Memories of a Dales life

Tom Spencer was a resident at Greenfoot Elderly People’s Home and gave this account in 1985 of his early life in Craven

When I was a lad I lived in Litton village with my father, brother and sister on a farm.In winter time we had deep, deep snow, much more than now. The womenfolk would bake every few days, and we’d kill a pig in November and salt it ready for winter. It was a happy life. We kept 450 sheep - mostly Swaledales. When the snows came father would be out all day and all night on the moor. We were dependent on the sheep for life. Sometimes he took them hay or corn for feed - we used to call it proven. Sometimes the sheep were buried over their heads in snow. We couldn’t afford to make pets of them but father was very particular about looking after them. “I’d better go round today”, he’d say. “But you went yesterday and the day afore”. “It doesn’t matter. Snow’ll be blowin’ over their heads”.

In spring we sheared the sheep.If the fleece was good to do it only took about five minutes - sometimes you’d put your hand under the fleece and it would lift easy. But it wasn’t always like that. The wool sold for three or fourpence a pound weight. We had to make the money do and just pay out on the things we really needed. A lorry came to take the wool away and it went to Keighley and Huddersfield to the mills. We used to put the wool we sheared in big wool packing sheets to keep it clean and all together. We had a big needle to sew them up with - it was a job!

Dipping in spring was a big performance. At one time we used to salve the fleece with grease - a messy job, grease everywhere - we had to wear a rubber apron and boots.

We had four sheep dogs - the family always trained them. The dogs would gather the sheep in - they would run fast. The dogs knew more about the job than I did. One dog I bought in Hawes was the best I bought in my whole life. It cost three or four pounds and I called it Fly. Nowadays they fetch a hundred pounds or more. Once I got a little dog, brown and white, and he knew more than I did. It was a pity he couldn’t talk. He never did anything wrong in his whole life. If a car was coming on the road he’d get the sheep to the side, out of the way, without being told. The dogs slept mostly outside.

We had four horses and we’d put two to the mowing machine to cut hay for feeding the sheep. The grass grew two or three feet high in a good season, but it all depended on the weather. We always got by somehow or other.

I went to school until I was thirteen, walking two miles to Arncliffe each day. Then we got the old school in Litton opened up again. I was never much of a scholar and I used to look forward to getting back to the farm again. At haytime I was the mowing machine man, with two horses on the rein. Sometimes I nearly went crackers trying to keep them going straight. There was one horse and I used to say “Give me a kiss”; she used to put her face up and give me a kiss! You probably don’t believe me but it’s true!

“By gum we wish we had this at home” the visitors from Bradford and Keighley used to say. This was when we were haymaking - we used to call it ’erbin’. Mother used to take in summer visitors, as many as thirty at a time. We used to play heck - too much work for her - but she liked it and made friends from the town.

We kept about twenty cattle; a few were for milk, the others were for calf breeding. Me dad sold some at the markets. Us lads didn’t always agree with the price. “By gum how much have you made?” “Twenty something pounds! You’ve given it away!” It was the dealers who made the money really.

When I left school I worked full-time on the farm. Then the time came when I had to leave home and look out for myself. Me and my brother had saved up for a motor-bike. We kicked off with an A.G.S. and a side-car. My father over-loaded it with farm gear and we played heck. Then we got a Norton and we used to go to Grassington at the weekends. I went to a dance and met Agnes there. I didn’t dance and she was a good dancer - but happen I had good looks! I used to take her out on the back of my bike and I’d say to her “Now Agnes, I might be going a bit quick. Nip your knees against my back and hang on”. Once we went to Gisburn to a motorcycle do. It came on wet and as I got off something went flashing past my head - it was her feet! She pulled herself back on. I never had any real accidents, not with Agnes on the back. I was twenty-eight when I married Agnes. I stole her from another fellow and it was the best job I did in my life! We were married at Litton Church. I said to the parson “I don’t want this to be a long job, make it as quick as you can.” He did - twenty five minutes.

We set up home at Litton Hall since we were farming there at the time. My wife liked the life though it was hard. Then we moved to Elbeck House and then to Grassington. I worked at the limestone quarry, which was the only job going. We had to get used to it whether we liked it or not - it was all there was. It was breathing in lime dust. I’ve no eyebrows now, they were burned off. But I used to think a wage of three or four pounds a week was marvellous.

(Courtesy of Elizabeth Shorrock)