Make hay while the sun shines is an old English proverb meaning to make good use of an opportunity while it lasts. Well the sun rays were very short lived last week for making hay in Meadleys meadow – the seventeen acre field behind the Visitor Centre cut for hay in July since 1315 at least. It was cut and got in, in a couple of days to make way for the arrival of the Big Camp weekend. Until one hundred years ago it was cut by hand and that would have taken a week or more depending on the weather. The Irish would arrive for the summer season with their trusty scythes, some thirty or more standing one behind the other in a diagonal line across the field, urging each other on wanting to claim their peace-work payments. What a sight and sound that must have been.
When Stubbs painted his “Haymakers” in 1785, now held by the Tate Gallery, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside. Agricultural practices have changed beyond recognition but farming, as then is still governed by the seasons. Agricultural life was made up of long hours of slow repetitive labour, followed by evenings of long hours of companionable conversation, either in the cottage or at the ale-house. The only highlights during the year for the country folk were the religious holidays, and the annual fairs. There were no trips to the town shops, whilst the village or parish remained self supporting. Ideas and practices were very localised and new ideas spread slowly, but it must be remembered that the very existence of the village was to produce food. It is equally important to remember that the village was a human community that lived in association with itself, not as it is today. When visiting the area in 1748 Mr Kalm the famous Swedish botanist analysed the hay crop and identified twenty one sorts of plants in the haystack at Ashridge. He noticed that the Duke’s land had a number of hay boxes made of oak, fourteen foot square by eight feet high, with an adjustable thatched roof, on poles thirty feet high. These were to supply hay to the deer in winter. At that time hay was collected together and stacked in ricks, some of which were as large as a cottage, with a thatched covering. The hay was fed to the cows and horses in winter time. The later mechanisation of the cutting and collecting of the hay crop improved farming efficiency at the expense of the labourer, as today the hay coils are stacked in piles in the farm-yard protected in a plastic wrapper.
The 1785 painting depicts a bucolic scene showing the fashion of the time when Kalm noted that people always wore shoes despite the dirty conditions, unless they rode a horse, when they wore boots.. Everyone wore a wig called a peruque, from the youngest child to the farm labourer, along with the ubiquitous hat.
That was real manual labour!