WilburtonSchool– A 1940s Gardening Lesson
A series of short tales from the book ‘BOYon a BRANCH’
(boyhood memories from the 1940s)
My attendance at the village school carried on happily in the spring of 1940, but I was sorry to learn from Mum that it would continue only until the summer holidays. For some reason she had arranged
that as from the beginning of the autumn term I was to start atNeedham’s, a rather imposing looking school at the top of Back Hill in Ely. I didn’t relish the thought of this change – not because of the five-mile cycle ride involved – but simply that I was quite happy in the village. However, as I was not being moved immediately I dismissed the matter from my mind.
On a sunny afternoon, about a couple of weeks into my attendance at the village school, ‘Nonny’ the headmaster took some of us boys for a gardening lesson. There was no garden actually at the school and, as we set off down the High Street, I wondered where we were going. After turning left intoTwenty Pence Roadand walking half-way down the hill, Nonny led us through a gate into a large secluded garden, surrounded by a hedge – his own fruit and vegetable garden.
On looking around I noted fruit trees and bushes, and numerous greens such as sprouts and cabbages. These, however were not to be our sphere of operations. Nonny assembled us at the edge of an area that was clear of crops but covered with small green weeds. Apparently it was potato planting time and this piece of ground was where they were to go in. Unlocking a shed he called two or three boys to remove from inside about four digging spades, a couple of four-tined forks – which I thought had some very thin tines – and two wheelbarrows, plus a long garden line. After distributing all this equipment between us Nonny got us organised.
To my surprise, the first thing he did was to send two boys back out of the garden, with one of the wheelbarrows and the two thin-tined forks and I assumed that they had been allotted a different job elsewhere. Next, after stretching the garden line across the end of the plot he started to dig a spit-wide trench across the plot, and placing the removed soil into the second wheelbarrow as he went. The spoil from this first spit was taken to the other end of the plot where, in due course it would be ready for filling in the final trench. After digging a short length he handed over the job to four of the boys, who followed each other, at a suitable distance apart, with a spade each.
Eventually my earlier curiosity was satisfied, for the boys who had been sent off with the wheel- barrow arrived back with a heaped load of farm-yard manure, one boy holding the handles and the other, rather like a trace-horse, pulling from the front on a rope. A further demonstration followed
from Nonny, who began spreading the manure in the bottom of the last trench just dug, before again handing the job over to us boys. The seed potatoes were planted directly into the manure for, as Nonny told us, they were greedy feeders and liked plenty of moisture – the manure both fed them and helped to hold moisture at their roots.
The transport boys were now given a rest, being replaced by two others, one of whom was me. We left the garden to fetch more manure, whilst the others continued to dig another suitable width ready for the next row of planting to take place. I had no idea where we were to collect the manure from, but the boy I was paired with had done the job before. The route took us back up to the High Street, continuing past the school, to a farm-yard a few hundreds yards further on towards Stretham.
In the farm-yard was a large heap of manure from which we were to fill our barrow. Here I learned the purpose of the forks with the skinny tines: they were ‘muck-forks’. Using these we heaped a good load onto the barrow and started off back to the garden, with my fellow gardener taking the handles and me pulling on the rope at the front. The weight on the barrow handles was quite tiring and my partner asked me to take my turn. Once we reached the downhill slope inTwenty Pence Roadthe pull from the front was dispensed with, until we came to the garden gateway, where the ‘trace-horse’ was again required for the pull up into the garden.
By this time we were more than ready to hand over the transport job to another pair of boys. The whole afternoon was quite strenuous but enjoyable. Nonny had the whole session organised as efficiently as a military operation – quite clever, I thought. He not only taught us boys a lot about gardening, but in the process he managed to produce his own vegetables with a minimum effort to himself. I feel no resentment about this, for Nonny’s tuition was my first real introduction to gardening and my interest has remained to the present day. With my new-found enthusiasm I became anxious to start gardening at home. The strip of line-side garden used by the previous occupants was now covered in weeds, but one week-end Dad helped me to dig it over and showed me how and what to sow in it. It was an exciting thought – I now had my own garden.