Manor House, with the five Willis children waiting for their next adventure
Stopping a pig in a passage
When you are a child of seven, stopping a sow in a passage is quite daunting. I loathed being hauled out of bed but it was often necessary because a
pig had escaped yet again. As the pigsties were near the farmhouse where we lived in Winteringham, it was easier to requisition my brother and I
than to call for the scattered farm-staff. However the animal had to be captured and encouraged down a dark corridor to its sty. Mother would steer it
in the right direction while one of us would stand near the individual stall to direct the obstinate brute inside.
The pigs proved worthy and unpredictable adversaries in our 'wild animal' hunts. In the autumn they were allowed out of their sties and had the run of
the orchard which meant we had to be very wary while scrumping apples. They must have seen us as rivals for their windfalls and remembered us
spoiling their escape attempts. Our belief that they would eat anything - human flesh included - made them very intimidating. Children like scary
experiences and we tempted fate in this way many times. We tried running towards the apple trees without being seen but then had to quickly clamber upwards when spotted by the 'man-eaters.'
Any outbuilding could be made into a child's den whether or not it housed livestock and we took little notice of its condition. One afternoon we were
playing in a loft above a pigsty when Mother came upstairs to find us. A rotten floorboard gave way under her extra weight and Mother's left leg
disappeared through the floor. I had visions of her body following her leg and being devoured by the squealing pigs but she retrieved her injured limb and hurried us in to tea.
One of the stories that children love to hear, concerns the day Mother was helping a cow with a wearisome birth. The calf was safely delivered and the
'midwife' turned to leave but was confronted by a confused cow, which chased her to the door. In those days cows still had horns and Mother found
herself pinned to door by her skirt. My grandchildren thought this event was 'awesome' and ever since they heard about it have taken turns acting out the scene, arguing who should be the cow!
Lambing time meant the end of winter but it could still be chilly overnight watching the flock in the lambing sheds. Before the birthing began in earnest it was a peaceful time
with only the sound of the teeth-grinding ewes and their occasional coughing to be heard. Sometimes I was allowed to hold the lamp while the shepherd ministered to
the new arrivals. Orphans were fed with a bottle if no substitute mother could be fooled into accepting them and we needed no persuading to feed the bleating babies. I
made a pet of one such orphan, much against my father's wishes because he could obviously foresee the heartbreak to come. 'Lucy' came to the village sweet shop on
my weekly trips, secured with a piece of string.
Katherine and her lamb
The day came all too soon when she had to go to market with the rest of the flock, and I felt wretched and refused to eat lamb for twenty years.
Time spent with the shire horses was a sheer delight. Although in the fifties they were gradually being made redundant, nobody wanted to see them go and so would try to
find useful tasks for them. One such job was pulling a cart loaded with mangolds to feed the sheep in a distant field. My brother Peter and I would sit in the back of the
cart and toss the round root vegetables to the waiting flock and then rattle home in the empty wagon. After a day in harness, the horses relished the freedom of their field.
Rolling on their backs, they kicked shaggy fetlocks in the air and we watched in fascination. They looked just as young and playful as spring lambs.
Farmers were constantly at war with vermin. However the numbers of rats and mice
were reduced a little at threshing time when they ran the gauntlet of children with thatching pegs and eager terriers. In the autumn many mice would
seek the warmth of the farmhouse and every night I would hear them scratching as I tried to sleep. Next to my bedroom ran a dark abandoned
staircase with locked doors at both ends and there the mice had free rein. In former times servants who lived in adjoining accommodation, used this
back staircase but to us it was just a spooky, spider's lair.
While we lived in the farmhouse the servants' quarters were derelict and only fit for livestock. They were mainly used to house chickens to be fattened
for Christmas and the arrival of these chicks at day-old was one of the highlights of our year. We enjoyed tipping them from their boxes onto the
shavings, which littered the disused bedroom. The birds' brief lives ended when they had grown plump enough for market and at plucking-time the
room filled with white feathers like the first snow flurries of winter.
Manor Farm Garden and Stackyard - site of adventure!
A 'bloody' good childhood
"I dare you! " said big sister (me) to her foolish younger brother and as many accident-prone ten year-old boys do, he jumped. I was standing on a
concrete plinth looking up to a hayloft. Peter landed badly, hitting his head, which bled profusely.
As any country child of the fifties knew, 'splitting your head open' produced a satisfying amount of blood and the more stitches needed the better the
kudos at school. All my classmates had some injury to brag about after the summer holidays; split heads and broken collarbones were the usual things but anything more exotic gained extra points.
I grew up on a North Lincolnshire farm (Manor Farm, Winteringham). Climbing trees and doing tricks on old adult bikes caused many mishaps that
modern parents would not tolerate. Playing in farmyards even without today's huge machines still had its dangers. I found to my cost that frayed
ropes break when tested to the limit by swinging children. Having just made a dress I wanted to show it off to somebody. I joined my siblings who
were playing on a swinging rope in a tractor shed. However the rope would not take my weight and it snapped, throwing me against the metal hub of a
cartwheel. Needless to say - I split my head and was not best pleased when the ensuing blood spoilt my spotted red dress. Peter was so shocked
he ran screaming to Mother that I was dead. When she heard the noise I was making, she soothed him with the words "Anybody making that much noise can't be seriously hurt!"
Katharine and Peter, with friend Margaret Potts on the gate near the stackyard
My best friend Janet was not quite so used to the sight of blood. When she gashed her hand, Mother sat her at the kitchen table with her hand in a
porcelain bowl of antiseptic. The sight of this diluted gore made her faint, causing the vessel to smash on the tiled floor. But she was rather a sissy.
I was the eldest of five children and shinning up a tree with a book was a means of escape from the chores. Mother soon became wise to this but
instead of fretting about the dangers she asked why I was not going to the top. I learnt the hard way that plum trees had brittle branches and soon
landed at the bottom with scratched limbs and another torn frock. (This was before the wearing of jeans became universal).
With limited access to TV, we had plenty of time to fill and our games were often based on cowboys and Indians. Our revolvers had reels of firework
-type caps that made a satisfying noise and had a memorable smell. Bows were made from elder and once we even had shop-bought arrows with metal tips; horrifying to think about as I look back.
The agricultural seasons provided plenty of interest for children. Springtime meant hard work in the lambing sheds. I was only allowed to hold the
lamp while my father did the interesting but bloody business of helping ewes with difficult births.
We enjoyed collecting hen and duck eggs from the farmyard or sheds. Broody hens would find a secret hideout on top of a haystack and try to lay a
clutch of eggs without being discovered. If we found such a nest and avoided being pecked by an angry hen, we learnt to leave one egg in the nest.
The reason for this was that the broody hen would probably return and thus save us another search.
At harvest time before the era of the combine I remember the reaper/binder in use. This machine cut and tied up corn-sheaves and we gathered them
together in stooks to be collected later. The sharp cutting blades of the reaper could damage any animals that were too traumatised to escape. Our
cocker spaniel was one such casualty and I was asked to hold her head while she was stitched up on the kitchen table.
One of my sharpest winter memories is threshing time when an ancient Field-Marshall provided power to the threshing machine. This tractor needed a
cartridge to fire it up, which made a stunning bang. Bundles of sheaves from stacks in the yard were gradually fed into the top of the thresher. As the
stack diminished towards ground level the vermin trapped inside retreated. The farm-workers had already secured their trouser bottoms with string,
the reason becoming obvious when the rats and mice finally made their dash for freedom. But we were waiting for them; my siblings, fellow villagers
and their dogs surrounded the stack and waited for the chase to begin. Thatching pegs and pitchforks were grasped in readiness to strike or stab the fleeing rodents.
On reflection I am horrified at my delight in the slaughter but I have fond memories of life in the fifties. I feel sorry for modern children who have to find
their thrills in computer games or joy-riding.
More stories from Katharine ...
When the Bough Breaks
Multi-tasking in a fifties farmhouse
Five go camping in the Enid Blyton era
One summer schoolday