The tools for the job

Hi folks. Sorry it’s a bit scattergun this week, I’m very busy at work and fitting everything in is a challenge. I thought it was about time to feature another excellent piece from top contributor David Evans, this time about the little hamlet of Hilton, between Summerhill and Stonnall, and one of it’s old inhabitants.

I love this piece, although I would point out that, in the words of Tony Capstick:

‘We’d lots o’ things in them days they ‘aven’t got today – rickets, diptheria, Hitler and my, we did look well goin’ to school wi’ no backside in us trousers an’ all us little ‘eads painted purple because we ‘ad ringworm.’

These things sound great, but personally, whilst the community spirit may be weaker, the desire to grow your own is still strong. Just look at the competition for allotments, and I do think David needs to choose his pubs more carefully. I can think of several local hostelries where he’s guaranteed good quality, local food, and excellent, Brownhills-brewed real ale, from one of the two breweries in Brownhills. A visit to The Stymaster’s Publog will be of assistance.

The modern world may not be perfect, but as an elderly friend says to me, ‘Best days of my life? I’m living them now!’…

The lanes of Hilton, near Stonnall. Jinny would have recognised this lane, it doesn’t change much. From my Panoramio gallery.

I would imagine that most would-be Olde Worlde Country Pubs and Inns will have some kind of pseudo-vintage tool decoration adorning real or glassfibre beams, planted by reclaimed brickwork fires whose log cradles are never lit, or screwed to window-ledges . The aim is to give an impression that the food, ale, bacon buttie or traditional breakfast  of cultivated mushrooms, flavour-enhanced beans, tinned tomatoes, standard six-inch ruler slices of factory bacon, plus genuine hash browns are  as good as the food from times gone by.

If only the customers knew more of the reality of the situation.

Jinney was over eighty years of age  when I first met her. She was the youngest of the eight children . She had been born and had lived all her life, and eventually she would  die in the same simple cottage on the outskirts of Walsall Wood. As a child her first daily task was to walk over a mile to the fields in Hilton  to catch and bring the poney back to the cottage . She then helped her father load  up the cart with the vegetables to be taken to market ‘before the bell went’. This deadline was important. A late arrival at market incurred a fine sufficient to negate any profit made that day, and thus any ability to buy necessary goods for the family. A four-o clock start to the day  was the norm for her.

The small-holding had two small pieces of ground that adjoined the cottage. All  the digging, planting, weeding, hoeing, turning, cropping and tending was done by hand, and by hard, grinding graft every day in whatever weather ‘the Good Lord threw’ at those who worked there, meaning Jinney and her father and mother. One by one her elder brothers and sisters had moved out, married and lived elsewhere.

The cottage had   its own water well, a  big barn, a stable, a pigsty, a cellar, and a brew house. The original kitchen fire grate had been replaced by a Triplex unit,  with its small coal fire which was never allowed to go out, a small oven which made the best apple pies you could imagine, and a small hot unit, for drying cloths. There was a big hook set into one of the ceiling beams. The kitchen was very small, though, and the only daylight came through a small side window.

Jinney always wore an apron and kept her blue-brick back yard as neat and tidy as her borders and her kitchen vegetable garden. Some of the varieties of colourful flowers  that were  common in back gardens locally have since disappeared. Fox-gloves,  red-hot Pokers, Snapdragons and others; out of fashion nowadays, by and large.

The barn was a wonderland of  vintage hand-tools, worn-out forks, wooden handles shiny through hard use over many years, a dutch hoe, a sharp spade, a rake, riddle, hand turning tool, ‘puts the air back into the soil’ and a big, heavy wooden wheelbarrow with metal spoked wheel.  The stable had two stalls, hooks to hold nets of hay, rings to hold buckets of water, old swallow or swift nests up in the eaves,  and the doors were  kept shut by a big clout nail dropped into the hasp and eye; the barn  had a big  padlock with its key tied to it by binding twine.

Vegetables in season were taken to Walsall Market, weighed, sold, put into customers baskets, and  the empty cart brought  the ‘Old Mon’ back to his cottage at the end of a long, long day. The pony was the first to be looked after. It was unshackled from the cart, groomed, watered, fed, then led back to the fields for pasture and grazing.

These apples - Pippins I believe - grown on roadside trees near Hilton, and are delightful in late summer. From my Panoramio gallery.

Jinney walked a mile and a half  to school every day, along the lanes. On Sundays she walked a mile to church, every Sunday, without fail,  whatever the weather.

She was not at all bothered that she didn’t understand the modern twentieth century’s rapidly changing life. Sufficient that the light came on when she switched the brass light-switch. ‘If the Good Lord had meant men to fly He would have given them wings, like birds’ reassured her. She was an excellent cook, could made the best beef dinners, gravy, did amazing dishes from her garden vegetables, knew the secret of lamb en croute, stuffed marrow, white sauce, served damson pies made with fruit from her own ‘Little Diamond’ trees, apple pies from her own ‘Lord Suffield’ trees and  unforgettable strawberry flans. Bacon was home killed and cured, the eggs were from those hens in the yard.  She made her own bread.

In her later years she would sit by the fire, toast her  bunions and  toes,  and enjoy a cup of tea, and few moments with a retired old farm-labourer neighbour conversing while he enjoyed a pipe full of plug baccy, and they would remember events, share opinions, pass good hours .

She died many years ago and her home has been demolished. All that still remains there is the  tall gracious sycamore tree which stood by the cottage. Today’s  noisy road traffic thunders past the spot in its headlong dash, belching out fumes, rattling through cogs and gears, pressing accelerators and carrying  commuting drivers and passengers, livestock and goods alike  up and down what is now a very busy main road.

The soft, fertile plain between Springhill, Summerhill and Shenstone, as viewed from Hilton, is gorgeously green in summer. From my panoramio gallery.

Her way of self-sufficient, hard-working life seems to have so little in common with  today’s .  In Walsall Wood the old mining-village era houses, and those from before the advent of the mine, were built to have sufficient garden space  for the family to grow their own food, had a pigsty, fowl pen and a brew-house. These are mainly being replaced with much smaller houses whose gardens are only just big enough to hang some washing in, boast a  minuscule front garden half-buried under tarmac, and a parking space for  one of the  necessary cars. The front gardens are minimum maintenance, barren, uninviting  and  cold . The flea-size  garden sheds of today contain  plastic coated colourful electric or petrol powered gadgets, all which will be have to be  replaced many times over .  I can’t see these ever being nailed up in future pubs or restaurants. ‘Regular   capon  twizzle cutlets with multi-vitamin  flavour-enhanced reconstituted potato flavour fries’ [are people still doing that to roosters? Like, wow – Bob] somehow doesn’t have much of a commercial ring to it, let alone any prospect of much taste. All washed down with a stein/ flagon/ jug  of chilled yellow, frothy  liquid? Enjoy!  No thanks.

Did I mention Jinny’s  famous home-made medicinal  parsnip wine?  Best to sit down first.

 David Evans

December 2011

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3 Responses to The tools for the job

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    many thanks for putting this article on your blog, and especially for splicing in the videos and photos. I am sure that your readers will enjoy the excellent presentation .The lane you show in the photo was along Jenny’s daily route to and from the pasture, and the video shows the very flat pasture field..called the “Flats” by locals.
    kind regards

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