May 1995 In ‘Seems Only Yesterday’ villagers recall personal memories of Pirton. This month Betty Huckle writes of
‘I remember, I remember’ the happy days of my childhood in Pirton. The days were never long enough to do all I wish to do. They started with the cocks crowing in the morning as most people kept chickens; and ended with the owls hooting in the tress at Pirton Court.
Pirton was a very rural village, with farming the main occupation. Hitchin seemed a long way off, particularly when one visited it on foot. People, generally, only went as far as they could either walk or cycle so it rather limited the distance they travelled. Sheep, cattle and pigs grazed in the pastures so the air was filled with the noise and smell of animals. A shepherd used to stay in his little wooden hut during lambing time and sometimes brought a weakling home to his wife in Bury End for her to bottle feed. I used to love to watch the baby lambs in their enclosure of straw bales providing protection from the cold winds during the early months of the year.
The woods, meadows and hills were our playground and the source of endless enjoyment. Each season had it special feature. Primrose gathering in the spring, of which Clare Baines wrote in the previous Magazine. Tingley Wood was a magical place and half-way through, a wooden hut, still there today, that my sister and I used to creep past certain that a witch dwelt within. There is a lovely smell in wooded areas, particularly so when the bluebells are in full bloom. What a wonderful sight! Summertime was full of activity. Were the days always sunny? They seemed to be. We had many picnics on Pegsdon Hills and over the Beacon Hill taking games and sufficient food for the day. Smells play an important part in life, evoking many memories. One smell I particularly love is that from a beanfield when in flower. The scent from sun-warmed hillsides is the same today as it was then. The fields used to have a much greater variation of crops in those days. A job we much enjoyed was gleaning. When the pickers had finished in the fields of peas and potatoes we were allowed to glean any vegetables that were left. Similarly in the cornfield. People used to collect grain to help feed their chickens during the winter months.
Harvest time was an extremely busy period. There was so much to watch. ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare.’ The cutter going round in ever decreasing circles, the rabbits scurrying in all directions, often to meet an untimely end at the hands of the beater. What a delicious meal – rabbit stew and dumplings! Harvesting went on for weeks with the cutting and ‘stooking’ of the corn. So very different from today when giant machinery completes the cutting and threshing in one operation and is finished in a comparatively short space of time. We often took our tea into the fields and sat amongst the sun-warmed straw.
September and October were months for gathering blackberries, crab-apples and mushrooms. Another regular task was wooding. We hardly ever went without two carrie bags to fill with kindling wood which had fallen under the trees. It had to be dry and brittle so that it burnt easily when lighting the fire. With no electricity in the village, fires played an important part. One had to get that going before the work of the day could begin. It was the main source of power for warmth, cooking, providing hot water and heating the flat iron. Mondays were very busy when the copper fire had to be lit.
First it was filled with water, either from the rain water butt which produced nice, soft water or from the very deep well in the garden where the water was crystal clear but hard, causing a grey scum to form on the top when Sunlight soap or Oxydol was added. How different things are today when so much can be accomplished by the flick of a switch. Mind you, I think people were quite happy, as women used to sing at their work and men and errand boys were always whistling. Come to think of it one seldom hears people whistle today.
In winter time the main thing was to try to keep warm. The oil lamps used to generate a certain amount of heat and with the coal fire imparted a cosy glow to the living room. If one went to other parts of the house or to the toilet outside a candle was carried. It amazes me to realise how few accidents there were with all these hazardous ways of providing light. Winter-time was really hard and I can remember the water in the jug on the washstand freezing over and the face flannel stiff with ice. Jack Frost used to paint beautiful pictures on the windows in those days. Writing this makes me realise how things have changed during my lifetime. It is recalling another kind of world, another time, but one that is worth remembering.