This is the second of a collection of extracts from the book I wrote in 2019. The Archers Year of Food and Farming is published by Seven Dials.
The October chapter starts like this:
I have to warn you, there is a lot of sex in October. And it is described with very direct Middle English words, so buckle up.
‘Tup’ is both a noun and a verb. It’s the old name for a ram, and you will still hear it used in that way. More frequently it is used to describe the act itself. At many farms, including Brookfield, October into November is tupping season.
As the morning sun lances through the mist, giving an ethereal quality to the familiar pastures, David and his younger son Ben drive their bleating ewes. David nods with approval as sheepdog Bess responds fluidly to Ben’s commands. A firm “Come bye!” and Bess moves to the left, clockwise around the flock. “Away!” means the opposite. When Bess is at a distance, Ben uses the whistle – a curved-sided metal triangle that sits on his tongue. A quick, high double note through the small hole signifies Come Bye, a single mid-tone Away. Now Ben blows a longer, higher blast and Bess immediately drops to the ground, alert and ready for the next command.
These ewes are being placed in various fields depending on their weight. Too skinny and they may not ovulate, but too much fat will bring problems come lambing time. So they will be fed appropriately to bring them all near the ideal tupping weight of about 70 kilograms. This will be a daily job for someone, and they need to as nimble as Robert Snell in the Village Hall doorway. Keen Flower and Produce Show contestants are as nothing compared to hungry ewes hearing their dinner tumbling from that large plastic sack into a long metal trough. David has had his legs bowled from under him on more than one occasion.
Ben turns to his father. “So we’re not doing anything for Harvest Supper this year?”
David’s face darkens. “No. Uncle Tony’s giving them a side of beef.”
“That’s good isn’t it? If we don’t have to bother – ”
“Because your uncle Kenton reckoned Bridge Farm beef was better than ours.”
“Yeah. Thanks, brother.”
Celebrations of the end of harvest exist all round the world. In Britain, the tradition dates back to pre-Christian times and is synonymous with this time of year; literally, given that the Old English word ‘haerfest’ actually means autumn. A good harvest could mean the difference between life and death. So when everything was safely gathered in, it was usual for the farmer to host a meal to thank everyone who had been involved. ‘A meal’ makes it sound like a sedate and civilised affair. But we can imagine that the relief after a month of toil, coupled with free food and (especially) drink gave the peasantry licence for the hooliest of hooleys. Imagine the Grundys in full flow, with a side order of Horrobins, and you will get an inkling.
The Ambridge Harvest Supper is a true community affair; lots of people mucking in with the arrangements and the catering. There is usually entertainment of some sort – often a barn dance with the steps called by buxom, buckskin-clad Jolene Rogers, the one-time Lily of Leyton Cross.
At various times the meal has been held at the Village Hall, Brookfield Farm, Bridge Farm, The Bull, Home Farm, and even in a marquee on the village green. In 1997 it became a truly moveable feast, on ‘safari supper’ lines. One course was served in each of the surrounding villages: Darrington, Edgeley, and Penny Hassett; while in Ambridge, Jennifer Aldridge waited with the desserts she had lovingly created. And waited… And waited. She eventually learned that each village had gone so over the top with their catering that most people were stuffed to bursting and could not consume any more. Poor Jennifer!
If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.
You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.
And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets – by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies