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Robert Ashton

Where Are the Fellows Who Cut The Hay?

Change is the engine of history. Modernisers applaud it as progress while traditionalists think of it as a rejection of established, time-honoured values and practices. Where Are the Fellows Who Cut the Hay? is a meditation on change in rural east Suffolk, where its author Robert Ashton has lived for much of his life. He went to school nearby, worked the land on surrounding farms as a teenager and now lives there again.

The moving spirit of Ashton’s book is his reverence for the work of the Welsh writer and oral historian George Ewart Evans (1909-1988). Born in the Welsh mining village of Abercynon in the Taff Valley, Evans escaped the mines, graduated from Cardiff University and became a teacher. In 1948 he moved to Blaxhall, a village in east Suffolk not far from Aldeburgh, where he started interviewing his neighbours to collect their stories of rural life since the late 19th century. The results were published in 1956 as Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. Ashton was given a copy of the book by his parents in his mid-teens and was immediately captivated by it. By a further coincidence, Evans’s wife Florence had been Ashton’s headmistress at school in the early 1960s.

Inspired by Evans’s books and other works, Ashton resolved to write about rural Suffolk. ‘How,’ Ashton wondered, ‘had things changed since Evans’s day? Would people in their eighties today talk in similar ways to those Evans had interviewed, about the changes they had witnessed over their lifetime?’

The resulting book is a fascinating, charming account of the changes in rural life since Evans was collecting his oral histories in the 1950s and '60s. As a young man, Ashton worked for an agricultural supply business in the area. 'Looking back,' he writes, '… I can see that I was witnessing the very tail end of the local trading that had been in existence for centuries. Today most of the agricultural merchants and local feed mills have disappeared.' In charting the changes, Ashton casts his net widely. He writes about arable farming, principally wheat and barley, sheep and dairy farming and the rhythms and traditions of village life. It's also a book about people, the individuals who make up the rural communities, in many cases descendants of the men and women interviewed by Evans in the mid-20th century.

Along the way, he gives the reader many an intriguing gobbet of information. For example, in the days of the horse-drawn plough, in ploughing an acre the ploughman walked eleven miles behind the horse. A pair of horses could plough an acre a day. The Fordson tractors of the 1950s would do that in less than an hour but today’s vast machines will plough four acres in an hour. Such is progress.

Ashton acknowledges change but is equivocal about its impact. ‘Materially,’ he writes, ‘we are far better off than our forebears, but I’m not sure we are as happy as people once were. Can we turn the clock back to rediscover that sense of belonging that has today largely been lost?’

Richard Hopton

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