Childhood Memories of Trumpington 10

Brian Goodliffe

This is the sixth part of a series of childhood memories of Trumpington in the 1940s and 1950s. For an introduction to the series, see Childhood Memories of Trumpington .

Behind the Manor Farm dairy buildings, somewhere near the current junction of Beverley Way and Scotsdowne Road, was a stack yard. At harvest time, a tractor drawn machine called a binder would cut the crop of oats and bind them with coarse twine into bundles, known as sheaves. These sheaves would then be transported to the stack yard by tractor and trailer and built into stacks (often wrongly referred to by townsfolk as haystacks), with the top of the stack protected from the elements by temporary straw thatching. Come the winter, when there was less to do on the land, these oats would be threshed. For a reason that should become apparent later, all the men would don bicycle clips or tie string round the bottom of their trouser legs. The temporary thatch would be removed, and one by one the sheaves of oats would be tossed by pitchfork to the top of the threshing machine where one of the farm workers stood to catch them. With a very sharp hooked knife, he’d cut and retain the twine whilst skilfully spreading the sheaf out onto a wide moving conveyor belt at the top of the machine. The threshing machine was really like a static combine-harvester, in as much that everything went in as cut from the field, and as it went through the bowels of the machine the grain, valuable as winter fodder, was separated from the straw and directed down chutes into thick hessian sacks. The unwanted seed husks, known as chaff, and much lighter, were gathered in bigger, thinner sacks, and later burnt on bonfires that would smoulder for days. The straw was pushed out of the back of the machine and into a baler. The bales were stored until the straw was needed for animal bedding.

During the few months these stacks were standing in the yard, they became infested with mice and rats. The insulating properties of the straw gave them shelter as autumn turned to winter; and food – the grains of oats – were never more than a few inches away. It was a wonderful life for them while it lasted. If the threshing happened to coincide with school holidays, then us sons of the farm workers would turn up to watch, with stout sticks in hand. As the sheaves were transferred from stack to thresher, the stack got lower and lower and the mice and rats would keep moving down to stay hidden. But eventually they’d be down to only a layer or two of sheaves that were almost at ground level. This is when the “sport” would begin. As each remaining sheaf was lifted the exposed mice would make a dash for it across the yard to find a new place of refuge. It would start with the odd one or two, then threes and fours, and gradually increase to perhaps a dozen or more when each of the final few sheaves was eventually lifted. We lads would chase them, bashing them with our sticks until they were dead. The men left the mice to us; but if a rat emerged everybody chased it, the men sometimes using their pitchforks as spears. And with all those oats available to gorge on, they were some big old rats I can tell you. It may seem cruel and barbaric to town folk, but it was a lot quicker death than that of town mice and rats that suffer poisoning by pest control officers. By the way, I trust you worked out why the men secured the bottoms of their trouser legs?

Back at harvest time when we were combine-harvesting the wheat and barley out in the distant fields, I would ride on top of the bulk grain as it was brought back, by tractor and trailer, to a cathedral sized barn at Church Farm, opposite Anstey Way, where it was tipped into the grill-covered concrete pit to begin its journey up the elevator to the very top of a vast machine that dried the corn and removed all the unwanted weed seeds and insects before it was sent off on a series of conveyor belts to be poured into giant silos, each as high as a house, where it would be stored until sold, and some kept as seed corn for next year’s crop. Now no one thought to tell me that it was dangerous to play in these silos full of corn. And with all the noisy machinery no one would hear me calling for help, that’s for sure. The corn behaves rather like quicksand. You sink into it. And once you’re trapped, the more you struggle the more you sink in. There have been cases where men have died from suffocation as they’ve slowly but surely sunk beneath the surface. And of course, if you happen to be on your own, nobody knows where you’ve gone; until possibly months later when they go to empty the grain via the shutter at the bottom of the silo, and a mummified body works its way down and blocks the flow. Fortunately the size of my footprint, relative to the weight of my then skinny body, meant that I only sunk up to my shins; and once I’d worn myself out, wading through the grain, I escaped unscathed apart from having to take off my shoes to empty them.

Continue with the next part of Brian Goodliffe’s childhood memories of Trumpington in the 1940s and 1950s.

Brian Goodliffe, aged 11, summer 1955
Brian Goodliffe, aged 11, summer 1955

Brian Goodliffe, aged 11, summer 1955, after passing the 11-plus, wearing his uniform for Cambridge Central Grammar School. Photo: Goodliffe family.