Back in the mid seventies, we all wanted to go ‘back to the land’. Well, those of us brought up in the cities certainly did! We wanted to trade our platform heels for wellies, and escape into the green, green countryside. Leading the movement in England was a writer called John Seymour, who knew it all. His colourful, helpful books were all we needed to achieve our aim, grow our own food, built our own houses, and live in harmony with nature. They matched our dreams and promised fulfilment. He got a lot of money out of it. We got blisters.
The sensible ones read the books and stayed put, but some headed for the hills. I moved from cockney London to Wales, then Yorkshire. I have been trying to make the books work for the last twenty-five years. On the way, some things didn’t quite go the way they were planned….
So there I was, with my second husband and two children under four, moving into a complete ruin. Calling it a house was optimistic; it had been empty for 46 years, and falling down gently for the previous 200. The roof had to be replaced; there were 44 windows with no wood or glass, no floor safe to walk on upstairs, no water, and no loo. I immediately went out and bought the most obvious necessity. A cow.
This meant learning to make hay, which had to be stored in the barn. The barn was where we were living, in a tent. Actually it was a very small canvas and wood geodesic dome, which blew down if we put it up outside, so we put it up in the barn. This gave us an excuse every time the children left a door open, to say they were really were brought up in a barn. However this idyllic existence had to make way for the hay, so we hastily laid a floor in one room, and moved in. I pinned plastic sheets over the windows and held then in place with bricks. Shortly after this, feeling distinctly unwell, I walked two miles across the fields to the doctors. ‘ I’m not surprised you feel bad’, he said, ‘you’ve got pleurisy. Go home and I will examine you there’. I walked two miles back, and by the time the doctor found the house, I was lying half on the sofa and half on the floor, trying to construct window frames.
It was at this point that I met our neighbour, Hilda. She was in her late sixties or seventies, with a face that had been folded gently around her bones like a fine shawl. She gazed at me disapprovingly, and said I had no right to get ill when I had such young children. She brought me soup, in an enamel bowl, full of meat and barley. It took a long time, several years, before I understood the full reasons for her obvious anxiety over my illness. Not until years later, when Hilton her brother managed to drop a very large stone on his foot while mending a dry stone wall. He hobbled round in increasing pain for some weeks, while Hilda treated him with hot poultices. Finally some other neighbours cornered him and insisted he was driven to hospital. Then, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, we discovered that neither Hilton or Hilda knew of the existence of the National Health Service. They still thought visiting the doctor was for the wealthy, who could afford it.
They didn’t have a television and as Hilda said, didn’t seem to have time for the radio. The paper was mainly read for the livestock prices, and after that had a more mundane purpose. Of course, once the concept of a free health service was carefully explained to them, Hilton literally enjoyed poor health.
The following year, Hilda reared some piglets in an outbuilding by her house. She would come and tell me how well they were doing, gazing casually at my own empty pigsty, or pig’ole, as it is known in the valley. I took the hint, and when the pigs were old enough, asked if I could buy a couple. There is a couple of hundred yards of steep hill path between our houses, so I and my husband took a couple of feed sacks with us to carry the young pigs home in, joking that at least we would buy our pigs before we put them into the pokes. Hilda was delighted to part with two pigs, but was determined that I should get the best two available. This meant a tiring hour chasing the very agile pigs round and round a very dark hut, while Hilda shouted instructions though the closed door. Every time we caught one, and dragged it screaming to the door, Hilda would reject our choice as not big enough. We finally got cunning, and took the sacks in with us, and assured her that the two squirming bags were definitely the biggest in the litter. All that remained was to pay for them. I had phoned round and found out the going rate, around £18 a pig, so I had the money ready, plus a little extra. Panting, dirty, and somewhat deafened by the highly disgruntled sackfuls, I pulled out the money. Hilda was horrified. She pushed the money away and made frantic gestures towards my husband. Now it took me some time to understand what was going on here. Hilda owned the pigs, and I wanted to buy them. She wanted the money, and I just wanted to get out of there. However, it was simply not possible for me to pay her. It was a matter of Yorkshire farmer’s etiquette. We eventually got sorted, I had to pass the money and some hastily whispered instructions to my husband, who had to take Hilton to one side and discuss the price, while Hilda semaphored approval or disapproval by a series of talented facial twitches. Women simply couldn’t be trusted to do business. The pigs thrived on a diet of ‘thirds’ and household scraps. I have not idea what ‘thirds’ are, but all the farmers fed them and they or it were very cheap.
Eventually of course, the day of reckoning came. In a strange way, it was rather like preparing to give birth. We read the helpful books, heated lots of hot water, got towels and soap, and trying to get everything clean and ready. The arrival of a local farmer with his .22 rifle broke the illusion. He threw some feed down and as the pig got stuck in, shot him. After rather neatly cutting the neck blood vessels, he left, we having unwisely assured him that we knew what we were doing. The books said to pour hot water over the carcase, and scrape the bristles off. We tried. Time passed. It became clear that our electric kettle was a totally inadequate source of hot water, that the books were very misleading, and that it would be Christmas before we got that enormous heap of dead pork clean. After two hours, we had de-bristled an area the size of a tennis racket. Despair was starting to set in, as well as rigor mortis. That pig was an awfully big investment for us. Then I remembered reading a description of pig killing from Wiltshire or somewhere, in an old book. They hadn’t messed about with hot water, they had simply put the pig on a bed of straw, covered it in more straw, and set fire to it. The hot dry flames had singed off the bristles, in a flash. I paused long enough to notice that we were actually in our hay barn. Could be a problem, setting fire to a pig here. It was then that I thought of using a blowtorch. It was a miracle, charring the stubborn hair into nothing, and we finished the job double quick. It was only later, after we had made our first bacon, that I found we had bacon with designer stubble. I also still think we were foolish to mention our clever solution in the local pub. Twenty years on, and we are still being pointed out to newcomers.
|One of Seymour’s little followers.|