Being soaked

Vintage tractors assembled for a fair at the foot of Turn Hill yesterday. Passing through before most had arrived was good fortune; later, and there would have been slow moving vehicles to follow for miles. The tractors were familiar: the Massey Fergusons and the Fordsons; the David Browns and the Nuffields; the John Deeres and the Internationals. While the skies were grey, it was a mild day, and the drivers of the tractors journeying to the fair preferred short coats or jackets to anything that might have been waterproof.

It was always a mystery that up until the 1960s, tractors generally had no cab. Motor cars were enclosed from the 1920s onward, but it was not considered necessary to protect tractor drivers against the elements. Sitting behind the steering wheel of a Ferguson  35, or similar, a shower of rain lasting a few minutes would be sufficient to leave you cold, and very wet.

Being wet seemed a frequent experience in farming life. My grandfather’s farmyard didn’t offer much shelter on rainy days; while going through the daily work, if you wanted to stay dry, it was a case of dodging from the cowstalls to the barns to the pigstys. My grandfather was not a man for rushing around and would have gone around the farm with a steady tread. Work was done in a methodical way, no matter how inclement the day, there was work to be finished.

If farming is a vocation, then a preparedness to work in all conditions seems a part of that vocation. At times when many others wil have sought refuge from the rain, or suspended work for the day, there are farmers who work on, regardless of how cold or wet, or even miserable, they may feel.

In memories, much of the farmyard degenerated into mud for much of the winter. It was not a pleasant working environment, but my grandfather seemed unaffected by it. Dressed in combinations, thick woollen socks, corduroy trousers, flannel shirt and v-necked pullover, he would pull an old coat around him, pull his flat cap firmly onto his head, step into his Wellingtons, and head out to face the waiting tasks.

The bright and shiny tractors that appear at vintage fairs often contrast with the appearance of those who drive them – people with weathered faces, large-handed people with sandpaper skin that bears the scars of many days’ work. The fairs tell only a mechanical side of the story.




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The viewing gallery of the conservation centre at Bovington Tank Museum offers a view over more than a hundred military vehicles for which there is not yet space in the display galleries. Among the recent acquisitions is the Standard Beaverette, a makeshift contraption built in Britain after the disastrous defeats in 1940. The tanks of the British Expeditionary Force had been left in France and the British army was compelled to prepare for the expected invasion using whatever resources it could find. The Beaverette was built on the chassis of a standard saloon car; its turret bore a closer resemblance to a grey steel dustbin on a car roof than it did to the sort of vehicle that might have withstood the might of an invading Nazi army.

As a member of the museum staff explained how the turret was mounted on eight ball-bearings and rotated by the person pushing it with their shoulders, memories returned of my grandfather’s stories from days in the Home Guard. As a farmer, he belonged to a reserved occupation, being expected to serve on the home front to produce as much food as possible. On top of the farm work, he was expected to work for the local council, repairing the roads, many of the usual road workers having been called up for military service. At night, he served with the local platoon of the Home Guard, activity that produced a fund of stories, few of which would have inspired confidence in the capacity of the volunteers to withstand the invasion forces.

Guarding the railway tunnel at Somerton one night, there was the sound of someone moving in the darkness. The orders were to shout, “halt, who goes there?” and then to shout, “stop, or I fire.” If the person did not obey the order, then they must open fire. The orders had been given and the shadowy figure continued to come towards them. Instead of firing, they decided to step forward to investigate to discover not a saboteur, but a local man, returning from a pub, very the worse for wear. “We could have killed him.”

If there was a lack of ruthlessness in the face of a potential threat to a significant railway line, there was a doubt as to the efficacy of anti-tank measures, which included placing burning tar barrels in the road in order to try to stop oncoming panzers. The Standard Beaverette embodied a spirit of make-do and makeshift, a plucky attitude, but pluckiness alone is not enough to win wars. Fortunately, the car with a dustbin on its roof was never called into frontline service.

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The meaning of zoy

The closure of the road north from the village has meant a diversion westward, down a precarious hill, along a road with seven sweeping bends, and then skirting Middlezoy, driving through Weston Zoyland, and passing a sign for Chedzoy.

“Zoy” could mean almost anything. The local dialect has a capacity for changing words beyond recognition. The village of Stogursey outside of Bridgwater was the home of the de Courcy family, the most famous member of which was John de Courcy, who conquered Ulster in the Twelfth Century. Originally known as Stoke, the village became Stoke de Courcy, and in the vernacular of the local people slowly changed in pronunciation and spelling to Stogursey.

When I was young, we were told that “zoy” was from a Dutch word, that the “zoy” villages were on the Levels and that the Dutch had given advice on the drainage of the Levels If anyone doubted the explanation, old maps of Holland showing the Zuider Zee could be pointed at. In retrospect, it seemed a doubtful story, each village has a medieval church, surely built long before the Somerset lowlands were drained?

Pondering the names as I drove the road on a bright, icy morning, I decide that I should settle the matter for myself.

Googling the names of the villages, this evening,  produced suggestions of what “zoy” might mean. The Wikipedia entry for Chedzoy suggests, “The name of the village is pronounced “Chidgey” or “Chedzey”, and derives its name from being Cedd’s Island. The “zoy” part of the name being derived from eg or ieg meaning island”. This seemed straightforward, the word was from old English. However, the entry for Weston Zoyland says, “The name of the parish derives from its location on the “island” of Sowy, an area of slightly higher ground on the Somerset Levels between the River Cary and the River Parrett.” So, it is not “zoy,” but “sowy?” The explanation of the origin of Middlezoy seems a combination of the other two interpretations, “The name Middlezoy meaning the middle stream island, derives from Sowi, the name of Glastonbury Abbey’s major estate, sow, a British river name from a root meaning flowing. The extra i is derived from the Saxon ig for island.”

Re-reading the entries, it seems that “zoy” means something slightly different in each case. In Chedzoy, it is just “island;” in Weston Zoyland, it is “the island of sowy;” and in Middlezoy, it is “flowing island.” I think I like the Dutch version better.

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Local flavours

“A piece of smoked cheese?”

I took the finger of cheese that was offered. It tasted of moments long ago.

Strong tastes went with childhood memories. Thickly coated toffee apples on wooden sticks,  ginger snaps in paper bags, candy floss that left your face feeling sticky, bars of nougat that threatened to bind your teeth together: Long Sutton fair probably offered more by way of food than it did by way of funfair. The village green would have been filled to its capacity by dodgems, merry go round, swing boats and sideshows; the tastes confirmed that however small the fair might be, it was special to us.

In Lyme Regis, bags of cockles splashed with vinegar captured the saltiness of the Dorset coast. Bought from a van for a matter of pence, they went with walking the harbour wall and watching the solitary trawler unloading its day’s catch. There was always a breeze rattling the rigging of parked dinghies and always the sound of voices as people walked down the hill to the shore. Lyme Regis seems to have shrunk from the size it was in those distant years, but it has never lost its size in the memories of favourite places.

Battered sausages came from Tony’s Fish and Chip Shop in Somerton; there has never since been a sausage that could compete with those of forty years ago. Trips to Tony’s were a Friday evening thing; the whole weekend stretched ahead and the future was a place where anything might be possible. Fish and chips in our house must still come from Tony’s, my mother can taste if they are bought somewhere else. The smell as you unwrap the paper is enough to recover those Fridays past.

Golden Wonder Cheese and Onion crisps went with pints of real ale and laughter. They went with the buyer of the round returning from the bar and scattering bags among those seated around the table. The colour coding of the flavours allowed a grab for the green packet before it was gone. There was a hierarchy of taste: cheese and onion, salt and vinegar, ready salted. The passing years brought exotic variations, prawn cocktail, smokey bacon, roast chicken, but none ever had the capacity to recall the ease of student days when the world was a place without worry.

If smell is the sense that is most closely connected with memory, then taste runs it a close second.

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A carnival explanation

“Bridgwater – The Home of Carnival” announces the sign at the edge of the town. Of course, it is historically incorrect, even a moment’s thought about the word would tell you that it hadn’t come from an industrial town in Somerset. However, it was Bridgwater’s place as a major venue for carnival that explains the wearing of a wig by a small boy

The photograph dates from perhaps the spring or summer of 1963. It is taken beside the corrugated iron door of the shed that was used as a garage for cars, the yard being needed to be clear for agricultural vehicles. More than half a century later, the garage still stands there, still has corrugated iron doors, and is still used each day.

The photograph shows a small boy, two or three years old, dressed in a pullover and tartan trousers and wearing the most outlandish wig, giving him a hairstyle that would compete with that of Albert Einstein on a bad hair day.

The wig is hardly something one would expect to find on a small Somerset farm in the early-1960s. Rural Somerset was nothing if not conservative and there would not have been much demand for wigs, particularly wigs that did not conform with traditional ideas of style and elegance. Spiky, blond hair was not something that might have been encountered in the Langport era in 1963.

The photograph has been in circulation among members of our family for the past fifty years. For five decades, the boy pictured had been told that the wig had belonged to an aunt who lived on the home farm. In a county where the arrival of the hippies in the late 1960s had brought an awareness that life could be lived in many and diverse ways and that a blond wig was quite conventional when compared with the garb and hairstyles preferred by the new arrivals in our county. It seemed odd that the aunt concerned would have identified with the hippies, but the photograph seemed proof of hidden radical inclinations.

Of course, 1963 was too early for the hippies to have been on the English scene, and who had suggested the wig had anything to do them? A boy had made an assumption on the basis of what he saw around him at the time he was asking questions.

One morning, drinking tea with the aunt who was said to have been owner of the wig. “There is a photo of me wearing a spiky blond wig: was that yours?”

“It was, it was part of the costume for the carnival club.”

More than fifty years of imagining her a secret radical gone in a moment, It would cause one to wonder how many more assumptions there are that might be shattered.

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