If you want to understand something of the importance of the traditional hay meadows of the North Pennines, the place to go is to the online archive of Neil Diment’s investigations, served by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Here oral histories, analyses, anecdotes and photographs are curated in a tidy package, every component of which repays consideration.
Perhaps the most startling observations that Neil has collected are those from extracts of local famers’ farm diaries. For example, those of Mr. John ‘Ridley’ Nevin who farmed out of Wager House: the hay season started around the 1st of July in 1971 (8th of July by 1992 when the special ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) requirements came in). Cutting was just the start; there was the constant whiffling and drying of the mown meadow, the raking and gathering into pikes (man-size stacks), or kyles (knee-height stacks), depending on the prevailing weather and the state of dryness of the hay. All told, the hay harvest in ’71 took 12 weeks. By ’92 the harvest time was reduced to 6 weeks, with better mowers (disc blades rather than the hard-to-sharpen triangular cutters) and whiffling machines.
But meanwhile, down in Allendale, it’s been haymaking time, as the meadow opposite the New Line has just been mowed, raked and harvested, in what seems a mere twinkling of an eye. The hay meadows up towards the ‘heeds are probably about two weeks behind those in lower altitudes, but soon the enchanting smell of freshly mown meadow grasses and flowers will be permeating our garden. Right behind us is a particular Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because the meadow has been maintained in the traditional way for hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, the wild flower display is glorious, but also incredibly subtle.
Over 40% of the UK’s upland hay meadows are found here in the North Pennines AONB. The website goes on: “The best upland hay meadows are very species-rich and differ from lowland hay meadows in having several characteristic northern species such as wood cranes-bill, globeflower, marsh hawks-beard and melancholy thistle. A special group of upland hay meadow plants called Lady’s mantles are also found here, six of which are rare and three of which are found nowhere else in the UK.”
In our experience, on our own little meadow, (which is nothing so grand as the fields around us, having been home to a variety of sheep, goats and horses over the years), we’ve had hay at least in a couple of seasons. Mowing is followed by whiffling, at least once, better twice, and then baling. I think we gave the mower/whiffler/baler farmer half the harvest in exchange for their work on our field. A fair trade, we thought, but we’ve not harvested hay since the lovely gentleman Plough has been in residence on his two acre field.
Life on a small-holding is a kind of dilletante-ish existence, I suppose, being neither real farming (at least not for us) nor yet in any way an urban lifestyle either. Perhaps our little plot is a kind of oasis of benign neglect, where we’re delighted to see the black grouse parading on their lek at the bottom, or to experience the curlews’ plangent cry as they glide overhead, or the lapwings skirling through the big sky, and we welcome the red-legged partridge family and the oystercatchers too. Our extensive hedges are now a safe harbour for the little birds as well. But I’ll sniff the air when the haying starts behind and beside us, and be happy to have enjoyed these hay meadows, if only mostly vicariously, for a significant portion of our lives.