Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Tem men went to mow

In 1966 when I was 19, I joined the Kent River Authority as a labourer in their small Sheppey workforce. We only worked on Sheppey and the work was very hard, poorly paid and tended to use archaic work methods and tools (some people even brought in corked bottles of cold tea) but the major benefit for me was being able to witness all of Sheppey's wildlife through all of the seasons.

Apart from some ditch maintenance our main function was maintaining and sometimes re-building, Sheppey's seawalls and beaches. One of the annual items of seawall maintenance was mowing and not with the luxury of tractors as is the case nowadays.

Grass cutting would start off in the early summer and most years would start along Queenborough seawall and then work in a continuous easterly direction all the way along The Swale, taking in Rushenden, Elmley, Harty, Shellness, Leysdown, Warden Bay, until ending up at Minster Beach. Where necessary both sides of the seawall would be mown and then the mown grass raked over the top and down the landward side of the seawall, using long-handled wooden rakes. The grown was left in a line along the base of the seawall then to dry for subsequent burning. All the mowing was done on foot, walking many, many miles behind two types of industrial mowers, the two-stroke Alan Scythe and an early rotary type by the name of Hayter.
At first the mowing would be relatively easy but as the summer wore on and the vegetation thickened and became flattened by weather, it got harder to cut through and was forever jamming and stalling the mowers.On some walls as well there was the additional hazards of cattle damage from the preceding winter. While the ground was soft the cattle had impregnated the seawall with deep hoof prints which had then dried to give a cobbled effect. Walking a mower along the sloping side of a seawall over these very bumpy conditions not only meant that your thighs were constantly battered and bruised by the mower handles between which you walked, but the mower would also be trying to bounce its way down the seawall. This meant that you also spent a lot of time wrestling with the mower, trying to keep it in a straight line. Add to that on a hot day, the two-stroke exhaust fumes, the sweat, and flies sticking to your skin and it could be a long and tiring walk round Sheppey! I remember one time also where the mower bounced out of my hands, ran away from me down the seawall and disappeared into a ditch alongside, with just bubbles revealing where it was.

Another incident was amusing for its sheer nerve. We tended to be a small workforce of half a dozen or so like-minded and long term labourers which was added to mainly in the summer months as extra work was required. Many of these extras simply saw the job as an opportunity to have a few months being paid to get a sun tan and see parts of Sheppey that they'd probably never ever see again. On our way to continue mowing and raking in the mornings we would normally first drop off one person, a mile or so behind us whose job it was to spend the day carefully burning the line of raked and dry mowings left behind us. One particular day we dropped off a guy who could of fell asleep standing up and told him what was expected. On going back to collect him at the end of the afternoon it quickly became clear that he didn't seem to be any nearer us than when we had first dropped him off, in fact there was no evidence that he had actually done anything at all!
We found the guy lying on the seawall and when an irate Foreman asked him for an explanation as to why he had burnt nothing all day, the guy simply said "I didn't have any matches!" which as you can imagine had us rolling on the floor in the back of the Land Rover in hysterics.

On baking hot and cloudless days as we mowed our way through the long stretches of Elmley and Harty, the conditions could be really punishing, especially the lack of shade. They could get even more desperate if you failed to take enough drink or ration it out through the day. By the early afternoon of one particularly hot day as we mowed across the dam at Windmill Creek, I had become so desperate for something to drink and for respite from the sun, that I ended up both soaking myself in a ditch there and drinking some of the less than palatable water! I had the next day off sick with sunstroke but surprisingly, not with an upset stomach.
Shortly after that, on the Eastchurch side of the dam after another punishing day, I got in the Land Rover to drive the gang home and the gearstick broke of in my hand! I was not popular and it was a long and unpleasant walk that late afternoon, across Eastchurch marshes, up through the Prison and finally to Eastchurch village, before we could a bus home.

But despite the conditions, the summer mowing had a myriad of compensations, especially if, as I did, you had an interest in wildlife and Sheppey's remoter places.To be paid to walk pretty much the length of Sheppey's southern side through the warmer months, through the breeding seasons, and most importantly, when the farms and marshes still looked pretty much as they had for hundreds of years, was priceless.

The other phase of seawall maintenance, for those of you who wonder how the rocks got set into the seawalls, was rock-pitching. This was a job that wasn't far short of the old prison chain gangs and something I'll write about in a later blog.


  1. Fascinating! I am really enjoying your "letters"!

  2. Derek ,
    Another really interesting post .
    Can't imagine today's 19 year olds putting up with those conditions .

  3. Greenie,

    I agree re. the 19yr olds but believe me the mowing was the easy bit, wait till I write about the rocking, and all for £9 a week.