Seven hundred hay harvests and counting………. – that’s what Meadleys meadow has produced over the centuries – first mentioned in 1315. Always a hay meadow, never ploughed, and cut by hand each July since “time out of mind” as the locals would say, until horse-drawn mechanisation took hold around 1880.
Now with the help of the volunteers a small part of the seventeen acre field behind the Visitor Centre has been fenced off and set aside for re-wilding – the deer are to be excluded! A century ago when the deer were contained in the Park, Meadleys would have been a lush meadow with drifts of wild flowers – very meagre nowadays – one of those lost flower meadows which the N T are eager to restore. This is in line with the N T policy when in March 2017 they stated that they had lost sight of their founding principle of protecting wildlife – Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation of the National Trust, said “the charity has a duty to help prevent wildlife decline, which currently affects 56 per cent of British species.”
You may expel Nature with a pitchfork but she will always return
Haymaking is a tricky business being weather dependent even with today’s mechanisation, as it needs a couple of good drying days after the cut before collection. Today cutting and reaping only takes a couple of days when in earlier centuries it would have taken more like a week of hard labour with a team of scythe cutters. Now the lines of drying grass show up the undulations of the ground like waves on the sea, and in what is normally a quiet and tranquil place there is noise all around from the machines reverberating off the surrounding trees – there to give wind protection to the crop.
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 weather. 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 painting depicts a bucolic scene showing the fashion of the time when everyone wore a wig called a peruque from the youngest child to the farm labourer, along with the ubiquitous hat.
It was the Irish famine of 1850 which propelled the Irish labourer into the Home Counties to cut hay. From Frithsden down to Finchley in London the fields would have been a sea of hay in Victorian times supplying fodder for the horse transport in the burgeoning Capitol, just waiting for that influx of cheap labour to arrive. The Irish would start as early as 4.30 in the morning strung out in a line across the fields moving forward in unison attempting to be the first to reach the finishing line at the far end – what a sight that must have been – always a competitive bunch!
Meadley’s hay would have fed the many working horses stabled on the Estate, and the deer in the winter period from hay stored around the Park in giant thatch roofed hay-boxes. The permanent hay field is shown on the Estate map of 1762, and the 1877 Ordnance Survey map shows the footpath trod by the villagers on the direct route walking from Ringshall to the shops and Post Office in Aldbury. The ancient dried up water-hole is shown with four shade trees for any livestock grazing the aftermath after the hay harvest had been taken in.