Heart of England

 

 

HEART OF ENGLAND

 

Contributions to the Evening Standard, 19391941

 

 

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First edition, HWS, 2003  
   
heart of england  
Reprint, HWS, 2008  

Introduction, by John Gregory

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

Postscript, by John Gregory

 

Book covers

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 2003, paperback, viii, 96pp, 10 illus.; 170 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 2003, quarter-bound in maroon Nigerian goatskin with grey cloth boards, 30 numbered copies

 

Reprinted and reset, 2008, paperback, viii, 105pp, 100 copies

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

Introduction

 

 

Henry Williamson’s classic book on English farming, The Story of a Norfolk Farm, was published in February 1941. It relates how, in 1937, he bought 240 acres of derelict farmland, together with some condemned labourers’ cottages, at Stiffkey, on the North Norfolk coast. Although he had no previous experience of farming, he was determined to ‘bring back the heart to the land’ and to create a model yeoman farm, and his book chronicles the hardships and triumphs involved in this courageous task – making up new roads, rebuilding the cottages, the first harvest and subsequent disastrous crash of the barley market, and, not least, the difficulties in persuading his farm steward and workers to accept what were, to them, new and radical ideas. His success can be judged by the fact that when the War Agricultural Committees were formed at the beginning of the Second World War, his farm was assessed as ‘A’ grade.

 

Farming in the last half of the 1930s was still in the throes of a long and deep depression which had started after the end of the Great War: it was costing more to produce beef and barley than they could be sold for, due to the imports of cheap grain from European countries and cheap beef from Argentina. Williamson had no capital reserves on which he could draw, for all had gone on buying the farm. Instead, he created his cash flow by writing articles in the Daily Express and broadcasting talks for the BBC, telling of his progress and adventures in reclaiming the farm. These Express articles were to become the core of The Story of a Norfolk Farm. However, when the price of barley plummeted in 1938 many arable farmers either went bankrupt or came perilously close to it, particularly in East Anglia, the ‘granary of England’. It was a particularly close run thing for Henry Williamson, for that June he was also hit by unexpectedly large bills. He relates in The Story of a Norfolk Farm that:

 

There was one thing for it: to pay off the debts by writing. In the succeeding six months, while also keeping the books and replying to all correspondence . . . and working most days on the farm, I wrote and delivered, after the day’s work, eighteen broadcasts and twenty-two articles, in addition to The Children of Shallowford, and thereby managed to pay the money.

 

The articles to which he refers were written for the Evening Standard and are among those presented here in Heart of England, now collected for the first time. To help put the articles in the context of those historic times, the headlines for that evening’s issue of the newspaper are added after each one.

 

I first visited Old Hall Farm and Shallowford in 1968; each must have been very much as it was during Williamson’s tenure. I have included a small selection of the photographs I took at that time. Several were taken from the same viewpoint as illustrations in The Story of a Norfolk Farm and Goodbye West Country, and bear useful comparison, being taken after an interval of some 30 years. It is now a further 50 years and more later, and since then the farm buildings have changed somewhat. The late Lord Buxton, a patron of The Henry Williamson Society and owner of the farm, sympathetically restored them, and the old corn barn became a magnificent reception hall. Douglas Jordan, who worked on the farm for HW and to whom I had sent copies of my photographs, wrote movingly in a letter that they brought back ‘a lot of memories for me and my daughter Jane, who spent most of her time on the farm. Yes, it was much the same in the photos as when Henry left, not the same now . . . they can alter the buildings and fields but they cannot take the memories of what the farm was like away from us who were there under Henry.’

 

The frontispiece to the book is a previously unpublished photograph taken for Picture Post, and is used with the kind permission of Getty Images (and my special thanks to Julie Quiery for her help and patience), while the headlines from so long ago are reprinted courtesy of the Evening Standard. My thanks must also go to Robert Williamson and Douglas Jordan for the information each has provided.

 

John Gregory

2003, revised 2020

 

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Contents:

 

Wilderness?

Immortal Corn

Heart of England

Heart of England, 2

Kronk, King of the Crows (Heart of England, 3)

I made a trout stream – by accident (Heart of England, 4)

Rabbits feed while men go hungry (Heart of England, 5)

The swallows in my porch are learning to fly (Heart of England, 6)

A daily banquet at the fish pool (Heart of England, 7)

The heron goes fishing (Heart of England, 8)

Hunt the stag

Forest stolen by the sea (Heart of England, 9)

The wood of wind-dwarfs (Heart of England, 10)

Terns from the Arctic

Harvesting the barley crop

I listened to the partridges talking (Heart of England, 11)

Heart in the land puts mettle in men

Cats in the front line

Pheasants in the mustard

The joys of farming

Shall we shoot the foxes?

The wind and the rain

Plough of content

Cold comfort

No pity for pigeons

Winter tames them all

Night sun

Voice of the turtle

Springtime on the farm

We’re growing our own roast beef again

Two girls saved this farm

The Army is taking my best farm labourer away

The barley seed goes in

 

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Extract:

 

Harvesting the Barley Crop

 

 

Between five and six o’clock in the afternoon a cold drift of air moves silently, invisibly, upon the coast of North Norfolk. It comes across the sea from the Arctic circle. Though the sun be shining, and the waves never so still, the iceberg-air steals down the coast, and suddenly you feel that you must put on your shirt, for, of course, if you have been on the shore in these summer days, the sun has been storing its golden power in your body.

 

Some days it is scarcely felt; but in autumn, early spring, and winter it goes right through your clothes, so that even the thickest fisherman’s jersey under a leather coat is not proof against it. Fortunately it is a dry cold, akin to that of New England and the Canadian coast, and though it strikes through you, its effect is not depressing. It braces a man. Norfolk seaboard air is the finest in England, and its old people are the hardiest. Let the West Country have its Gulf Stream and its relaxing soft rain; give me the diamond air of the North Sea, the keen wind from the Pole Star, which brings the wild geese and their jubilant honking across the moon!

 

Sometimes in the August mornings a white mist hangs over the marshes and the sloping fields; corn cannot be carried until it has dried off and the sun shines in a white-blue sky. This sea-mist is welcomed by the barley-growers, for it settles on the ears of barley and softens the grain, taking out the ‘steel’ from the kernels.

 

Steely barley does not make good malting grain, for it is not fully mature, and when spread on the maltster’s floor after wetting there is irregular sprouting. The tardy grains, which do not sprout with the others, are wasted; and so the presence of steely corn in a sample lowers its price.

 

If you bite a grain and it is hard to sever with your teeth, and looks the grey colour of candlegrease when cut, then it is steely. To help full ripening the sheaves are allowed to stand in the stook, in the field, for anything from two or three days to a fortnight after being reaped. If during that time a light rain or rains fall on them, and the sun dries off the moisture afterwards, then the skins will become more yellow and shrunken, and the kernels mature to a creamy-whiteness. If all the corn is like this, and plump like a partridge’s breast, then you may have a first-class malting sample. Other conditions influence the growth and maturity of the barley; the land must not be over-rich (unlikely in England today!) or strong. Excess of nitrogen will bring the grey candlegrease colour to the kernel.

 

For the past eight days the barley standing in the field called Fox Covert has been swathed in grey mist; and towards noon this has grown thin and disappeared, for the sun to throw down his warmth. Now our harvest is almost done. By this evening the last sheaves will have been pitched on to the stack, and we will feel relief, and the men begin to take their holiday. My firkin, or wooden bottle, of ale lies cool at the bottom of the stack, awaiting my return to the stackyard when this has been written.

 

Those fellows in the next farm, with their modern combine-harvester, will not need any beer for their work. A caterpillar tractor draws a factory on wheels, which cuts the barley, threshes it, pours it into sacks, and throws them off for a lorry to collect them, as the outfit moves round the field. To get a fine malting sample from such methods the corn must be left until it is ‘rotten-ripe’, and then cut. What if a wind had sprung up the night before, when the bearded heads were hanging limp on the straw-stems, like bleached prawns, so ripe that a sparrow’s wings striking an ear would cause the wrinkled grains to rattle on the dry ground under? Half of the crop would have been lost, and the pheasants on the field would live fatly for weeks afterwards.

 

Our farm equipment does not include such modern tackle. We cut with a 1914 horse-binder, then align the sheaves by hand. When the grain is ripe we pitch the ‘shuffs’ one by one on to tumbrils, while a child leads the horse. When full, it moves off the field and down to the stackyard half a mile away.

 

There the hard work begins, for we do not possess an elevator, one of those things looking to the town mind like a fire-escape, with a travelling band of spikes moving up and carrying the sheaves to the top, while a horse walks round and round under the ladder. As they are dropped they are picked up and tossed from man to man on the points of forks and set up in place.

 

Without an elevator the sheaves have to be thrown up with the aid of a pitchfork. We are short-handed on the farm, like most farmers today, and when old Jimmy goes off to milk the cow at four o’clock only one will be left at the stack. So I must hurry! I am not skilled enough to build a stack, so I’ll pitch the sheaves up. Perhaps there are five-score to each load. The wheat, which we finished carrying the day before yesterday, was a bumper crop, very thick in the ear and heavy in the straw. Some of the sheaves must have weighed three to the hundredweight.

 

As the last sheaves were being lifted from the wooden boards of the tumbril another load always lumbered into the yard. Phew! But after a draught of good British barley-beer (it’s still being brewed in parts of England), and the thought that growing corn was one of the more innocent occupations of man, we started on the next load, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the aching muscles and the sweat pouring down my body, naked to the waist.

 

I wish all brain-workers could regularly undertake such tasks, especially those in positions of responsibility. Such work brings its own natural wisdom or virtue.

 

Monday, 28 August 1939

 

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Postscript:

 

 

Henry Williamson contributed articles to a number of newspapers throughout his farming years, which together form an almost seamless chronology of life on the Home Front. They also reflect a way of life and of farming that is now long gone, and as such they form a valuable historical and social document that makes fascinating reading today.

 

Williamson first wrote of his ‘farming adventures’ for the Daily Express between 1937 and 1939. His early contributions to the Evening Standard, collected here, overlapped with those to the Express, without duplication, and cover the years 1939 to 1941. As his articles in the Standard ceased, so they began in the Eastern Daily Press, the latter appearing between 1941 and 1944 – indeed, the last article in this present collection, which was published on 25 March 1941, had actually been published, in a slightly fuller version, as his first article for the EDP on 12 March! Williamson returned to the Evening Standard in 1944, and stayed with that newspaper to the end of 1945. Old Hall Farm was sold in October 1945.

 

The Henry Williamson Society has published a number of collections of Williamson’s newspaper articles. Those which cover the above period, in addition to the present book, are Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer (2004), containing the Express articles published between 1937 and 1939; Green Fields and Pavements (1995), which includes all the EDP articles; and the two-volume A Breath of Country Air (1990, 1991), which contains those printed in the Standard during 1944-1945. Green Fields and Pavements and Part 2 of A Breath of Country Air are still in print and available through the Society. All the books have been digitised and are available as e-books, either through the Society's website or via Amazon.

 

Many of these newspaper contributions were later woven by Williamson into his ‘Norfolk’ books: The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941), The Phasian Bird (1948) and the farming volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, comprising The Phoenix Generation (1965), A Solitary War (1966) and Lucifer before Sunrise (1967). As yet, no serious research has been undertaken into the extent to which Williamson intentionally treated his articles as part-drafts for future works, and how they were eventually incorporated into his books, but these collections of primary source material published by the Society will be indispensable to such a project. That they can still be read and enjoyed in their own right, independently of the books, is a tribute to the care and skill with which they were originally written, under sometimes trying and difficult conditions.

 

John Gregory

2003, revised 2020

 

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Book covers:

 

First edition:

 

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With the advent of digital printing came the opportunity for the Society to design and typeset its own books, and the first such title was the reprint of Heart of England in 2008, with a full colour cover (also used for the e-book edition). The photograph, of the River Bray with Humpy Bridge in the background, is a deliberate echo of HW's photograph opposite p. 88 in the first edition of The Children of Shallowford (1939), 'Winter river', which shows the Bray in spate.

 

heart of england large

 

 

'Winter river':

 

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