump over the gate of Broad Meadow. The accident killed him and I felt a very deep sense of loss.
Sunday was a very different day. It sounded different on waking in the morning. Though the cows had to be milked twice during the day and the hens continued to lay and had to be fed, even the animals seemed to move with less vigour and purpose. The very air itself hung still over the farmyard and the sun moved more slowly across the sky. A later start to the day and breakfast over, it was time for church. The church bells rang out their peal over the hill, the changes joyous and uplifting. We walked the three hundred yards to the church with its square tower, past the smithy and the cottages up to the lych gate. The peal of bells changed to the single toll of the five minute warning bell and the ringers came out to chat by the side gate. They were in semi working clothes but would dress up for the evening when one or two would go back into the church for Evensong, sitting somewhat self consciously in the back pew. The family pew was to the right of the right hand aisle, two rows from the front. The Rev Trevaldwyn was an ascetic Cornishman who had a permanent dewdrop at the end of his nose. He gabbled through prayers and readings in an exaggerated and artificial voice, sucking great intakes of breath at the end of each petition. The Litany gave him the chance to play the game of beating the congregation by starting the next petition before they had finished the response - Good Lord deliver us. He never did and the Vicar droned on!! One always felt he was giving a music hall impression of a parson. His sermons were dreary, only enlivened by his frequent loud and prolonged sniffs as he attempted to control the dewdrop. I spent the time counting the worm holes in the shelf for books at the back of the pew in front. There were 72 and the number didn’t vary year to year. It was a large church - I never saw it anywhere full - and was lit by oil lamps hanging on chains from the ceiling. It must have
been an independent parish or been specially licensed for weddings as I believe Mother and Dad were the first couple to be married after this as they head the marriage records. On our return from Church after morning service, Muriel and I usually made our way round to the cider cellar on the other side of the old kitchen. Here were 4 or 5 hogshead of cider and Uncle Stanley used to met several of his friends here for a drink and a gossip before Sunday dinner, Tom White, Alf Heath, Cousin Fred, Joe Heath. Muriel and I as youngsters entertained them with songs and poems and then passed the hat round. We were mercenary little beggars!
It was the custom on Sundays in the afternoon for Aunt Sue and Uncle Stanley to retire to their rooms for a well deserved rest - they worked very hard during the week. Uncle Stanley, an ideal uncle and always ready for a bit of fun, would pretend to be drunk and helpless in the armchair by the fire in the kitchen. Muriel and I had to remove his boots (and expose his pungently sweaty socks!) and then drag a limp, yet protesting body up the stairs. The house then became silent and this could become one time when time might hang a little heavily. Once in each holiday during such a period, Muriel and I would have a wild flower gathering competition, seeing how many different kinds we could find, We searched the orchards, along the hedgerows and the farmyard itself. We picked Herb Robert from the walls and water mint from the stream, ivy leafed toadflax and white dead nettle. So our knowledge of the flora increased - we knew the names of many of the flowers from our cigarette card collections. Grandma was usually press ganged into being the adjudicator and little prizes were produced. Five o’clock came and Aunt Sue would appear in Sunday frock and clean apron. Sunday tea was always in the front room with fresh raspberries or tinned peaches and a bowl of Devonshire cream topped with a thick yellow crust, followed by Aunt Sue’s homemade rock buns and a fruit cake. Evensong sometimes or an evening walk along the lanes to Mother’s cousins at Aptor. But everyone and everything knew it was Sunday and a strange reassuring peace pervaded everywhere. In church I was absorbing the beauty of the Te Deum and the Magnificat, outside the beauty of all creation - this all became part of my heritage.
We knew many people in the village, many had known Mother since she was a girl. Mr Seaward worked on the farm and Mrs Seaward, a bright, cheerful, round, little woman came to the farm on Saturday mornings to clean through. Muriel and I were the boss’s grandchildren and so, she obviously thought, had to be treated with due respect. ‘Good morning sir, Good morning Missy’ she always greeted us. It was an age when everyone knew their station!!! One of her jobs was to polish the brass top of the scalding stove using a type of bath brick grated down and mixed with I think water. After cleaning the stove gleamed as did the warming pan, the same one that now hangs over the stairs at Tarn Crag.
Bert Bridgman owned the blacksmith shop in Compton, the next village (Compton Castle now National Trust was associated with Raleigh and Gilbert). This developed into an agricultural engineering firm. He was a stalwart of the church and sang in the choir for 70 years, and was very proud of his acquaintance with the Bishop! Mabel, his wife kept the village shop and took in holidaymakers. Margaret and I stayed there when Nick was on the way and again when he was about two. Her shop kept a wide range of foodstuffs and household goods. She always had a good selection of sweets, mintoes and liquorice ‘belts’ which could be torn into bootlaces, tied together and nibbled as if one were eating a continuous string of black spaghetti.
The Marldon smithy was only a few yards from the farm and it was always thrilling to go in and watch a horse being shod. What a fascination to watch the bellows blow the dull embers of the forge into the red hot strip of metal into shape and making the nail holes. The red hot shoe being placed onto the horse’s foot, held between the blacksmith’s knees, and smelt the acrid smoke of burning hair and hoof. How was it, we thought, the horse didn’t feel anything. When the shoe was ready, came the nailing of the hoof, the nails coming right and being bent over. And throughout the whole operation, the farm horse stood placid and patient. It was quite a different story when a frisky pony came in.
The post office was in a cottage close to the Church House Inn. It was only a counter in Mrs Selly’s sitting room, though where to sit would have been a problem. Mrs Selly collected small ornaments and they occupied every available niche and cranny. Not one more could have been placed on the large square table in the centre of the room. Many were Gosse and the collection would in these days be worth a small fortune.
The Pethybridges lived on the next farm adjacent to the higher orchard. (i.e Millmans Farm -MLHG).They were family friends and when Peter’s was given up Aunt Sue went to live and work there as housekeeper. Tom Pethybridge once took me to Chagford on Dartmoor. He had to take a calf to someone over there and asked if I’d like to go. I jumped at the idea and the day sticks in my mind largely because we went into a café for our dinner and found bowls of pickles on the tables. I have a great fondness for pickles and chutneys and to find these provided free seemed to me to be the height of luxury.
Not every day was spent on the farm, though nothing would drag me away if they were cutting or carrying out some other special farm activity. We spent many happy hours over the years on Paignton and Goodrington beaches. We visited Brixham and walked out to Berry Head and admired the lovely stretch of coastline westwards. But of all the outings, my favourite was the one which took us by the bus from Paignton to Greenway Ferry. This was often crowded with woman carrying large empty baskets and gossiping in loud Devon voices. Dittisham on the farther bank of the River Dart opposite Greenaway was famous for plums and the women had taken the luscious fruit to sell in Paignton. We crossed to Dittisham by rowing boat and had our lunch at Dawe’s Café, eating our sandwiches overlooking the river. There was usually time for a quick walk up the hill into the village and church before catching a small launch down the Dart to Dartmouth. In the depression of the thirties, there were eighteen or twenty merchant ships laid up in the river above Dartmouth and often a troopship or two awaiting the trooping season, but always the busy sound of riveting and hammering from several small shipyards. Dartmouth was the town of the herring gull. They strutted along the quayside, they called from the roof of the station, they stood on the chimney stacks and they squawked as they flew over the river. To us they were one of the greatest attractions of Dartmouth and even now when I hear the raucous call of the gull I’m taken back there. We had our tea in one of the teashops and then caught the large ferry, The New, from Dartmouth Station. This was the only station in Britain without trains. Tickets were bought on the floating station which rose and fell with the tide and travelled by The New across to the rail terminus at Kingswear. From here we went back to Paignton in cream and chocolate coaches of the old Great Wester
n Railway ( G.W.R.). All this I think cost 2/- (two shillings) for an adult.
Our trip to Dartmouth was sometimes varied by going there first and taking the large steamer up the river to Totnes or making the trip the other way round. The Dart must be the loveliest river in England with its tree lined banks. The branches of the trees appeared to have been trimmed in a horizontal straight line but this had been done by nature. The tide rose and fell twice in twenty four hours and killed off any branch or twig which reached the water. There would be herons standing motionless in the shallows, oyster catchers searching the mud and if one was lucky there would be a sight of a kingfisher diving to the fish below. Beautiful in the sun, the Dart held its fascination when the drizzle swept across from the west and we stood in the bows of the ship, coat collars turned up and rain running down our faces.
We usually returned to Marldon from our outings by the local privately owned bus driven by Foxy. The first bus was a box like Ford with seats running the length of the us on each side and carrying fourteen passengers. The door was at the back, below which a step projected. If the bus was full, a local workman who was a regular passenger would stand on the step and carry on a conversation with the passengers inside through the window of the door. The lanes were very narrow and it wasn’t unknown for the ‘matchbox’ as it was nicknamed to be lifted bodily by the passengers into a gateway to allow another vehicle to pass. Sometimes we would walk the three miles back to Peter’s Farm. To encourage us up the steep hill out of Paignton, dad would buy us a pennorth of chips each but these wouldn’t be eaten until we reached the wooden seat under the tree by Java Cottage, over half way up the hill. Tired but happy we reached the farm and another day was over.
These were the golden days of youth. These were the days of the simple life, of close proximity with life itself, life and death, the natural world of animal and plant, of earth and sea, of sun and rain - days of intense happiness and satisfaction. But on looking back, they were days of plain hard work, drudgery often, for Aunt Sue and Uncle Stanley and all those who worked in the countryside. The soft glow of the oil lamp for an hour at the end of a summer’s day may conjure up romantic thoughts, but on a long winter evening to read or sew or write was a great strain. To go to bed with a flickering candle on a warm summer night is quite a different matter to going to bed in a freezing bedroom in the middle of winter. It is hard to realise how much change has taken place in one’s own lifetime but no-one who knew the old would deny the comforts and conveniences of today.
But Peter’s was a world of sheer delight. It has profoundly coloured my life and I shall always be grateful for the privilege I had of experiencing life there.
This Memoir is the property and copyright of Basil Sutcliffe, and may not be reproduced or copied in any format without his written consent. 2009.
Marldon Local History Group : Life in a Devon Parish