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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: The Wolds


CHAPTER III

THE WOLDS

SEEING that the incidents recorded in the following pages are mainly associated with the Wolds of East Yorkshire, it may be of interest if one gives some idea of the general character of this part of our extensive county, which possesses many features well worth our notice.

What is known as the Wold country of the East Riding, at least the most elevated part, is a district less visited, probably, even in these days of motor-cars and buses, than almost any other part of England. There is nothing here specially to interest the ordinary tourist; in fact, those who visit it for the first time are apt to regard its wide, undulating, and well nigh treeless stretches with feelings repellent rather than otherwise. To the stranger it appears bleak, monotonous, and cheerless. Its character is wholly different to that of the other two Ridings of the great county. We have no purple-heathered moorlands as in the northerly parts of Yorkshire, neither can we boast of such scenery as that of the valleys of the Esk and the Wharfe; nor again anything to compare with the high fells of the northwest. The music of rippling water is seldom heard in our dales, a sound which adds so much to the charm of any country-side, while our woodlands are few and far between, especially on the higher ground.

We must not suppose, however, that the Wolds are altogether monotonous, for they have considerable variety, especially near their western escarpment. The parishes, for instance, of Londesborough, Warter, and Kilnwick Percy contain some extremely picturesque scenery; and if we turn more to the heart of the district it would be hard to find more prettily situated villages in this county than Langtoft, Sledmere, Kirby Underdale, East Acklam, and Bishop Wilton. But even the bleaker parts of the country have a charm of their own for those who have long breathed their salubrious air. There is a wonderful freedom, freshness, and healthiness about our Wolds which have bred a race of men who for vigour of mind and body are second to none in England. The well tilled farms, moreover, give an air of prosperity to the whole region, or at least did so until these later years of agricultural depression.

The whole district is devoted to agriculture, and so it will not be out of place here to say something about the Wold farmsteads. With the exception of some of those situated in the villages the houses and buildings are of comparatively modern date, very few being older than the beginning of the last century, before which time the Wolds were vast downs. But about a hundred and fifty years ago their capabilities for corn growing and sheep rearing were discovered, when the land was ploughed up, and in many parts the grass was turned up by paringspades, and the sods burnt; and thus by degrees farmsteads were established all over the wide area.

At that period the taste in architecture was at a low ebb, so that in this district one never sees anything like the viewly old farm-houses which form such a pleasing feature of the country side in many parts of the south of England. As a rule, the Wold farmsteads vary but little in the range of their buildings. These are placed in juxtaposition to the dwelling-house in a sort of quadrangle, with the foldyard in the centre and a spacious stackyard or 'staggarth', as we call it, with the cart, wagon, and implement sheds conveniently situated on one side of it. There is generally a small lawn or grass-plot in front of the house, with a few flower-beds and shrubs, to which, as a rule, scant attention is paid.

Along the north and east boundaries of the farmstead we commonly find a narrow plantation of larch, spruce, and other kinds of trees, which are intended not so much for ornament as for affording some protection from the biting northern and eastern blasts of winter and early spring. Near the entrance of almost every farmyard there is a circular artificial pond where the horses and beasts may drink, and the housewife's ducks and geese disport themselves. These ponds, which had to be carefully lined with clay to prevent the water running away through the porous chalk, are quite a feature of the Wold country, for we find them not only near the homestead but here and there in the outlying fields. In a long dry summer they are more or less dried up, and the farmers are then driven to cart water from springs at a distance for their animals. Sometimes the ponds were of considerable volume ; that at Dotterel Park, for instance, being twenty-eight yards across, and nine feet deep. It always served its purpose for the whole year.

In most of the farms on the high Wolds the supply of household water can only be obtained by the storage of rain-water in large tanks. This when filtered makes good wholesome drinking water. On many of the farms very large quantities of water could be stored: at the Hawold farm, for instance, there was storage for 100,000 gallons, one tank alone containing 40,000 gallons. The lack of rivers, springs, and pools is due to the fact that the subsoil is chalk, which extends to a great depth, and water 'sipes' away in underground currents, and does not appear again till it meets the clay at the boundaries of the district, where it springs up in places in great abundance. The little runnels which issue at these points are termed 'sykes', while the larger streams which often flow through the villages are always known as 'becks', a purely Scandinavian word.

In many of the villages there is a large pond or mere, which adds greatly to their picturesqueness, as, for instance, at Nafferton, North Dalton, Warter, and Bishop Burton; and in some of these near the edge of the Wolds the springs never fail even in the driest summers. In wet seasons springs called 'gipses' (g- hard) gush out at certain points with great force, thus creating quite strong streams in some of the valleys.

The Wold farms are large, commonly seven or eight hundred acres in area, and some over a thousand. The Coldham farm formerly extended to nearly two thousand acres, but a considerable portion of that farm consisted of rabbit warrens, which in former days were very profitable to the farmers; but they have now entirely disappeared, and the whole area is under cultivation; the only primeval Wold land now to be seen are certain deep dales and sides of hills here and there, too steep for the plough. Good examples of these patches may be seen above East Acklam and Bishop Wilton, also near Thixendale. The springs, of course, remain as they were of old; the one at Warter for instance called the Bucksea, situated close to the church, presents, no doubt, much the same appearance as it did in the days of the British inhabitants in pre-historic times, when they chipped their flint arrow-heads, spears, axes, and other implements with consummate skill, and hunted the wild animals for food and clothing on the hills hard by.

The Wolds extend across the Riding in a sort of crescent shape from south-west near the Humber to the north-east near Filey, and covering, roughly speaking. about a third of the whole area. These hills do not rise to any great altitude, the highest of them being less than nine hundred feet. The soil on the surface of the chalk is only a few inches thick on the higher ground, and is of a light friable nature, easily worked by the plough and harrow. Two horses abreast always suffice for each plough, and these are controlled by one man or lad by means of long reins. In many parts flints appear very extensively on the surface. These were largely used by the ancient Britons in manufacturing their tools and weapons. Thousands of these have been found from time to time, including arrow-heads, spear-heads, knives, scrapers, chisels, and saws; and all made from flints by a process of chipping and flaking. The marvel is how these implements were in many cases so exquisitely fashioned with the tools these Britons had at their command.

Many of them have been found in recent years buried with their dead in the tumuli, barrows, or 'howes', as we call them locally. These burying-places of their chief men are scattered in great numbers over the whole face of the country, and form one of the most interesting features of it. Many of these mounds have now been entirely effaced by the action of the plough in course of years, while others have been very much reduced in size. Some of the larger ones were made with great care on a fixed plan, and at an immense cost of labour. In some, for instance, a layer of clay was arched over the bodies about a foot in thickness so as to render the site impervious to water. From the contents of the tumuli we have been able to discover a good deal of the manner of life of the ancient British race as well as of the disposal of their dead. Among other remains have been found the bones of various animals such as the ox, red deer, pig, fox, and goat, and occasionally those of the dog and horse, though the latter have been a later importation.

Besides the articles above referred to were many others used for fastenings for garments, such as pins and buttons made of bone, jet, and amber; also bodily adornment such as brooches, armlets, and beads; these latter being found mostly in women's graves. It is evident that these ancient Wold dwellers lived in small communities or clans in an organized condition of society under a head-man or chief They lived mainly by the chase, though they cultivated corn to a limited extent, carbonized grains of wheat having been discovered in some of the tumuli, together with food vessels, vases, drinking cups, and stone pounders for grinding grain. They wore mainly the skins of animals killed in hunting; but there is also unmistakable evidence of their having made use of textile fabrics. Their food was for the most part roasted. Their burials were generally by inhumation, certainly so in the case of their chief men; but cremation was also common.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery that has been made among the dwelling-places of the ancient Britons of the Wold country was the site of one of their huts. This was brought to light by the late Mr. J. R. Mortimer of Driffield, himself a Woldsman, in the course of his forty years' excavations of these tumuli. In this case two complete circles of holes where the stakes which formed the framework of the dwelling had been driven into the ground were unearthed, and were very clearly defined, so that without much imagination it would be possible to construct a hut, probably very similar to those in which our British ancestors in this part of the country made their homes. The total area occupied by these primitive people extended to about seventy-five square miles.

This tract of country immediately before it was brought under cultivation a century and a half ago must have presented much the same appearance as it did in the Bronze or Neolithic Ages when the Britons hunted their game with weapons so admirably formed for this purpose. Perhaps the most favourable time for seeing the Wolds is about the month of September or early October when the harvest is completed or nearly so. For a few weeks at that season many of the agricultural operations may then be witnessed to perfection and a good idea may be gained of what goes on upon our Wold farms throughout the year. Your eye extends over a rich tract of country divided into large fields, sometimes extending to nearly a hundred acres. The stack yards are then filled, or in process of being so, with the harvest store of wheat, barley, or oats as the case may be. You may see the wagons with their well-bred agricultural horses going from stook to stook and receiving the sheaves of corn from the long forks of the men, and laid skilfully and orderly on the wagon till the load is completed, and then carried away over the fields to the stack-yard, load by load till every field is cleared and the yard is fairly covered with well-made stacks and 'pikes', there to remain till the threshing days arrive, which are busy days indeed. But besides the cornfields may be seen large areas of turnips which provide food for the sheep and cattle in the winter; and in addition to this, these large fields of turnips afford excellent cover for game, especially partridges and hares. In no part of the country are finer hares seen, or in greater numbers, than on our East Riding Wold farms.

In the olden days after the cornfields had been cleared it was a pretty sight to see the women and children engaged in gleaning. For this purpose the women were furnished with a sort of apron with a large pocket in which to put the ears of corn. These aprons were called 'laggins'. When they were full of ears of corn they were emptied into large sheets which at the end of the day were folded up and carried on the heads of the women to their homes, the distance frequently being considerable. Frequently also the children would carry little bundles or bunches of corn-stalks in their hands. It was customary for the women not to glean corn beyond the boundaries of their own parishes.

When the gleaned corn had to be threshed, sometimes a neighbouring farmer would do this for the cottagers; commonly, however, this was done at home by means of a flail. But at Nafferton, as Blades informed me, a village carpenter who was a man of ingenuity made a small hand threshing-machine about a foot and a half wide, with a fly-wheel and handle, by means of which the people were able to thresh their gleanings in their own houses. It was effective, but caused a great dust I have never heard of anything of the kind elsewhere. The Wolds had been all brought under cultivation before Blades' time, though there were many people living in his early life who could remember considerable areas still in their primitive state. The conversion of the Wolds into arable land gave much work to the inhabitants. The chief part of this work was done by paring and burning. The men engaged in the work, if it were at some distance, would leave home for a week, taking with them sufficient barley-cake and bacon for their requirements.

In concluding this chapter I must not omit to mention the old whale-bone gate-posts which formerly stood at the entrance of many of the fields near the south-eastern edge of the Wolds. These were much higher than the posts commonly used, and thus they formed a marked feature of the district. This was, of course, due to our proximity to Hull, which was the great port in connexion with the whale fishery, whose records afford so thrilling a history of adventure. Some of these gate-posts are still to be seen here and there in the neighbourhood.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002