Farming And The Bush

A month after we arrived in Penallt, the haymaking started. The four fields near the bungalow belonging to the Englands had to be mown and the hay arranged in neat stacks. It was all done by hand in those days. Rushton, his brother Ted and two local men would come with their scythes and cut the grass, all four acres of it. The grass was then piled with pikes onto the hay wagon with old Joey, Ted’s horse, pulling it along. I remember the excitement I felt when I was given a ride on top of the hay wagon from the furthest field down to the bottom gate. It was a bumpy ride but I was protected on all sides by the sweet smelling hay and felt like a princess in her carriage.

Rushton, along with Archie Cutter, a small wiry man with a cheerful grin, used to help with the threshing on one of the largest farms in the area at harvest time. This was Gleed’s Farm at Pen-y-garn where Hilda and I used to walk to fetch milk and square crinkly pats of golden farmhouse butter. Most of the other evacuees preferred margarine to the salty dairy flavour of the butter but I loved the taste of it straight away, hated marge on my bread and ever since have had a taste for good butter.

It must have been soon after the end of haymaking at Gleeds’ Farm that their hay barn, full of the newly mown hay, burned down. No-one knew how the fire started, but it was thought to be a carelessly thrown match still alight. News of the fire soon spread to the village. I remember taking the short cut with Rushton from Penallt to the farm, across fields and down a steep stony track. The farm was on the Old Church road, where the Gleeds’ land spread far and wide. The large fields that Rushton had pointed out on our walk to the Old Church belonged to them.

We could smell and see the smoke from some distance away and as we approached the farmyard we saw the flames leaping high into the air. I can’t recall seeing a fire engine, just a crowd of people standing helplessly by while the flames destroyed the barn and its contents. I can still remember the intense heat on my face as I stood holding fast to Rushton’s hand fascinated by the brilliant colours of the flames. The sight and feel of that fire is imprinted indelibly in my memory.

It must have been a serious loss for the farmer, George Gleed, a burly, red faced stocky figure, who frightened me a bit. I’d heard he had a temper. However, he usually smiled kindly at me when he saw me.

On one occasion when I visited the farm, he must have noticed me looking longingly at some pretty kittens chasing each other with lively playfulness around the farmyard. To my surprise I saw they had bobbed tails like rabbits. “They be Manx cats,” he told me when he saw me staring at them. “How that happened I be blowed if I know!” He pointed to the largest of the kittens, a strikingly marked tabby, which appeared to be the liveliest of the litter. “If thee can catch that one there, ye shall have him.” I chased that kitten round and round the farmyard, it leading me a merry dance, escaping my grasp just as I thought I was in reaching distance of it. The farmer laughed heartily at my efforts, picked the creature up by the scruff of its neck and handed it to me, the poor thing mewing pitifully. I held it in my arms, stroked its soft furry head and fell in love with the little tom cat straight away. He had a handsome white front contrasting impressively with the tigerish tabby stripes on his back. His large paws had black pads, which I was told indicated a streak of wildness. Auntie Hilda was none too pleased with the farmer for giving me the kitten. However, she was glad it was a tom and not a she cat, which might have had a litter of kittens. Rono was a bit miffed at first as well but, being so good natured he soon accepted the little cat, which I called Tibby.

Later on I used to play with the farmer’s daughter Phyllis, a gentle pleasant girl, a few years my senior. She had a playhouse made out of an old chicken shed. It was furnished with two chairs and a small table on which there was a tea set. There was a piece of carpet on the floor and floral curtains at the window. I thought it the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.

One afternoon I went with Rushton to the schoolhouse after the day’s lessons were over. I loved to sit there quietly and read the books that were available while he cleared up. I think it must have been in October around the time of my sixth birthday. I heard the big wooden front door squeak open and a woman’s voice call timidly, “Is Kathleen there”? There was something familiar about the girlish tone, which made my heart jump. I hesitated for a few seconds before I rushed to the entrance and stood there in front of my mother feeling quite shy. “There you be, our Kath,” said Rush who had gone to investigate. Your mam has come all the way from London to see how you be getting along.”

My mother gave me a hug. “How well you look with those roses in your cheeks!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been to see Gerald at Mrs Porter’s and she has made arrangements for me to stay at the Bush Inn.” She told Rushton how relieved she was that we were both being so well looked after. “The countryside here is so beautiful,” she said. “I’ve never seen such wonderful scenery!” She smiled at Rushton. “I love the countryside.” It did not take long for the Englands to realise that my mother was a true countrywoman at heart. She loved being out in the open air, walking the footpaths and later on, when she joined Gerald and me at Penallt for a while, working in the fields.

My mother had brought me a layered iced sponge birthday cake which she told me a Polish airman had made especially for me. My mother loved dancing and one experience she would never forget was joining in the dancing outside the Lyceum Theatre near the Strand where Glen Miller and his Orchestra in their air force uniforms were contributing to the war effort by playing for the crowd who had gathered in the street outside to dance to the famous band leader’s music, ignoring the fact that there might be an air raid at any minute. My father was no dancer, so my mother took the opportunity to dance when the occasion arose. I don’t think my father minded his young wife enjoying herself. You had to grab at whatever came along to brighten life in those grim times. I think it must have been on this occasion that my mother met and danced with the Polish airman. He asked about her family and told her he was badly missing his wife and children. When my mother told him it was her daughter’s sixth birthday soon and she would be paying a visit to the country to see her, the airman said he was a confectioner and would make a cake for her little daughter. Extenuating circumstances created many acts of kindness during the war years. I can’t imagine where the airman found the ingredients but the cake was delicious.

The Bush InnThe Bush Inn (image – now the Inn at Penallt), where my mother was to stay for a few days, was an attractive grey stone building with gabled windows set back from a grassy area that must have once been the village green. The field at the back of the inn had extensive views looking across to the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean. The interior, however, was a disappointment after the attractiveness of the exterior and its surroundings. The Bush was kept at that time by an elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Pring. They were both quite small in stature and in my memory always seemed to be dressed in black. There was a large bar with a stone floor. It was lit at night with oil lamps and seemed to have very little in the way of comfort. In any case, strict rules applied as far as the bar was concerned. On no account were women to be allowed in there. They had to sit with the old lady in a sort of snug at the back of the bar. I remember sitting with my mother on a hard upright wooden settle at the side of a black grate containing a few embers with the old lady sitting opposite us watching us like a hawk. They had a son who was engaged for years to a girl in the village called Rosie but they did not marry until well into middle age after the parents had died.

Rushton liked a pint of beer but Hilda would not hear of him entering the bar. On the occasions when someone offered to treat him to half a pint of bitter, he sat on the bench outside and drank it. The only time he managed to escape from Hilda’s strict rules about drinking was in later years on the day of the Monmouthshire Show. Hilda loved the show jumping and she and I would get there early to grab a place on a hay bale overlooking the ring where we could sit with a good view of the magnificent horses and their riders. Rushton would make for the Monmouthshire Beacon tent where he would meet up with old colleagues and no doubt reminisce about old times over several pints of beer, the only time I remember him a little the worse for wear, though in an exceptionally jolly mood.

[Next: Monmouth and Penallt walks]

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