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Autumn – End of an Era

It’s a damp, misty, Saturday morning with rain pecking at the windows. But resist the temptation to snuggle down under the duvet – there’s a farm sale today. The flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime are to be sold and there are bargains to be had.

The advertisements appear most weeks in local newspapers: “Dispersal sale for Mr So and So on his retirement from farming”.

Cars, 4X4s, trucks and trailers roll up from an early hour – a steady stream blocking the usually quiet back roads. All wait their turn to park in an increasingly muddy field. They disgorge the curious neighbour, the shrewd-eyed dealer, friends, family and anyone who has time on his hands.

At the back of the farmhouse, in a meadow, the lots are set out in orderly lines…ancient and modern machinery, hand tools, has-beens and bygones and the inevitable untidy sprawl of scrap. Knots of be-wellingtoned folk pick over the field like a flock of excited starlings. In between the chatter the odd note of discord sounds.

“Come on missus, there’s nowt but rubbish. Pub’ll be open by now.”

“Bye, I thowt ‘ee’d ‘ave summat better. There’s nowt fancy like.”

However, the modern farmer is drawn to the modern equipment. He kicks, thumps and wallops it all with scientific precision. The tractor, hosed down from its customary muck and mire and gleaming in its Sunday best is revved up dramatically. The knowing few listen to its tuning as intently as a conductor listens to his orchestra.

But one man’s rubbish is another’s treasure and green-eyed gardeners square up to each other as they light upon a chipped stone trough, earthenware sink or cast iron pig feeder. And let there appear a wooden wheelbarrow or cartwheel, be it ever so fragile and worm-spreckled and it will be secateurs at dawn.

Then it is the turn of the interior decorators and house renovators.  They finger cracked, desiccated horse harness, muse over an anvil or sigh ecstatically over an ornate iron sack weigh. Just sand it down, paint it and it metamorphoses into an original object d'art fit to grace a corner of any barn conversion. The auctioneer has fun with these buyers as he sells two long rusty crosscut saw blades with teeth to rival Jaws.

“Knock ‘em down to Mrs Housetohome” he calls out saucily as no one seems to want these trifles. “She’ll hang ‘em on a bedroom wall.”

Thus, little by little, the skeleton of the farm is dismembered and its bones spread far and wide to come to life again in another home, garden, farm or field.

By lunchtime the mobile canteen is doing a rip-roaring grade – usually more ripping off than roaring as tea, coffee, indigestible pork pies and plastic sandwiches change hands at exorbitant rates. All this bargain hunting works up the appetite and depresses common sense.

The proceedings build to their climax as it comes to the sale of the livestock. There is a gradual shift of scene from field to yard and jostling buyers form an improvised ring. Shoulders hunch hostilely, elbows sharpen and walking sticks spear emphatically into the ground to prevent pushers-in. It’s a work of art to find a spot to see and be seen from; a place obvious enough to the auctioneer yet discreet enough to shield one from the curious gaze of the neighbours. After all, do you want the world to know that you bought the skinny bag of bones of a cow that only the knacker man was bidding for?  Do you want everyone to think that you fell for the patter?

“She’s only a three-papped ‘un but she’ll milk like she has six.”

The auction moves from cows to sheep - old crones that haven’t a tooth in their heads and move in short strides.  Someone asserts their ability to tip out twins at lambing time only to be crushed with a sniggering “Aye if they live that long.”

Suddenly, it’s all over. The auctioneer knocks down the last sack of moth-eaten hens and a squabble of ducks and everyone relaxes. Buyers queue at the pay office, bearing up stoically under the banter from friends and neighbours as they marvel at each other’s purchases. Everyone heads for home, satisfied or not as the case may be. Roof racks of impossible loads crush cars and newly-acquired stock clatter up the cattle wagon ramps. The auctioneer, quietly content with the results of his coaxing, cajoling, heckling and hectoring, slips discreetly to the farmhouse to take tea with ‘the missus’ and agree for the hundredth time that his is thirsty work.

However, spare a thought for the farmer as he watches the throng dispossess him. He has struck his bargain and must stick with it. Yet, when the stragglers and well-wishers finally leave, he wanders out to his yard where the sweet papers and crisp packets rustle around the flagstones. The barns and shippons are empty for the first time in thirty or forty years. There is none of the usual background music to which he has become attuned. No gently lowing; no sudden sharp indignant bleat; no sound of animal life at all save his own breathing. But still he sees his stock and feels and smells their body warmth. The memories of the years past rise up and swirl around like motes of dust in the sunlight. There’s not much else left to show for a lifetimes’ labour and love.

(First published as “The Autumn Sale” in Yorkshire Life magazine)