(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette in June 2007)
Lol left school in the summer of 1948. His oldest brothers Doug and Jim upon leaving the Navy, went to work at the Co-op estate at Cockayne Hatley. At this time the orchard was reputed to be 1,500 acres, the largest in England. About 200 pickers were working to bring in the harvest of Cox’s Orange Pippin with access points at Wrestlingworth and Cockayne Hatley. So, the landscape we see today is quite different from then, where the trees once stretched across the hillside as far as the eye could see. Each row in the orchard had a James Grieve or Worcester Pearmane at intervals of 7 trees, these were the pollinators.
Lol joined his brothers on the estate, but after a few weeks was approached by the head Beekeeper, Sid Whitfield, asking him if he would be interested in being involved with the hives. Once the manager’s approval had been sought, Lol then became under-beekeeper for eight years, responsible for a total of 180 hives.
Once the trees had been pollinated, the hives were moved round the district. About 30 at a time were transported by bee van around to Royston, Orwell, Tadlow, Wimpole Hall Farm, Kneesworth and Bassingbourn. Each hive was checked every 10 days. Lol learned to drive at 18, in 1951, and was then able to drive the bee van himself. The two men, working as a pair lifted, shifted and checked every hive in rotation.
The supers were cleared of bees, and the honey was taken ‘home’ to Cockayne Hatley. There it was decapped with a warm knife and stacked in the electric extractor. Extraction was slow at first to avoid damaging the wooden frames. The honey was poured into 28lb cans and sealed for four weeks, until the apple picking was completed. The honey was then filtered through muslin and bottled into 1lb jars. The jars then went to stock Co-op stores. In one year the yield was four tonnes of honey!
Up to the time when Lol became involved, 60 hives had annually been taken to Darley Dale in Derbyshire by lorry, to catch the heather crop. This four tonne yield was connected in Lol’s memory with the last heather run.
The Co-op manager, Mr Vogal arranged with Fisons (Dr Ripper) who had the spraying contract for all Co-op orchards, to visit two farms in Norfolk with a lorry load of 60 hives of bees. The fields were planted with field or horse beans.
The Buntingford Beekeeper left. This was another Co-op estate The Cockayne Hatley population of bees had declined slightly, over time, Sid and Lol took on the additional 100 hives to keep the other estate going. It became difficult checking the hives every 10 days, during this period. Lol was earning £8,10s at this time.
From 18 to 21 years he did his National Service in the Airforce at Padgate, Lancashire. He trained at Hednesford, Cannock Chase and was posted to Ridgewell, Essex 99MU (Maintenance Unit) as an armourer mechanic, bombs. After a week Lol then moved to Lordsbridge 15 miles from home. He serviced tail units – sandblasted and restored them. They were fitted to the bombs and shipped out to Egypt.
Lol then returned to the Co-op. Roy and Lol first rented four acres of land up near Potton Wood, land which was owned by the County Council. At this time these large fields, which now belong to Trinity College, were divided into twenty or more smallholdings. Lol and Roy produced beetroot, cabbages and brussells which they farmed with a borrowed tractor. The brothers, who were both working fulltime, were only able to maintain their patch in the evenings and on Saturdays. Despite their best efforts, they never made much profit from all this work. The produce was picked, packed and sent on one of the many daily lorry runs into London markets. One year, growing four acres of brussels which they sold to Ken Quince in Sandy the profit made was invested in land just off Cinques Road, on the left hand side. For this land they paid £100 an acre. These three and a half acres were then farmed as well as the original rented four.
During this time, Lol remained at home in Dad’s smallholding farmhouse at Little Heath.
Still living at home, in 1958, Lol left the Co-op and purchased a retail round from a local Everton resident. This round, based in Stevenage, involved selling fruit and vegetables door to door three times a week, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On the days between Lol worked on the land, growing some of the produce to sell from the van. To ensure there was sufficient seasonal variety, additional stock was bought from Land Settlement Association in Potton. The two brothers, Roy and Lol grew vegetables on their own land which were sold first to local wholesalers, and then sent up to London. The van didn’t carry that much stock. Roy was completing his qualifications as a carpenter at R H Wale, but Lol was working independently full time.
There were a number of other market gardeners in the village, and in Potton, who also sold their produce in a similar way. Lol mentioned Frank and Ken Jakes as one example. These brothers were both producing crops off their smallholdings, and owned a lorry which would take produce into the Cambridge Colleges as well as to the shops and markets. Lol and Roy would sell to them, and on other occasions would buy from them. Most of the market gardeners in the locality worked as a loose cooperative, and I got the impression that they were very willing to help each other out. As a result of working so closely together they obviously know each other very well. This is another reason that Gamlingay remained such a tight knit community, as the small holders were so interdependent.
Lol ran off a string of family names, amongst whom were: Ron Wisson who supplied shops in Northampton; Charlie Cole, whose vehicle was garaged in an aluminium shelter just beside the Methodist Hall, whose round carried him across to Letchworth; Bob Cade and Watkin Jakes who also went across to Cambridge. The Merton produce went in three lorries, 5 nights a week, and the hauliers were Marshall and Masters. Lol told me, with obvious pride, that the produce that left this village was of very high quality, and was really fresh having been harvested, packed and shipped often in one day. The village must have been so busy, with all this local trade, and with so many more intensively employed on the land. How times have changed!
After two years, Roy joined Lol as a full partner, and took over the domestic van round. Lol then purchased a lorry, and became a haulier himself, taking produce as a wholesaler to the Stevenage shops. The brothers expanded, purchased another lorry, and at its height Lol was delivering 60 tons of potatoes a week! Lol was collecting potatoes from Fenland farms as Maris Piper was considered the best for chips, and Gamlingay reds and other varieties grown here were less suitable. Although Lol didn’t grow potatoes, I suspect there is very little he doesn’t know about them!
When his older brothers Doug and Jim left the Navy, their father bought them a lorry to try and set them up with a delivery business. But, their flair for farming lay not with the delivery side, but elsewhere. In 1960, Lol and three brothers went, with his father, to Meeks’ land sale, after Mark Meeks died. They bid £750 at auction, for a 50 acre wooded plot, called the plantation, which had a small cottage on it. Jim and Doug ran pigs here, and became very successful. They had 200 breeding sows, and sold the 8 week weaners on for fattening. Having found their niche, it was left to Lol to pick up and make a success of the haulier side. Lol wished to concentrate on the market gardening, so he and Roy sold their shares of the Plantation back to their brothers, allowing them to reinvest their capital.
I asked Lol to describe ‘home’ and his earliest memories of moving up to Little Heath. The cottage has changed so much since this time. In 1939, Lol walked from the council house in Cinques Road to his new home, carrying the cat in a sack as his mother’s hands were full carrying the paraffin lamp. In the evenings this lamp lit the whole of the main downstairs room, and the only other light came from the glow of the range set in the central inglenook fireplace. Dad’s cottage had two bedrooms, accessed by a single staircase leading round from the inglenook. The floor was set with herringbone brick, and the only heating source was the range. Mum made peg rugs to lay over the bricks, and there was also some lino, too. Lol remembers it being quite dark, with the single lamp and small windows.
The front room, parlour or best room was not in daily use. It had its own fireplace and the family really only sat in there on a Sunday or if suitors came calling for his sisters. Outside, adjoining a narrow access pathway were stables and later piggeries. The muck heap was only about ten paces from the back of the house, and the heap was cleared annually to be spread as fertiliser on the land. Above the back door Lol remembers a small colony of masonary bees who lived in the lintel.
Sally and Aunt Francis went into service at Maypole House. Kath went all the way to London into service with Mrs Empson’s sister (Mrs Green) in Hampstead. Kath also worked in Papworth making suitcases. The Queen’s cases were made there. Phyllis and about 200 others, were involved during the war at Wales, making ammunition boxes.