Childhood memories of rural life and food shopping prior to the supermarket revolution.


Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is back on our screens again on a food waste crusade. I like Hugh and he is always very entertaining and enthusiastic in any task he sets himself. I saw him live at the Abergavenny food festival many years ago and since then he has developed a very successful business here in the South West not to mention his books of which we seem to have built a vast collection.

The program reminded me of when, as a child, we lived on a working farm for a while. It was a classic brick built cottage in a farmyard with the house, barns and cowsheds on three sides and a duck pond to the front. The farmer kept geese as well as ducks and they would constantly chase me, heads jutting out on long horizontal necks, hissing and honking in turn, nipping at my exposed young legs in shorts. I am sure the skills I developed to elude them helped me in evading opponents tackles later in life when I started playing football.

The farm cottage was at the end of a very long pot holed drive across two fields with the farmer’s new house half way along nearer the road. We rented it from him and it was basic to say the least. We did not have a fresh water tap so I used to carry a plastic water drum up to the modern house, fill it up at their outside tap and lug it back. Sometimes, if it was near the time dad was due home I would leave it at the side of the drive for him to pick up when he came by in his lorry.

The huge butlers sink in the scullery had a tap that was fed by a tank topped up by rain water and mum used this for all of her washing, aided by an electric Baby Burco. This would heat the rain water for our weekly bath as well as washing clothes. As the eldest I always got to have my bath first with my brothers following.

The loo, as you might expect, was outside and essentially a very large bucket filled with chemicals with a smooth plank of wood over it. Like all good outside farm toilets the roof had holes in it and it was not a place for lingering in, especially in winter. No soft scented toilet tissue in those days either, we used torn pages from the Daily Sketch newspaper that dad bought home with him every day. Recycling was natural for us at such an early age. Every month or so dad would dig a deep hole in the field and bury the contents, understandably, not a job he looked forward to.

The” water container” as the drum I fetched the water in was fondly known would sit on the fold out shelf of mum’s kitchen cabinet with the tap hanging over the edge. It was for drinking and cooking only. The cabinet contained our provisions with all the food preparation being done on the shelf. No fridge or freezer in those days. I understand these old kitchen cabinets are becoming fashionable again but then it was an essential working part of the kitchen. The small grey enamelled electric cooker next to it only had two rings and one oven and yet mum could produce the most amazing roast dinners from it. It all sounds primitive, but looking back we ate heartily and healthily making the most of dad’s small vegetable patch.

Obviously, there came a time when the cupboard would need replenishing. When we first moved to the farm a local grocers van used to call in once a week but he stopped coming due to the condition of the access drive churned up by the tractor and dad’s truck. We did not have a car and our nearest town was almost two miles away across the fields and I used to dread the summons from my mum, “we need some shopping boy”.

This was payback time for that first bath with the water still clean and hot. At ten years of age and the eldest brother, the responsibility to “go to the shop” was mine and mine alone and it weighed heavily. I would trek the mile across the muddy fields, clambering over gates and pushing through hedges before coming to the boundary of the local town cricket club.

The going was much easier here before I came to the edge of the posh side of town. Here every house had a car and a manicured garden. The town seemed like another world and I used to hurry through the unfamiliar streets just wanting to get it done and over with.

The smart gardens were a sharp contrast to our crudely fenced patch of rough grass with a rabbit hutch, surrounded by the clinging mud of the barnyard and duck pond. The rabbits were pets but unfortunately contracted myxamatosis. I remember dad shooting them with a borrowed pellet gun to prevent any further suffering on their part. It was an early lesson for all of us that life can be cruel with my dad trying to disguise the fact that he was almost as upset as we were.

The grocery shop on the main high street known as Market Hill was a store typical of the period carrying all sorts of produce, maybe not with the selection available in the supermarkets today but what it did have seemed more than enough. No ready-made meals in those days, not even a sandwich. For that you needed to buy the ingredients and make it yourself. It goes without saying that nothing edible ever got wasted in our house and my parents would find it hard to understand why people throw so much food away now.

My little legs struggling up the steep stone steps, the bell would ding as I opened the door and reached up to the tall glass counter to give the grocer’s wife mums carefully written list. I always found it interesting to look around the shop with the different sights and smells having a lasting impact on me. Television in those days was black and white so the kaleidoscopic myriad of colours on show was almost intoxicating.

The shop was long and narrow with dark nooks and crannies and the shelves were stacked to the ceiling. In size terms it was probably about a tenth of a single standard supermarket aisle. In those days supermarkets were something yet to appear in our town, and the high street was thriving. To me at such a young age this shop appeared to have everything anyone could ever want and more.

Money was tight but often mum would buy some fresh cut ham as a treat for us all and I used to eagerly wait for the shopkeeper to start up the slicing machine, the blade zinging as it rhythmically cut through the meat, priming me for the delights to come. Without doubt, the best bit of the trip by far.

The grocer’s wife wrapped and bagged my mums order up and then lifted it down ready for me to take away. “That will be one pound, three and nine pence young man please” or something like that, still in old money before the curse of decimalisation. Now the bit I had been dreading, the main reason I had not wanted to make the trip, the worst part of the whole exercise.

In my thin falsetto voice I replied “mum says is it alright if she pays you next Saturday”?

Her face was a picture and said it all, how she really felt but what could she do? The ham was cut, the bag packed, it was all ready to go. She was not going to put everything back on the shelf and she knew that even at a tender ten years of age, I knew that too. “Alright, just this once then, but tell her not to forget, Saturday mind”.

I scurried out of the shop as quickly as I could, mission accomplished. A huge wave of relief washed over me as I left, trying not to fall down the steps.

As I trudged back over the fields, resting every few hundred yards with my heavy load, I thought, I can relax now and mum will be pleased to see me back, my mind on the precious ham slices in the bag, maybe even a small reward.

These days, I can’t eat a proper slice of ham without thinking back to how happy we all were as kids with our life on that farm.

Returning to where this post started I wish Hugh every success in his “war on waste.” The biggest obstacle will be changing the “throwaway” mindset that we have developed over recent years.  It is a huge challenge but long overdue. The best of luck to Hugh and his team…

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