With the introduction of America’s Lend Lease Program in 1941 colourful new tractors began to appear on British farmland. At the time work on the small farms of the West Country was mainly horse-drawn, any tractors in use being, most probably, a Standard Fordson being driven by a Land Army girl, a dull green machine with a folded potato sack on the seat to provide a bit of comfort. Now names from the great plains of the American West were shipped over the Atlantic, Allis Chalmers, Farmall, Oliver, Massey Harris, Case, John Deere and Indianapolis Moline. All can be found in vintage tractors parades of today. Odd to remind oneself that the final payments for all that machinery was made just a few years ago in 2006.
But I was more aware of the horses, great friendly Shires with names like Captain. Smart, and Prince. Sometimes, walking to the village of Compyne to collect some milk, I would need to pass through the field in which these three horses were grazing. Seeing me with an interesting metal can in my hand they would gallop across the field towards me, their hooves thundering the ground and their manes and fetlocks flaring in the wind. It was easy to imagine medieval knights astride their backs. Although I knew they would stop as they galloped towards me it was always a little alarming until they did.
I remember well helping a neighbouring farmer with hay making, lying on top of a last horse-drawn load of hay of the day, bumping gently down the ruts of a lane and watching the moon shining through overhanging branches above. In the summer pairs of horses drawing binders would slowly harvest fields of corn. The wind would caress the standing corn into waves across a golden seascape. Rabbits would scatter as the binder reached its last cuts and corn crakes could be heard in the silence of the evening, a bird long gone due to the use of more speedy mechanical farm practices.
Another familiar bird at the time was the lapwing, or peewit as it is also called. Large flocks were an autumn feature as they competed with seagulls behind the plough, now a few might be seen along estuaries, like that of the river Axe.
During the nineteen-forties there was a healthy population of elm trees across the lower Axe valley. It was difficult to see across the valley without one’s view being interrupted by these huge trees. Landowners had planted them during previous centuries as a drainage scheme, the trees would consume the moisture from the valley ground and dissipate it into the atmosphere, but, of course, they became tragic victims of the Dutch elm disease and disappeared.
Floods in the valley at the time seemed far more immense and extensive than they appear today when they happen. I recall walking down Bosshill down towards Colyford after a period of severely heavy rains, flood waters completely covered the valley bottom right up to Axminster and beyond. It appeared more like Coniston Water than the River Axe. The only point a crossing could be made was at the concrete bridge between Axmouth and Seaton, all other roads up the valley being completely submerged. Drainage schemes implemented since that time now clear the valley of floodwater more swiftly so those dramatic Lakeland scenes occur no more.
One of those schemes was to raise the level of the approaching road to Colyford and move it a few metres downstream, and to build a new bridge which was to cover the old Stedcombe Estate salmon fishing pool. But before this happened the pool was used by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. A salmon trap was installed and for several years fish were trapped on their downstream journey, recorded and tagged and put in a recovery box to continue their journey back to the Atlantic. The purpose, I was told at the time, was to establish whether salmon returned to the river of their origin. I was informed that already it had been found that some of previously tagged fish had later turned up in Swedish and French rivers, proving that salmon were inaccurate in finding their birthplace, or that they just did not care.
One tale the man at the trap told me I found quite amazing. Apparently a salmon tagged, registered and released was caught twelve days later by a Danish trawler off the coast of Greenland…Wow!
Another feature of the Axe Valley in those years of the forties was the number of different breeds of cattle which could be seen along the riverside pastures. White faced Herefords seemed a predominant animal, but there were also red coated Devons and ginger coloured South Devons. Then there were roan Shorthorns and Longhorns, and, happily, they were allowed to keep their horns in those days. It was a long time before the arrival of the big boned breeds from the Continent, and even what was to become the ubiquitous black and white Friesians and Holsteins were then rare on the ground. Sadly even they now seem to be disappearing from our hills and valleys as local farmers and their sixty head herds succumb to the high costs of dairy farming for herds below three hundred in number.
A feature of wartime years which greatly affected agriculture was British double summer time. This was ended in the summer of 1945 ending confusion for cows about milking times and long summer evenings became free from the noise of playing children, which had incurred an evening curfew on children in some villages and towns.
As we near the end of this year’s period of British summer time I think it apposite to present to you my Ode to the end of BST…
Longering nights and dew-sodden dawns,
The last warmth of a September sun,
Holidaymakers thin on the beach,
School’s back, darts and skittle’s begun.
So as summer days fade away,
deck chairs are packed away,
Cometh a sobering thing,
that our last festive rites,
are our carnival nights,