Roger’s nostalgia diaries: Heaven in the hills

14 Mar 2023 | Written by By Roger Davies

Grandad and Uncle Ivor, on the farm

In his new series, The Joy Club member Roger Davies writes wistfully on his times spent on his Nana and Grandad’s farm in Cheshire…
You can read the first instalment of Roger’s new series here.

If you head eastwards from North Wales, you get into Cheshire, then six miles into England you will see some low hills rising from the Cheshire Plain – this is where my mother’s family hailed from. The reality was my grandad tried to eke out a living from a small holding on the hills. To us children it was the most wonderful place on earth. My grandparents had five children who, between them, produced 19 grandchildren. This tribe of youngsters would descend upon the farm, especially for the long summer holidays, where we had forests, caves, lakes and fields to play in from dawn to dusk.

This was the ’50’s and things were very different then. The farmhouse had no electricity. That did not arrive ’til the mid ’60’s. Water from a tap was available in the kitchen, but the well in the farmyard had only recently been covered up. As we grew older we were able, if grandad wasn’t around, to slide the top slab to one side and peer down into the depths. 

The toilet was in an outhouse next to the pigsties. A wooden seat, with a large galvanised bucket underneath and galvanised lid on top, was all the facilities that were needed. When the bucket was full it would be emptied on to the midden. Grandad had between 8 and 12 cows and a horse, so the bulk of the midden was provided by the output from the shippen, the stable and the pigsty. At the right time of the year Joey, the horse, would be harnessed to his cart and the midden was distributed to the fields that would be growing crops that year. 

No electricity meant there were no electric washing machines here. But washing still had to be done. Nana would heat the water on the fire and fill the dolly tub – a corrugated tub the size of a whiskey barrel – put in the washing and a measure of Daz then attack it with the dolly peg. This had a central stave with a horizontal handle about 10” from the top. On the bottom there were three or four short legs sticking out of a small circular plate. This was thumped down into the washing and agitated with a quick flick of the wrists, then repeated ’til the washing was clean. 



Lighting in the farm buildings was provided by “Tilley” lamps but indoors it was provided by paraffin lamps with large glass chimneys; a wick sat in a coloured bowl and had to be adjusted to the correct height to provide the maximum light and minimum smoke. We children were not allowed to carry one of the precious lamps up the stairs at bed time, so we had to make do with a “Wee Willie Winky” candlestick to go to bed. There were four bedrooms in the farmhouse and, depending on the number of the tribe there at any one time, we were packed in head to toe and there could be up to six in a bed. If you woke up in the night then you had two choices: downstairs in the dark, outside, across the farm yard, avoiding all the ghosts, to enter an outhouse that wasn’t welcoming even in the light of day, or you could get from under the bed the large chamber pot.

Oh – have I mentioned yet – that Grandad was a great story-teller and his favoured genre was ghost stories.

Sometimes we would be allowed to “help” Grandad in the fields, so we would be given our own “snappin” this consisted of a sandwich and a bottle of cold, sweet tea. Nothing has ever tasted better. 

Either side of Grandad’s strip of fields was a conifer plantation. My grandparents had “sticking” rights. They could go into the forests and any branches that had fallen to the ground they were allowed to collect for firewood but were strictly forbidden to touch the trees themselves. We children however loved to climb the pine trees and if we accidentally knocked some of the lower branches off – well, that was okay wasn’t it. We went up those trees like squirrels, hung off the head height branches and kicked the one we were standing on ’til it “accidentally” dropped, hoping that the one we were holding on to didn’t. Nana never knew. 

Twice a day the cows were called in for milking. We would shout “Cowup, cowup” as loudly as we could, ’til a line of cows with their impressive udders, swaying from side to side, would appear. We would open the farmyard gate and the doors to the shippen and guide the cows inside. They each knew their own stall and would head inside. There was a little metal trough at the head of each stall into which grandfather had placed a little pile of oats and or crushed turnips. As each cow munched on this treat, a loose chain was placed round their necks. Grandad then got his three legged stool and bucket, turned his flat cap backwards like some ancient rapper, placed the bucket between under the udders, pushed his head into the side of the cow, grabbed two of the teats and proceeded to rapidly milk the cow.

We youngsters would stand in the doorway hoping he would squirt some milk straight into our mouths. For grandad, holidays did not exist; those cows had to be milked twice a day 365 days a year. After milking, the milk was taken to the dairy, this was the one place we kids were not allowed in because the milk board did regular hygiene inspections – and we kids were not considered hygienic. After processing, the milk was deposited in sterilised milk churns which were taken by horse and cart each morning to the main road where they were picked up by the milk lorry. 

Pigs – they arrived as the cutest little piglets and anything that we didn’t eat, they did. Nana didn’t have a dustbin because nothing was ever thrown away. All vegetable peelings and trimmings were kept in a tub which was then boiled up into a mash, which was fed to the pigs. We would spend a summer with these lovely little creatures as they slowly grew into larger more grumpy animals, then – one day – we would turn up at the farm and the sties would all be empty. We never ever wondered where all that lovely bacon came from.

Whilst grandad was in charge of the animals on the whole, the chickens were down to Nana. She always had a large flock roaming the farmyard. When I was very young (no older than four or five), I thought it great fun to hide in wait, till the whole flock was pecking away in front of me like flock of pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I would then run at them arms waving and laughing in delight as the flock scattered in panic.  Till one day I made a huge mistake, Nana had added a cockerel, he was protective. I charged the flock and next minute I am sat on the ground in tears, with the cockerel crowing in triumph, blood pouring from a hole in my knee where I had been well and truly pecked. 

Joey the horse was our favourite. There were various wagons, carts, machines and farm implements that he pulled. Nowadays he would be called Massey Ferguson. When I got older, I was allowed to drive the small farm cart from field to field. I knew how to guide Joey with the reins but it took me a long time to realise that he knew better than I did. Lining up the cart with gate posts, which were hardly any wider than the cart, seemed like an impossible job. I regularly had wheel hubs scraping posts ’til I realised that the best way was to let the reins go slack and allow Joey to go through on his own. He knew exactly what route to take.

I have an image in my mind and Joey was a very large horse, however I have unearthed some photos and maybe he was just a pony?

Sometimes Grandad would hitch up the trap and we would go visiting. Grandad and a couple of us older ones on the bench seat up front, the ladies in the seats in the trap. The summer breeze ruffling my hair, the sound of the horse’s hoofs, clip clopping up the country roads – not a car could be seen or heard. My great grandfather’s house was five or six miles away and sometimes we would visit. Grandad Dodd’s farm was a proper Cheshire Farm with a large farmhouse that was so posh it even had its own front porch with large sandstone Tuscan style columns. Unfortunately this faced on to an open field so no one ever used it. 

We loved our times at Nana and Grandad’s but there isn’t enough space here to tell the whole story, so maybe I will have to revisit the farm later in this series.

The next instalment of Roger’s nostalgia trip will be up on the blog next Tuesday!

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