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Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I have just been re-reading (for the nth time) this book by “Richard Hillyer”. The biography, to the age of about 17, of a boy born into a farm labouring family in 1901. Totally self educated, he managed to reach university and ended his long life (died 1980) as a Canon of Durham Cathedral having written a number of books. His real name was Charles James Stranks and the village he calls “Byfield” in the book is Hardwick in Buckinghamshire, UK.

Without sentiment or pastiche he brings out the grinding poverty of the farm labourer’s existence at the beginning of the last century – yet manages to convey the pride, courage and dignity which went with it. Elements of John Clare’s work come to mind.

It is available for a song on Amazon and worth every moment spent reading it. I thoroughly recommend it.

I was born in 1938 in a country village which had changed little from the years he describes. The Second World War was in progress as I became sentient to my surroundings. The young men had left the village to go to war. The dignified and respected elders, many with bishop-like mien, were left to labour on the farms. Tractors and fuel went to the war effort. The horse and cart ruled once more.

My maternal grandparents were farm workers, living in a tied cottage. With my own father away at the war I spent much of my time with my grandfather who was Horseman on that farm; a farm dedicated to fruit orchards, nut platts and some beef cattle; a horse and cart was ideal to thread its way through the orchards and along the narrow winding lanes between. The warm, sweet smell of hay in the horse stable comes to mind, as I write this.

Grandfather with "Duke" c. 1938

My first memory of release from my enclosed world was as a small boy of about 4, sitting on a folded sack on the edge of a cart, beside my grandfather as he took the horse about 3 miles to a village blacksmith for re-shoeing. It seemed to take for ever as we clopped along what is now a fast main road which I have since traversed, under power, in less than ten minutes.

Not all was good though. My grandfather caught a bad chill through being out in the rain and the farmer hounded him back to work too soon. This brought on pneumonia and he died in 1944, aged 54 (but will always be “ancient” to me). My grandmother had to leave the tied farm cottage within a month. Always a fighter, she had all the house contents taken to the village hall and auctioned them off. Then she entered service as a housekeeper, only retiring at 75 to come and live with my mother.

Like “Richard Hillyer” I came from such a background and attended the village school. Like him, my “prospects” would have been to enter a similar life had my mother not instilled a love of reading into me. Because of this I passed the exam to attend the local grammar school (the “11+”). There are those that denigrate grammar schools and this entry exam, but because of it I, a fairly poor country boy, was able to make my way in the world. I shall be forever grateful to her and that chance.