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James Woollacott with his wife and three sons, Bob, John and Bill, came over Exmoor from Kipscombe to West Yeo in 1929. The move took three days. The first day saw the horses and carts reach Kinsford Water, from where the ponies were ridden back to Kipscombe for the night. At the end of the second day they reached Ash Mill, and the ponies were ridden on to West Yeo for the night. On the third day they arrived at West Yeo with their belongings. The sheep and cattle came by lorry, the pigs had been killed and salted before the move. James Woollacott came on his BSA belt-driven motorbike, with Bob on the pillion, but coming up Rockford Hill near Brendon the bike began to fail and Bob came off. Whereupon the bike surged forward and climbed the hill to his father's surprise, as he had not noticed Bob's fall. At West Yeo the bike was kept in the cider house; James never owned a car.

Notes on farming will be divided into the seasons of the year.

Fordson Tractor

WINTER: Once a week chaff was cut for the horses in the chaff-house. A Hornsby engine powered the belt-driven barn machinery, which drove not only the chaff-cutter, but also the winnower, the thresher and the grinding stones. Mending bags for corn with bag-needles was a winter task. Wheat was in 2.25 cwt bags, and barley 2 cwt bags; a man was expected to be able to carry one of these under each arm.

Spar gads for thatching, usually of withy or hazel, were cut in the kitchen. When finished the floor was swept and the sweepings used for the fire. The spar gads were for thatching farm ricks, and for sale to Venners, the local Thatcher's.

Hedging was done in winter. Hedge material, especially whitethorn and beech, had to be steeped towards the sun, otherwise new growth could pull them up. Steeper's were held in place by crooks, cut from hedge stuff and driven into the bank. It was best to steep beech at the end of the winter, because of the rising of the sap. No saws were used, but the cuts were made with hooks (billhooks), after the grass had been cut with a paring hook. Before the hedge could be made, however, the bank had to be cast up with clats (turf) taken from the hedge trough. In North Devon this was done with the long-handled Devon shovel, but the Woollacott's preferred to use a stone-fork, as was the practice the other side of Exmoor. Where banks ended at gateways, or where they were weak, stonewalling was used. For this it was essential for the bottom layer of stones to be three quarters under the ground for stability. The angle of the stonewalling had to be right - too flat and the sheep would get up it, too steep and frost could get in and bring it down. Several long stones would be driven into the bank for extra firmness. Banks suffered damage by rabbits, and with the help of ferrets these would be netted, 40 rabbits a day being the target.

Winter was the time for making gates, and the Woollacott's made their own from oak. The cross-pieces were known as shuttles, and at the ends were the hanging post and the hapsing post. It was said that if a gate was well hung it should be possible to open it, place a full glass of water on the top shuttle, let it go, and see it close so softly that not a drop was spilt. The gatepost were also made of oak; the bark had to be removed or water would get in, and the cuts of the bark had to be made with upward strokes, again to avoid the entry of water.

Sometimes corn ricks had to be made away from the farm buildings. For these Nott's steam threshing tackle would be booked, and enough coal ordered. Two men came with the tackle and stayed overnight, ready for an early start to get steam up in the engine before breakfast. A dozen would sit on forms at the kitchen table, and they included Perce Woodman, Ned Partridge, Webber from Adworthy, and Charlie Middleton. For spring threshing a reed comber was added. Beans were grown, cut with the horse binder and threshed, but the threshing drum sometimes threw them back at the man feeding. Mole catching was another winter job. No traps were used at West Yeo, but a watch was kept for moles "heaving", and then "down with your heel". Dry weather drove the moles down and wet weather brought them up. Bob's best was 37 in one day. The skins were dried and sent to Gratham and fetched four pence each.

60 to 70 Devons were kept in the 1930s, after a few days on the cow a calf was bucket-fed. It was reckoned to milk 8 cows an hour. At that time about 500 sheep were kept. At the start they were Exmoor Horns, but later Devon Closewools were favoured. There were three cart-horses and two ponies, one butt cart and one cart, but no 4-wheeled wagon. The acreage included West Yeo moor and amounted to 356.

SPRING: One of the first signs of spring was the purchase of 25-30 chicks from Venners. As soon as the weather and the ground were right ploughing began. An acre a day was the target for horse ploughing. Implements also used were scuffles, heavy and light drags, flat stone rollers, Cambridge ring rollers. Grass fields were stone-rolled, and grass seeds were chain-harrowed. As soon as the bracken began to grow on the moor, the set of heavy drags would be turned upside down and dragged over the young shoots to check them. 30 to 40 acres of corn were tilled. Their first tractor, a Fordson on spade lugs, was bought in 1940.

Lambing was planned for April, corners of fields were wired off and the ewes driven into them at the end of the day, so that it would be easy to find and inspect them at night. The meadow, or "mead", was kept for the ewes and lambs. Basic slag was applied in spring. A lorry would bring a ton or ton and a half and tip it out loose, it was then shovelled up into a butt; one man led the horse and the other spread the slag off the back with a saucer. It was mainly used for root ground. As a succession, oats were followed by barley, roots (with sheep folded on them) and wheat. Dung was taken out in the butt and put in heaps (two heaps per load) and then spread by hand with a dung fork. The Devon cattle might be turned out in mid-April, but the sheep always had priority on early grass.

SUMMER: Bob remembers hay being once made in May, but June was the usual hay month. Grass for hay was never cut when damp. After being tedded, the hay was brought in with a double horse sweep to an engine-powered elevator for rick-making. In damp weather the hay "yetted a bit" (heated) and smaller ricks were made. A long iron bar used to be inserted into the rick to test for overheating. There were other hazards; once they were making hay in Lower Park when a whirlwind caught up the hay and strewed it all along the main road. Ricks were thatched as soon as possible with wheat reed or rushes.

Hay Sweep

Roots were horse-hoed and then singled by hand-hoe. In steep fields the soil accumulated at the bottom and from time to time had to be drawn back up. At times pigeons were such a plague on the swede greens that you could get three with on shot. They went to Notts the poultry packers in Nomansland. In wartime the government provided ammunition for pigeon shooting and neighbours worked together. Also during the war, West Yeo was made a depot for government machinery.

Usual clothes for farm work in the 1930s were breeches, leggings, hob-nailed boots and a waistcoat. A sack round the shoulders, and another round the waist, kept the rain out. For shearing, however, the shearers wore white trousers and white jackets, which had to be clean every morning. When hands were washed during shearing a bucket of water with ferns in it was used instead of soap, another idea from "out over" (Exmoor). Several from there came to help with the shearing; they either rode over or came by taxi. A retired Witheridge butcher, Reg Rodd, tied the wool. Charlie Middleton always helped, and at the end of the day after food and beer the kitchen table would be pushed to the side. Charlie would put two crossed brooms in the middle of the floor and do his "Broom Dance" to music played by James Woollacott on his accordion. Among the wives who came to help on those occasions were Mrs Rodd and Mrs Webber. West Yeo brewed their own beer in three grades, the best for parson and doctor, the next for farmers, and the last for everyone else. Bill Woollacott started keeping bees in the 1930s. When he went into the army Bob took over the 14 hives. Orders for honey came from places like Exmouth, Teignmouth and Minehead, and deliveries became family outings paid for by the money received.

AUTUMN: Paring hooks were used to clear the edges of the cornfields, and then scythes cut room for the horse and binder. As the area of uncut corn became less many rabbits bolted and were killed. There were two two-acre orchards mainly of cider apples, but there was a Russet tree in the garden, and a tree of "Listener", a yellow apple shaped like a quince and the size of a breakfast cup. Maunds were used to carry in the apples. There was a two-screw cider-press in the cider house; all cider was consumed on the farm. Mangolds were gathered in by butt and stored in "caves", long heaps against a wall or bank, covered with rushes or bracken or browse against the frost. Late summer was maggot-time, and a dead rabbit was hung on a bough near where sheep gathered, with underneath a bath with a Jeyes Fluid mix. The flies left the sheep, laid their eggs on the dead rabbit. When the eggs hatched the maggots fell into the bath.

The only "vet" in the area was Matthews of Rackenford. If he was needed someone would have to ride over for him. West Yeo had no telephone until the ministry of agriculture put one in, in wartime. Stanley Andrews of Romansleigh travelled for a West Country animal medicine firm and visited from time to time. Cattle would be "drenched" by having medicine poured down their throats by means of a cow's horn with a hole drilled in the bottom.

In the 1939-45 war John served in the Life Guards, and Bill in the Marines. In 1940 the Woollacotts were allocated 6 evacuee boys aged from 3 to 10. Queenie Long had been a landgirl at Newhouse, but had left. She was asked to come to West Yeo to help look after the evacuees and give help at harvest time. In autumn 1940, Bob and Queenie were married.

One autumn a couple of years later, John Woollacott was on leave and went rabbiting on North Hill with Bob. Queenie remembers pushing the pram with young Robin and Fred in it all the way out there with a hot drink and some food for them, and coming back with rabbits hanging from the pram handle.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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