Charlie the chestnut shire horse – the powerhouse for my farmhouse tree
Power on the farm, until the mid twentieth century, came primarily from two sources – pig and horse. Pork, ham and bacon powered the farmer and the strength of his horse powered the implements through the four seasons. Ploughing, sowing, reaping, threshing, dunging and hay harvesting all depended upon horse power.
Horse power on my farmhouse tree, in my childhood, was delivered by Charlie the chestnut shire horse. From 1897 when my paternal grandfather had inherited Eastacott until the 1930s,there were three horses working the farm, all being required at corn harvest to pull the binder. In the 1940s, at the same time as a deterioration in my father's health took place, his last horse died and it was not replaced as he was only farming 24 acres. When required, he would borrow horses from his neighbours, repaying them by helping out at harvest time and cider-making time.
Charlie had belonged to our next-door neighbour, my octogenarian farming hero, he being the third owner; the other two having moved into tractor power. On my hero's retirement, and just before his sale of live and dead stock (implements), he offered Charlie to my father at a price below its true value to say "thank you" for what my parents had done for him since the death of his wife in 1952. Even though it had been advertised as being up for sale on the advertising hoardings he was adamant, "I want for un to go to a good 'ome, where e'll be well looked after 'n' not over worked little chil'."
On the day of the sale a nasty scene was narrowly averted, when two gipsy horse dealers turned up. On finding there was no cart horse for sale they demanded recompense for a wasted journey and time. Ten shilling notes (50 pence pieces) changed hands, and they left, grumbling but placated, for a night's drinking at the Masons Arms. My hero need not have worried about Charlie's wellbeing as he lived a life of semi retirement. A week's harvesting in June. A couple of days carting sacks of cider apples a couple of hundred yards in late September to the pound house. A couple of days carting dung in the butt cart to the hay meads where it was tipped out into equally spaced heaps to be spread with a dung fork the following day. Finally a couple of days carting in sticks and faggots on the long cart from a recently laid hedge. This was his working year. His days were spent in Lanefield except on the days when required for work, when he was brought up the night before and he was kept in Bull's Mead below back court when he would be ready for an early start.
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In my nine-year-old eyes the seventeen hands high, ton of flesh beast was a huge and slightly terrifying beast. "Don't let him step on you," instructed my aged maiden aunt. "Flatten your foot into a pancake and turn your toes black and blue." Towering over me he was an iron-horse, a steam locomotive on legs which were engine pistons which occasionally struck out at the stoney ground. Snicker and snort, a firework of sparks. His belly a cider hogshead staved in leather tack.
At hay time, when he had finished pulling the turner, rake, sweep or long cart, sweat oozed out of him in a fermentation of bubbles and the hogshead-barrel belly was a shimmer shine as bright as a conker.
A small boy standing in awe in the cob-webbed, cob-walled stable, staring in fascination and awe at the exhibition of craftsmanship of leather and metal harness hanging from nail, hook and wooden peg.
Eighty easy points scored in my I-Spy On The Farm book. Brasses to ward off witchcraft and to bring fertility to the land.
Breathing in deeply, the summer-scent of hay in the wooden rack, dropped through a trapdoor in the tallet floor immediately above the manger. The sharp pungent stench of ammonia, strong and nostril burning. Glint of gold from the shadow-heap of barley straw in a corner, caught in a slanting shaft of sunlight through the wooden slatted window; resting place of a sleeping farm cat.
The first bareback ride with my bare little legs barely straddling his back and belly. Feelings of fear, trepidation, anticipation and excitement. Dad slowly leading him forward, "Walk on boy." That first lurch. Hanging on to the harness. Bravery taking over. "I'm flying dad. I'm flying." High above the fields of my farmhouse tree I really was airborne, for a few minutes, in my imagination. One flight across the mead, the recently swept hay stacked in the hay shed, and I was landing back on earth. Carefully lifted down, exhilarated, trembling with the excitement. Fingers carefully touching the moss- softness of his nostrils.
When my grandfather had inherited the farm there were over one million working shire horses. In the 1940s the number was less than 50,000, and when my father died in the early 1960s, the shire horse numbered just a few thousand. The day of the "gentle giant," which carried armoured warriors into battle and powered the farmstead, was drawing to a close.
The Farmhouse Tree – A book of childhood memories, by David Hill will be published in October.