Brian Dye's field memories Part 17: RATS!!

My friend J-P in Finland sent me an e-mail about rat hunting. It seems he has an old toilet near a muckheap in which the rats have set up a winter home. He sits in there and shoots them as they pass under the hole. Sounds like fun!

His letter started me thinking about how I hate rats and yet, most of my years in the service side of our industry involved me in working on machines that were known rat winter homes. Combine harvesters! Whenever I went to carry out winter storage or repairs on these machines I always made sure I was able to start up the machine and run it before climbing into the works. This ensured that all the rats were either dead or had made a hasty exit before I entered. I always swore that I would never work on another combine should I meet a rat coming out as I was crawling in!!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not antagonistic to animals in general. We live with six cats and they sometimes bring live mice, moles and, in the past, the odd weasel into the house. (Nothing to compare with J-P’s list of animals with which he shares his farm. These include moose and wolves as well as the rats!!) Our cats bring the animals in to supplement our diet. They let them go and we have to catch them whilst they sit around and watch our efforts. I am exceedingly grateful that they do not bring home rats alive.

We used to live in a bungalow and one night we heard the cat-flap bang and the cat calling as it walked up the passage to our bedroom. The door was open and the cat jumped on the bed and something furry was dropped on my head. I sprung awake, turned the light on and there on my pillow was a full-grown dead rat!! The bedroom door was kept shut for a few months after that, I can tell you!

I suppose that my hatred of rats comes from my experiences as a very young child when I was scared by them.

In the later years of the 1940’s my father was serving in Europe with the air force. Just before he was due to be released from duty he started applying for jobs. My mother and I were living in Overseal in the English Midlands, with my grandmother, when news came that he had found a job in Norfolk at a village called North Pickenham with a gentleman called Mr Richards on Church Farm. North Pickenham was a small village near Swaffham. It had a large US airbase from which flew Liberator aircraft and the population had been increased by the influx of American personnel.

In later years, the airbase became a bomb dump and then home for the Thor intercontinental ballistic missile. My father’s boss used to farm the land between the runways and my early tractor driving days were spent cultivating and ploughing between heaps of high explosive bombs that were laid down the miles of runway. I was granted a special pass to do this too.

My father was given a release date from the service and my mother and I moved down to Pickenham by train to prepare a home for him on his return. The rail journey must have been pretty horrible for my mother in those dark days. Her journey took us halfway across England to a little station out in the wilds of Norfolk with a two-mile walk to the village with cases and a young 2-year-old son (me).

The cottage we were to live in was a tied cottage. That means it went with the job and was part of the farm workers wages. If you left the job, you lost your house. In the days of employers being able to give their employee a few days notice it must have been a worry if you did not have a good relationship with your boss. The cottage was at the end of an attached row of three. Not quite at the end as there was a hay barn built on to our end wall. The cottages belong to the local church, as did the farm where my father was to work. Mr Richards rented the farm and the cottage came with it for his worker.

The farmhouse was in the village centre whilst the farmyard was on the edge, just across the field from our cottage. The remaining cottages were let to other workers on different farms in the village. The village shop, run by another Mr Richards and his wife, was just across the way. This Mr Richards had a number of sons, one of whom had a hobby that was to have a great affect on our life in that cottage.

Mother and I settled in and waited for the furniture to be delivered. We only had a few items that she had managed to bring with her and so we slept on the floor for the first few days. Then disaster!! The removal company did not deliver as they said they would. My mother started to chase them. Remember this was in the days of no telephone in the home, and no electricity or running water either. Everything was lit by paraffin lamps and water came from the well outside which was shared by all three cottages.

After days of trying to get hold of the company, my mother finally discovered that they had lost all our possessions that had been left in storage with them when my father had joined the air force and she had moved back to live with my grand mother. Although compensation was to be paid, this did not help when you are alone in a strange village, with a young child and no furniture or anything to cook with. All was on ration so you could not just go out and buy new items. And to add to the problem, the cottage was haunted!! Strange rustling noises were heard in the bedrooms late at night!! Imagine sitting around the old wall stove in the evening, in the light of a flickering lamp, to hear movement around you and not being able to see anything.

Eventually mother got a few items of furniture, father came home and went to work on the farm and things started to improve, but at night the noises went on.

The son of the shopkeeper had an interest in wildlife. He hired the hay barn at the end of our cottages and in it kept his “pets”. RATS!!! Some had escaped, bred and lived in the walls and floors of our home!! It took some years for them all to be moved out! This was the source of the strange rustling noises as the rats moved about under the floorboards and along the beams in the loft space.

The setting was an ideal place to grow up apart from that. Our yard opened onto a 10-acre meadow. My father’s workplace was on the opposite side to our cottage. This meadow had a couple of horse pits in it and a further field over was a lovely stream. This was before the days of parents constantly worrying about their children. Here was I, growing up, pre school, able to safely investigate digging holes in the garden, deep bear trap like holes which I remember, trapped my father coming home one night.

The stream also became a play area. I had to cross it daily when I started school. My friend Mike and I would make wooden boats and float under the bridge, fish for sticklebacks and loach with nets, try for trout in later years when the local land owner further down stream introduced them, sail down it through the meadows in water tanks supported on either side with five gallon oil drums lashed on with binder string. And we attempted major engineering projects like dam building. One old gentleman who lived near the shop had his garden on the opposite side of the stream to his house. One day he reported to our fathers that he had tried to cross the stream to get vegetables for his dinner but found it impossible. The water was so deep. We really had built a great dam that day but for some reason we were made to dismantle it. Shame! Watching flowers and wildlife in the meadow. I watched moles push up molehills of rich soil and one day “caught” one on the end of my finger! My mother always teased me about getting bitten by a “blue puddytat” as I called the mole. It did not stop me investigating the hills though.

I made mud pies in the mud at the side of the horse pond and sailed stick boats, powered by large goose feather sails across its surface. The ponds were shallow and, in winter, the farmer’s son, Dick would make them into skating ponds. Dick was in his early twenties and to a youngster like me, quite a hero. He came home from college once flying an ex-army Auster aircraft and landed it in “our” meadow. He also introduced me to the wonderful Model “N” Fordson.

The farm was worked by horses. These were my father’s responsibility. I rode miles on their backs. “Beauty” was a chestnut and “Kitty” was a black. Some days I would walk with my father up and down the fields as he ploughed just to get a ride home on the back of one of them. But Dick let me ride with him on the seat of the model “N”. She only came out of her shed during the late summer and winter to carry out the autumn cultivations. She rode on steel wheels and the noise of her worm transmission could be heard for miles. I remember clearly spending time watching carefully as the fitter from a company I would know well in later life, J. J. Wright and Sons, came to grind in the valves and decarbonise her before her yearly outing.

But back to rats.

The farmyard was across the meadow from our cottage and, each harvest, the corn stacks were built beside the yard. Every autumn and winter, the sound of hissing and rumbling would enter my world, as the thrashing tackle would come to the farm to thrash the stacks. I used to wait by the gate as the huge engine with the drum and elevator were manoeuvred through. Then the driver would pick me up and sit me in the tender, on the coal, for the ride up to the yard.


We had a lot of steam driven machines in those years, thrashing engines, railway locomotives that we set the time by as they whistled their way across the fields, and the Sentinel steam tar lorry that came to repair the roads. I loved that too, but my mother was not too happy about me coming home covered in tar. I clearly remember the method she used to clean me up. Greasing the tar with butter and then scrubbing hard with hot soapy water.

The thrashing tackle and men had been working hard all day on this particular autumn day when my mother and I walked across the meadow with my father’s “fourses”. This normally consisted of a bottle of tea and some cake as the afternoon break. The stacks were nearly finished with only the bottom few layers to go. A number of retired gentlemen were collected around the remains of the stack with little terrier dogs and big sticks. This was the part of the stack where the rats lived and they were all gathered to dispatch as many as possible, and have a little sport.

After the break, the wheels started to turn again as the engine picked up speed. I used to watch for hours as the huge belt drive wheel flew round, the governor balls sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine, the panting of the engine and the slap of the belt, the drone of the thrashing drum and the clatter of the elevator taking the thrashed straw to be stacked. The talking of the men as they worked, calling to each other over the other quiet sounds. Quiet because steam thrashing was exactly that, no harsh sounds. The hum of the drum could be heard above everything else but this was not a harsh noise.

You judged the quality of the feeder man by the sound of his drum. A gentle even sound and you knew you had an expert. Most of the men working that day were from other farms. Everyone helped when the thrashing tackle came to the village. As it went to different farms so the farm staff moved with it and helped out. The contractor who owned the thrashing set brought only two or three men with him to work the engine, drum and make tea. He had a number of thrashing sets and engines. The engines were retired in the 1950’s and the power then came from the throbbing Field Marshal tractors, another sound which brings back memories of childhood for me. In the late 1960’s he sold all his engines for as little as £50.00 each for scrap.

Soon the rats made their break and the site burst with activity, dogs barking, men running and striking out at the rats with their sticks as they ran out of the base of the stack in all directions. I had been equipped with a “broach”, a stout hazel stick used to hold the thatch on the roof of the stack. I ran around too thrashing the ground as I attempted to brain a rat. I chased one rat a short distance from the stack when suddenly the tables were turned. The rat started to attack me! I was only small, about 4 years old, and I suppose I did not seem that much of a threat. The rat ran round and round me jumping up to head height and going for my face. Now it was me that was screaming as I tried hard to beat it down. Luckily father saw what was happening and jumped down from the stack, coming to my rescue with his pitchfork.

Peace was restored. The rat was dispatched and I was comforted and taken home.

From that day to this I have never been a lover of rats!!

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