Down Over Mill

David Gibbs’ Anecdotes (continued)

Down Over Mill
And Up Across Hitchen

My mother usually wanted to know my whereabouts. ‘Where you off to then?’ she would ask, and for that question there was a number of stock answers like ‘down over mill’ or ‘up across Hitchen’. The answers didn’t tell her a lot but they were sufficient to keep her parental mind at rest. Whether, with my friends, I actually went down over mill or up across Hitchen was another matter. With so much freedom we might end up somewhere totally different, and we usually did.

We might well have ended up down Tail Mill, or Boozer Pit, or Sandy Hole, or Tinkers Lodge, or Monkhouse Lane, or out across Nine Acres or even up Castle Hill which was a mile or more away. We were free to go just about anywhere our legs could carry us, bearing
in mind that we also had to walk home again afterwards.

Text Box: Down over mill, the stream where we caught ‘biddleheads’, now overgrown and derelict But down over mill was a particularly favourite spot, mainly because of the millstream with its footbridge and waterfall. It was one of three mills in the village, this particular one being an over-shoot mill where the water was fed over the top of the mill wheel, hence the term ‘over mill’. The mill was still used occasionally in the 1940’s, but very rarely. Certainly water from the stream was still being diverted to fill the millpond, and it was the overflow from the pond that formed the waterfall, sending the surplus water back to join the main stream.

The little footbridge was downstream from the waterfall and in the water close to it was a large boulder – we used to call it ‘the pebble’ but it isn’t there anymore – from which we often fished for ‘biddleheads’. ‘Biddleheads’ were in fact, bullheads. How on earth ‘bullhead’ came to be ‘biddlehead’ goodness only knows! But biddleheads it was, and we had a special way of catching them.

Biddleheads don’t swim about a lot. They spend their time tucked out of sight under a stone on the bed of the stream. The technique we used to catch them involved first locating one by lying on the bank of the stream and gently prodding the stones with a stick. If you prodded one under which there lurked a fish, it would dart out and head for cover under another stone. Therefore the next thing was to set the trap that would catch it.

The trap involved gently laying a number of jam jars, preferably the larger two-pound jars that you no longer see, on their side in the water surrounding the stone that hid the fish. The jars had string attached to enable them to be rapidly removed from the water.

The final stage was to gently prod the stone. Out would dart the fish and with a bit of luck it would go straight into one of the jars and, before it had time to realise the folly of its ways,
you whipped the jar out of the water to a cry of ‘Got one! Got one!’

Text Box: Bell Inn, now sadly no more. Note the gas lamp. Lamps like this were positioned all around the village in the 1920s and were individually powered, probably by carbide gas, since there was no piped gas supply in the village until the late 1940s. Sometimes we fished for minnows, but not down over mill. The best place for minnows was Bell pond. The Bell was a public house, now gone. The pond was close by the pub and provided the head of water to drive Court Mill, which was a couple of hundred yards away. Court Mill was still very much in use at that time.

Bell pond was alive with minnows and the best time to catch them was when the water feeding the pond was diverted and the level of water dropped so that only a few very large puddles remained. When this was so, you could scoop out the minnows by the jar full. We never used nets, always a jar with a string which you placed in
the water, waited until the fish obliging went inside, and then, quick as flash, you whipped the jar out of the water.

A real treat was to land a ‘red-breaster’, a male stickleback whose throat and belly are red only during the breeding season. My goodness, if you caught a red-breaster that was really
something. You were a celebrity for the rest of the day. Ah! the magic of it when the cry went up ‘Gibber’ve catched a red-breaster!’ and all the other kids came running to have a look. More often than not though it was someone else who had the luck, not me.

At the end of the morning or afternoon, off we would go home, each with our jam jars and the fish we had caught. A few hours later, sure as God made those little fishes, they’d all be dead. I used to feed mine to our cat who rather liked them.

Looking back, the thing that interests me is that we never fished in a conventional way with a hook and bait on the end of a line. That was a technique that, in my experience, completely passed us by.

One of my very best friends was Richard Rumsby. Richard’s uncle was a farmer and so we were able to spend hours and hours wandering his fields.

We used to spend a fair bit of time rabbiting with a barking mongrel called Dandy that warned every rabbit for miles around of our impending approach. The stupid animal would rake away in a demented frenzy at a rabbit hole for minutes on end, throwing dirt out in all directions, and all the time barking his head off. We never did catch any rabbits.

But once we caught a mole. Dandy located it, again barking himself silly in the process, and we dug it out from its run with our bare hands.

We decided there was only one thing to do with it, train it to do tricks. Snag was it was almost lunchtime, so we’d have to postpone the training session until later.

As luck would have it, there happened to be an old desk of Richard’s that was no longer house worthy and so had been relegated to a barn. The desk had a hinged lid. We filled the desk with dirt and then put the mole in. Within seconds the mole had buried itself and was out of sight. We then found some stout string and lashed down the lid of the desk, tightly, all the time planning the afternoon activities. Then Richard went in to lunch and I went home to have mine.

Lunch was very short affair. Mole training was the day’s priority, not food. Soon I was back, knocking on Richard’s door. We hurried to the barn. Carefully we undid the string securing the desk lid and cautiously looked for the mole. Our disappointment was almost too much to bear. The damn thing had escaped! I remember feeling very dejected.

Quite often though, what country lads got up to depended on the season, and in particular the farming activity associated with the season.

From an early age there was the fun of haymaking, and in particular being allowed to ride in the empty horse-drawn wagons as they returned from the farmyard where the rick was usually built to the field to fetch another load of hay. Then we would race back to the yard again to catch a lift in the next empty wagon to set out.

But by the time a boy was nine or ten years old it was harvest time that had the greater appeal.

‘l know where they’re cutting!’ – someone might announce.

‘Where? Where?’ – everyone else wanted to know.

Then off we’d go out Batch, or up Moorlands, or out Nine Acres, or wherever the action was, armed with sticks in anticipation of clubbing a rabbit or two.

If cutting had only just started it could mean a long wait because any rabbits in the corn would stay put until the last moment. But as the binder – this was before the advent of combine harvesters – went round and round the field, reducing the area of standing corn ever smaller, so the excitement mounted.

First one rabbit would make a run for it, then another, then another. Some made it to safety, many others didn’t. As the binder destroyed their shelter, so the pile of dead rabbits mounted.

Some were victims of a whack with a stick. Others were grabbed by dogs and shaken to death. A few fell victim to the hotgun. All were then subjected to having their neck stretched and being ‘rabbit punched’, a blow delivered with the side of the hand behind their outstretched ears, to ensure they were really out of their misery.

The whole business now strikes me as being rather barbaric, but that’s the way it was. I take some consolation from the fact that, throughout my boyhood, and in spite of all my best efforts, I only ever managed to catch one harvest rabbit.

Of the many harvest scenes I witnessed, two I remember particularly well.

On one occasion, in spite of the corn being full of rabbit runs, there was not a single rabbit. As the binder neared the centre of the corn, and with just a few square yards still standing,
suddenly there was a great movement. Something was about to make a run for it. The dogs barked and sticks were raised at the ready. Then out bolted a fox. Everyone was so surprised, the dogs too, that it made a clean getaway, with not even a round of gunshot to send it on its way. It was the first fox I had ever seen and in fact the only one I ever saw
throughout my boyhood.

The other occasion I remember was when Gordon Mitchell’s little black Scottie dog came to grief. In the excitement of the rabbits starting to bolt, the dog ran into the corn. The binder
severed all its paws. Mercifully, as the poor thing lay there howling in agony, someone produced a shotgun and did what had to be done, and poor Gordon was left with the sad task of carrying his little dog home and burying it in the back garden.

Another seasonal farming activity that was a great attraction for young boys was threshing, or as it was pronounced locally, ‘drashing’. It was a regular feature of early autumn.

There were two threshing contractors in the village, William Mitchell whose yard was down by Turnpike and Arthur Clark-Mitchell whose yard was up at Newchester Cross. Their enormous steam traction engines would lumber around the village from one farm to
another, towing the pink threshing machine and behind that the little straw-binding machine. All we kids had to do was note where the machines were being taken and then go along later and join in the fun.

Not that the dirty, dusty activity of threshing corn could possibly have been of much fun for the men whose work it was. But it was fun for boys, because our involvement was simply one of killing mice and rats, of which there were always a fair number that had taken up residence in the corn rick. As the sheaves of corn were pitched from the ricks up to the top of the threshing machine, so the mice and rats were disturbed and ran for their lives.

We boys concerned ourselves mainly with catching the mice. Some got away, but not many. Some, I’m almost now ashamed to say, we caught alive and then made them swim in the cow trough before we drowned them.

Dealing with the rats however was a much more serious and urgent task and, in an effort to contain them, the bottom of the rick would be wire netted to a height of about two feet. As the rats were disturbed, in went the pitchforks; and if they escaped being stabbed, in went the dogs – a grab and a vicious shake and it was soon over, with another corpse being unceremoniously thrown on the ever-increasing pile.

© David Gibbs 2003