Blackberry picking in the 60's
I was seven years old and it was the middle of Summer 1959. You need to know at this point that those long hot summers we all remember as children were true. Nothing like the hit and miss weather we have today. We had long cold winters and long hot summers, spring and autumn seemed to pale into insignificance – well, to a seven-year-old lad anyway.
My mum had just had her eighth baby at home, there were nappies drying everywhere, there was even a rainbow in the kitchen where they were drying. I had to get out of there, away from the smell of rusks and soiled nappies.
Back then, during the 7-week school break you did one of two things. Number one would entail going around to Nora Goldings house in Upton road and asking – nay begging her to let you onto the blackcurrant picking lorry the next day. I have to admit at this point that I absolutely hated blackcurrant picking. I have since been pea picking, strawberry picking and most other sorts of picking. But blackcurrant picking was another world.
You would spend a couple of hours picking a row, then proudly take it up to the chap who weighed it, only to tell you that there were too many leaves and too many squashed berries. To add insult to injury he would then tell you that you had to go back to your row and pick it clean. Because in your hurry to fill a tray with squashed berries and leaves, you had left half the fruit on the bush.
Anyway, I am well ahead of myself here, let’s step back awhile. It was my Grandmother who first introduced me to life in the fields when I was just seven years old! My Gran was living with us at that time. In those days there was always a head picker, someone who chose the people allowed on the lorry, in this case it was Nora who lived on the estate, if she didn’t like you then you had more chance of knitting fog than getting on that lorry!
My Nan was born in 1888 so would have been aged around 70 and was still going in the fields for a few bob to fund her regular Brown Ales and her 20 a day Woodbines. She always travelled up front in the cab of the lorry with Nora who was also in her 60’s. (My nan would eventually live until she was 99 years and 9 months old).
I went quite often on these ‘picking’ days but my first ever experience was a memorable one. I was so excited that I hardly slept that night, this of course meant that I was really tired as I left home with Nan about 7am clutching my pop bottle full of cold tea and some fish paste sandwiches wrapped in the greaseproof Mother’s Pride wrapper. For an old lady of seventy my nan was very spritely and I struggled to keep up with her on the walk along Baskerville road, but I was a big boy now – and when I went back to school after the Summer holiday I would be at the Junior school. My shoes were protected on the heels and toes by Blakey’s steel half-moon protectors which were hammered on, the ensuing noise made me feel like a miner at the pithead, I used to love scuffling along and pretending that I was off to work and would still have that wonderful feeling 8 years later when I eventually did start work.
So, we were stood outside Nora’s house in Upton road, chatting away when there was an enormous chugging noise which sounded like one of those old steam engines, I looked up as Norah casually said, “Lorries here, careful on the back”.
It just about managed to stop outside her house, a burly man with a battered flat cap on stumbled from the cab. He had on a jacket with the elbows missing, his trousers were held up with string and rolled up at the bottom, his boots ‘flapped’ as he walked and he had a well lived in face resembling a map of England – complete with contours, valleys, Mountains and two days hair growth.
“Better get a move on, It’s playin up, if she cuts out we’re walkin”
I will never ever forget that voice, it just did not go with that face, it was effeminate and soft.
He placed an old wooden crate on the ground to give the pickers a bit of help to get on to the back, but I was still struggling.
He picked me up and literally threw me onto the back of the lorry like an old rag doll, the others struggled on quickly so they didn’t get the same treatment, I was fortunate in a way as I grabbed the only bucket that was available to sit on.
To say the lorry had seen better days is an understatement, there were hessian sacks spread around, not for the travellers comfort, but to save the backside of the aforementioned from the hundreds of splinters sticking out from the lorry’s bed, in fact, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a battlefield and I began to suspect that it where it probably came from, It had solid sides about a foot high and then railing type wooden extensions on top of those, so if a child stood up they couldn’t fall over the side – but an adult could!
Thankfully, the lorry engine burst into life and we were under way, the trip off the estate was ok as we rumbled along slowly, but when we hit the main road it soon changed, the first thing I noticed was that all the loose dust on the floor swirled up violently hitting everyone in the face. Some stood up to avoid it but sat down again within minutes as the flies were worse!
The journey was a series of brakes and violent swerves, causing one elderly fellow to question the drivers parenthood by means of a few well - placed expletives, after being told to watch his language he questioned whether or not the driver even had a license, Within thirty minutes we were on a dirt road in a field, although it seemed a lot longer than that, the lorry shook, shuddered and hit every bump and dip, everyone was elated as it finally ground to a halt, the driver came round and dropped the tailboard allowing his bedraggled cargo to alight, by the time the last picker had dropped off the tailboard Nora and Gran were already picking in a row of blackcurrants, to say that they were dexterous for their age would be a gross understatement.
A nice old chap showed me the ropes as my Grandmother was too busy picking!
It took me about 2 hours to fill a wooden tray that my Gran filled in 20 minutes, the upshot was that I toted it over to the weighing station where a skinny little chap was waiting, he picked up the tray I had struggled with in one hand and threw it onto the scales -
“too light young un, another bucketful, lose the leaves, lose the squashed uns”
I dragged it back to the row I was picking and began to top up the tray, thirty minutes later the skinny chap weighed it again and after plucking a few loose leaves from it pushed a token into my hand which I studied with a perplexed look on my face.
The skinny man sighed, “What you’ve got in your hand is worth two bob young un, bring it here Friday afternoon and it’ll be swapped for cash, are you wiv anyone?”
I told him I was with my Gran and strolled away wondering what would happen if I didn’t make the lorry on Friday, what if I became ill, even worse, what if I got knocked over by a bus.
After I scoffed my curled up sandwiches I spent the rest of the afternoon breaking my back filling another tray of those horrible black currants, I looked across at Gran and Nora and they had a stack of trays that were twice as tall as me! In fact, everyone had a pile of trays except me, I felt really despondent. I was so glad when everyone started to pack up and leave, I couldn’t believe how tired I felt, I was used to walking miles and playing outside for ten hours or more, but nothing had prepared me for a day in the fields Blackcurrant picking.
Later on whilst the dust swirled around my head on the return journey I tightly clutched the two precious tokens in my little fist, as I got off the back of the wagon Gran spoke to me for the first time since that morning,
“Alright young Eric, how did you do today then?
I opened my fist revealing the red lines where I had clutched the tokens. Gran said I had done well for my age and promised that if I couldn’t go on Friday she would cash them in for me.
My first day in the fields was completed, there would be many more involving strawberries (my favourite) and Peas (ok) and of course a lot more stuff.
I went back home to the chaos of home, the smell of Johnsons baby talc and a big slice of Mum’s home- made bread pudding and a mug of well stewed tea.
Within a few minutes I was fast asleep in a chair -
It had been a long day!