Currant days

The distinctive scent of blackcurrant jam in the fridge evokes moments from the 1970s.

It must have been 1971, for transistor radios were constantly filled with the sound of Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep. My dad had a week’s holiday and we spent time picking blackcurrants at a fruit farm which paid pickers so many pence for each pound of currants they brought to the farm buildings, the buckets being placed on scales and then the fruit being tipped into bigger containers. There were lots of people there; there was not much money around in 1971 and the chance to earn something extra was not one to be passed.

Did we pick enough fruit to earn a few pounds? It’s hard to remember. A few currants were eaten, but after a few handfuls the hands and the lips were black and the appetite had worn off.

We spent the other week of my dad’s annual holiday in a caravan at Lyme Regis. It was our first family holiday and it remains an important moment.

It is strange thinking back how few holidays people had. There was Christmas Day and Boxing Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Whit Monday and August Bank Holiday – six public holidays a year and perhaps a week or two of annual holidays. To spend a week blackcurrant picking would seem odd now, but working for part, or all, of the annual holiday was common enough.

Looking back on such times, there is a sense of how much time people have now. The working week was often five and a half or six days. Working an eight hour day at a local nursery meant starting at 7.45 am and finishing at 5 pm, the tea break and lunch hour being in your own time. I remember my dad leaving the house at seven each morning in order to be able to be at the naval air base at Yeovilton to start work at half past seven. In the 1960s, security at the air station was such that I was allowed to accompany my dad to work, sitting in the hangar among the aircraft while he worked on the radio and radar equipment.

To have had four or five weeks annual holiday then, as well as extra the extra bank holidays that have been introduced in the past five decades, would have left you feeling like a millionaire – and have provided many more opportunities for picking blackcurrants.

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Breaking the law on a Ferguson

It has been a day when, even at midday, it never seemed fully light. A thick, heavy blanket if greyness seemed to express the mood of the first ordinary day after the Christmas-New Year holidays.

By half past four, there was a deep gloom, there seemed no lingering light in the sky to the west. Driving out of Langport, there seemed to be something dark coming towards the town, its presence noticeable because it was silhouetted by the headlights of cars that drove slowly along behind it. The dark object was being driven by someone in a bright yellow high visibility jacket, someone who seemed content at the sedate speed at which they were travelling.

Drawing closer, the darkness was revealed to be a red Ferguson tractor of a vintage when lights were an optional extra. Were there still a police station in the town, one of the constables might have stopped the driver and remonstrated with him about there being no lights. In the present times, policemen are such a rare phenomenon that being apprehended for anything is unlikely.

Away from the town, there was still enough lightness in the clouds for it to have been possible to see ahead. Being seen by the driver of another vehicle would have been another matter, anyone moving at speed might have been unable to slow in time to avoid collision with the tractor.

Perhaps the driver of the red Ferguson is too young to remember times when officers of Bath and Somerset Constabulary kept a vigilant eye on all that took place in the district.

One bright summer’s day, perhaps it was at harvest time, one of the local policemen arrived at the farmyard about a grey Ferguson tractor that did much of the donkey work around the farm. It was parked at the back of the farm cottage and lacked things that PC Pearce or Sparkes, it is hard to remember which, considered essential. There were no lights and no number plates; if tax discs were a requirement, then the tractor probably lacked one of those, as well. The policeman’s visit had an immediate impact, a can of white paint was used to paint the tractor’s registration number on the offside rear mudguard.

Policing in the 1960s seemed different from what it is now. There were no fines issued, no prosecution arising from the shortcomings of the tractor: a visit and a warning were sufficient.

Had the driver of the red Ferguson encountered a policeman, it is hard to imagine that the treatment would have been as lenient.


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It’s the season of wassailing

“The Somersetshire people are of large size and strong, but in my opinion are very slow and lazy and are very much given to eating and drinking,” thus wrote William Holland, an irascible priest of the Church of England around about 1797. Somerset people would not have regarded the passing of New Year’s Day as an end to the midwinter celebrations and Holland would have disapproved of much that happened in the county in January of each year, particularly the customs surrounding “wassailing.”

The wassail was a ritual asking God for a good apple harvest, it traditionally took place on Twelfth Night, 5th January, the eve of Epiphany and last night of Christmas. The ritual predated the adoption of the Gregorian calendar so continues to be observed twelve days later in some communities.

The wassailing tradition was strong here in the Langport area.  The local tradition was to fire shotguns up through the branches of the apple trees to ensure a good harvest, along, of course with much eating and drinking. The Somerset Wassail came from Langport.

Wassail and wassail all over the town
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley
For its your wassail and its our wassail
And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail

Oh where is the maid with the silver-headed pin
To open the door and let us come in
Oh master and missus, it is our desire
A good loaf and cheese and a toast by the fire

There was an old man and he had an old cow
And how for to keep her he didn’t know how
He built up a barn for to keep his cow warm
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm

The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail
And this is the night we go singing wassail
O master and missus now we must be gone
God bless all in this house until we do come again.

William Holland would have disapproved of such customs because they were, of course, pagan, but is there is much among the range of Christmas celebrations of the past week that is not pagan? When American traditions of Santa are embraced without question, to the extent that it would be a 21st Century heresy to go on radio or television and express doubt concerning his existence,  a bit of home grown paganism seems very inoffensive.


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Becoming my Dad

It is easy to lose count of time. It is perhaps a month since my Dad was reluctantly taken into hospital, the gentle paramedic explaining that only in-patient treatment could provide what was needed. Had I been him, I would have shown a similar lack of enthusiasm to go in the ambulance car to Taunton. Hospitals, like public transport, fat free diets, and cycling to work, are alright for other people. The care he has received has been exemplary, those who complain about the National Health Service should try living in a country where everything comes with a bill. Restored to health, he hopes to be home for Christmas.

Setting off to visit him, the journey from the last house in the row of council houses where we moved in 1967 goes through single track lanes. Passing the village cemetery, a rider on a large white horse occupied the centre of the road.

Knowing less about horses than about the thorns and flora of the hedgerows, the one thing noticeable about the horse was its wide feet around which the hair grew long: was it a shire horse? I had no idea.

I slowed the car from the 20 mph at which I roll through the village, the speed to which I was used when I was a child, to the walking pace of the horse ahead of me. “Keep back from it,” I heard my Dad say, “wait until she finds somewhere to let you past.”

The horse moved very sedately until reaching a fork in the road. The left fork being a road to the rifle range, the rider moved the horse to the left and shortened the reins. “Wait until she has turned,” my Dad said, “you don’t want to frighten the horse.”

As I slowed almost to a stop, the rider turned and smiled and waved. I took the fork to the right, accelerating to the 20 mph appropriate for a road barely wide enough to carry the traffic that passes along it each day.

At the top of Turn Hill, there is a temptation stop the car and to get out and to absorb the view. The Levels have become a vast lakeland, roads becoming causeways between expanses of water. “If it’s like this in December, what will it be like when the winter really comes?” asked my Dad.

Descending Turn Hill, not only is the road narrow, it is also precipitously steep. Halfway down, a 180 degree bend has to be negotiated. Dad would ease an old Austin Cambridge down the hill, sounding its deep bass horn as a warning to anyone who might be coming up.  On a bright December morning, there didn’t seem a need for a car horn.

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Watching the water

Were I fifty years younger, I would find constant fascination in government websites. A recent discovery has been the Flood Information Service which this evening carries the following warning for the Langport area:

Flooding is possible – be prepared

The River Tone level at Currymoor pumping station is 7.48 m and is stable. Water will enter Currymoor reservoir via Hookbridge spillway whilst this level exceeds 7.45 m. The drain level at Currymoor pumping station is 5.31 m and is rising. There is a risk of water overtopping Haymoor flood storage area and affecting Curload and Stan Moor if this level reaches 8.30 m. Pumping is taking place at Saltmoor and Northmoor pumping stations. Generally dry conditions with some isolated showers are forecast for Sunday and Monday. The River Tone at Currymoor is forecast to remain stable but may respond to further rainfall. The River Parrett at Langport Westover pumping station is forecast to remain stable as a result but may respond to further rainfall. We are closely monitoring the situation. This message will be updated Sunday evening 15/12/19.

Fifty years ago, the pumping stations included in the warning seemed like battleships in hostile waters, protecting the farms and the villages against the rising floods. They seemed always there; although a second thought about the buildings would have told even someone who knew nothing of architecture or engineering that they were recent arrivals on the scene. A government website says they were built in the 1960s and that there are twenty-one pumping stations in Somerset. Prosaic in appearance, the grey concrete and steel adding to the childhood impression of their being like naval vessels, they possessed a sense of mystery for someone who would rarely pass a day without seeing one of them.

The pumping stations seemed always to be isolated, probably a not unreasonable impression. Even the one at Westover, on the edge of the town of Langport, seems to stand at a remove, as though it were keeping a respectful distance from the other buildings of the town. Of course, given that its work is flood prevention, it is hardly likely anyone would have built on the hinterland of a station; were there a pumping station at the end of a street, the street would be in the wrong place.

The pumping stations seemed to capture the spirit of the place. Like buildings on a seashore, they stood at the margins of dry land and water. The Somerset Levels are lands claimed by hard work; they are flatlands that were once bog and marsh, expanses of wetness, tracts of water. They are still summer lands from which herds might be withdrawn when the winter rainfall comes. Like the childishly-imagined battleships that were guarding a coast, the pumping stations represent a battle to hold on to the land dear to those who work it. Farming on the Levels is very different from that in many places; it is always marginal and always demanding.

The pumping stations declare that the Levels will not be taken.

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