“The centuries have come and gone and so have the many shepherd families that used to call me home. All around me the moorland hills, now quiet and deserted, were once abuzz with the men, women and children living in this isolated spot. Once I was the centre of their lives. Now I am a ruin. But my old stone walls still echo with their voices. I am a home with a story to tell. ”
Shepherds always have an early start and James was no different. I’d watch him tear off a bite of bread and down a mug of hot tea before pushing open my creaky old back door ready to head out onto the moor to check the sheep. Even on the hardest winter mornings, when bad weather had come to stay and the cold never left my old stones, the shepherd’s routine didn’t change. Sheep needed to be found and checked and if it had snowed in the night I would hear James calling, trying to locate his herd. In a snowstorm, sheep will shelter next to a hedge and become trapped in the drifts of snow blown up against them. I’ve watched it happen right outside my front door. A winter morning was sure to be a busy one for any shepherd but on Tuesdays James had an extra task. This was Sarah’s designated baking day and James was up even earlier to get the fire going, to pile it high with peat and ensure there would be enough to fill the bread oven. On this particularly cold Tuesday in early December, I heard James mutter, “Ach I wish we had some proper coal. Not this raggedy ol’ peat”. But coal had never been used out here at Hoar Oak. My shepherd families couldn’t afford that luxury and even if they had been able to, a delivery this far out on the moor was nigh on impossible. I’m too far away from any road or track that could be used by the delivery carts and carrying sacks of coal over the moor was out of the question. So my families made do with the peat they’d dug and dried and stored during the hot, dry days of summer.
On a Tuesday winter morning I’d hear James blowing on his hands as he scrambled out of their warm bed and I could feel my old floorboards creak and groan as he moved about, getting dressed and going downstairs to the kitchen. He was a tall man and needed to bend his head under the low ceiling of the bedroom; had to lean over to one side as he went down my narrow, ladder-like stairs to the kitchen and he had to stoop to get through each of my doors. That morning the cold, stiff hinges of my scullery door resisted his efforts to open the door to get the peat, brought into the scullery to be stored overnight. James was a fine big man and knew how to give a door a hefty kick but his curses told me that his toes, rather than my door, had come off worse. But I let my door creak open and watched James carry in the blocks of frost hardened peat. “You’re going to be buggers to light this morning” he muttered but eventually the fire would be lit and he’d pile on more and more peat to ensure a good supply of hot embers ready to go in the bread oven. “Sam” he’d shout as he downed his bread and tea before going out to the herd, “keep an eye on this fire and help your Ma fill the bread oven before you come out to me and the sheep.”
Samuel, at 14, was the eldest son and worked hard alongside his father learning the duties of the shepherd. There were eleven more children and another baby on the way and the only other boys, Samuel’s two brothers, Thomas and James, were still too young to be of much help. Samuel’s job on baking day was to get all of the baking paraphernalia assembled by the fire – the ember shovel, rake and broom, the bread peel and the bucket of water – before setting about loading hot peats from the hearth up into the bread oven. This cavernous opening had been built into the north side of my chimney, about three feet above the hearth floor and stretching about five feet into my walls. Samuel was quite adept at the task of filling my bread oven and skilled at manipulating the heavy iron ember shovel and the slightly lighter ember rake. With the ember shovel in his left hand and the ember rake in his right, he would bend over the open fire to collect a scoop of burning peats before lifting, turning and shooting the hot, heavy contents into the oven. He’d use the ember rake to push the pile of hot peats down into the bread oven. He’d start slowly but build up a momentum so that this hot task was repeated over and over until the oven was full and its door is shut tight. I’d watch Samuel at his work and begin to feel not just my bread oven heating up but all of my walls and windows and doors getting hotter and hotter. Most of the time that big old oven sat empty and cold but once baking day was underway I certainly knew it was there.
Whilst James and Samuel had been busy with the fire, Sarah was still up in my big bedroom. She’d fed the newest baby, dressed and cuddled the smallest child, left her eldest daughter Marion to deal with the other children and chivvied the younger boys to get out of bed. She wrapped the baby tightly to her body with an old tartan scarf and as she started to head downstairs heard Samuel shout, “I’ve filled the bread oven Ma” before banging out of the door to follow his Dad up onto the moor. He wanted to be out and away before Sarah had time to get downstairs, to check his handiwork and tell him “the oven’s not full enough”. It never is. They both know it never is. “Bloody boy,” Sarah mutters with a fond smile as she heads downstairs and expertly shoots in another three or four shovelfuls of burning peats. She goes to investigate her kneading trough, lifting off the heavy wooden cover to check how well the bread dough has risen overnight. She’d peer down at it saying, “Well, you’ve had a cold night of it haven’t you my lovely?” It hasn’t risen as well as she’d like but it will have to do and she needs to get going. But her first job is to put the food out for Marion to feed the children with. This morning it will be meagre fare – the bit of bread still left from last week’s baking is now so old and stale that it needed to be soaked in milk for the tiniest children. “Marion” Sarah says “the breakfast is set out in the scullery. Move the trestles over to the wall and set the children on them to eat. I need the table for baking.”
Sarah cleans down her already scrupulous wooden table and sprinkles on flour before scooping the proven dough out of the trough and plopping it down on the table to knead one last time before shaping into loaves. She has two precious bread tins which make, to her way of thinking, a lovely shaped loaf. “Almost” she always says “as good as shop-bought”. But the other loaves will have to be simple hand shaped cobs. These disappoint her housewifely pride but she says to herself, “Never mind ol’ girl – James likes his cob loaf and says it tastes all the sweeter for not being baked in a tin.” When the loaves are ready she carefully opens the bread oven door and lifting the heavy ember rake begins pushing the embers to the back and side to make a nice clear, hot space for baking. She then lifts the ember broom, which has been left head down in a bucket of water, and gives it a little shake before pushing it up and down the oven floor to clear away stray embers. The water left on the broom sizzles as it drops onto the hot oven floor and provides moisture which will add to a crisp bake. In go the loaves. The two bread tins are pushed in first. Then Sarah loads the cobs, two at a time, onto the long handled wooden peel before pushing this precious cargo deep into my now blazing hot oven and, with an expert twist from her strong wrist, deposits them onto the hot floor. Usually, ten or twelve loaves were made at a time to feed this large family and when they are all in, the bread oven door is shut and Sarah turns back to the kitchen table, ready for her next tasks.
I watch her get on with making pastry, or a “good bite of crust” as Sarah called it, before rolling it out to make pies ready to be filled with sweet and savoury fillings. There’s never much to go round in this family but a pie made with a bit of potato, onion, a drop of milk and some wild thyme, collected last summer off the moor and dried to last through the winter, was tasty and satisfying. The filling of a sweet pie depends on the season and today, on a cold winter’s baking day, the filling might be made from some apples stored from the summer, wrinkling and shrunken but still with a welcome sweetness. Perhaps a bit of spice, some summer honey from their bees if any is left, or maybe dried currants soaked in tea will be added if there are any to be spared. But there’s rarely anything much to spare here at Hoar Oak. All my families knew how to make do – parsnips for sweetness, barley flour for bulk – but Sarah always managed to find the ingredients to make one cake on baking day. Although the family loved her cakes they were a luxury that used up too much precious butter and sugar and a ‘Ma Cake’, as the children called it, was often more lard than butter and more fruit or treacle than the precious white sugar they all craved. But those cakes were fragrant and tasty and a welcome treat. When the loaves were golden and cooked through they were lifted out on the peel and the pies and the cake slid in for their turn at cooking. On and off through the day more peats would be loaded into the fireplace and on and off I’d feel my bread oven being topped up with burning embers. Sarah knew how to make use of every bit of that heat and the sweet and savoury aromas of bread, pies and cake would begin to float up my walls and make my windows weep with the joy of the tasty condensation being produced.
Finally, Sarah would lift her heavy old iron crock down from its hook in my chimney breast and begin to load it up with whatever ingredients she had to hand. “Use It Up Stew” she called it. The children, I remember, used to call it “Baking Day Dinner”. There would be carrots and onions and potatoes to be sure, perhaps a handful or two of lentils or dried peas and almost always a chunk of bacon cut from the flitch hanging by the fireplace – the salted and smoked and preserved remains of last year’s pig. Everyone had loved and helped rear piggy when she lived in the lean-to at the end of the cottage and “poor piggy” was always remembered and thanked whenever the family ate dinners made tastier by a chunk of her bacon. Water from the spring, a good pinch of salt and handfuls of herbs collected and dried off the moor were added to the old crock. When the last of the loaves, pies and ‘Ma Cake’ had come out of the bread oven, the heavy crock, full of its simple riches, was slid in and there it stayed, slowly cooking away in the dying heat of the bread oven; as the hustle and bustle of baking day wound down. My walls – all my walls – stayed warm for a long time on baking day, even in the coldest of winters when the days were shortest and James and Samuel would come in off the moor when it was just late afternoon. The children could sense the long day of hard work was coming to an end and once again became boisterous and full of beans. They were dropping their ‘baking day best behaviour’ and risked a clout from Marion as they got on with the task of pushing the trestles back either side of the table. Everyone sat down, the crock came out of the oven, its lid was taken off and the wonderful smell of the hot food exploded into my kitchen.
I used to enjoy seeing the looks of pride and pleasure in all of my housewives at the end of a baking day. Sarah was no different. Exhausted, of course, but proud of all the newly baked goods which were now stored in the slightly ramshackle lean-to scullery off of the kitchen. ‘The back kitchen’ as Sarah had grandly dubbed it, now held her handy work and she was quietly pleased that it would keep her hungry lot a little less hungry for the coming days. And tonight, on the table, was one of the beautiful cob loaves. Warm and yeasty and ready to be eaten with her Use It Up Stew. Such an end to a baking day in winter. As the family ate and relaxed, I felt the bread oven and my walls around it begin to cool. I knew that, in a few hours, they would be as cold as if the day had never happened. My stones would creak and shrink and settle throughout the night after their great heating up and cooling down. But just for those last few hours the baking day heat warmed me and my cottage family who would be lulled asleep with a good dinner in their bellys and the pleasure of the unusual warmth of the air inside my walls. I liked baking day in winter. I think my families did as well.