Good July

By Terry John Calendar

In his book Good points of Husbandry, written in the 16th century, Thomas Tusser gave this advice to farmers and landowners as to what they should do in July:

With tossing and raking and setting on cocks,
Grass lately in swathes, is hay for an ox:
That done, go and cart it, and have it away,
The battle is fought, ye have gotten the day.

As July approached, preparations were made for gathering in the hay, for the hay harvest had to be completed by the end of the month. The work was done systematically and began in the hayfield as soon as the sun had dried off any dew that might have collected and continued until evening.

It was hard, hot work, and no-one left the field until dusk. Food was brought out to the field, or the workers carried their lunches with them in leather bags or wallets. Bread, cheese and onions were the standard fare, washed down with barley-water, ale, mead or a concoction of herbs and water. An hour’s rest at mid-day was customary and it was a common sight to see ten or twenty people lying in the shade of a hedge, snoring peacefully until work resumed again.

From May to mid August, an hour or two,
Let Patch sleep a snatch, however you do:
Though sleeping one hour refresheth his song,
Yet trust not Hob Grouthead, for sleeping too long.

Scythes were used to mow the hay and a large tub of sand and a pot of oil were placed at a convenient spot in the field, together with a collection of honing stones. The stones were dipped in the oil and then in the sand and were used to sharpen the scythes.

On the first day the cut hay was left in swathes and it was usually the women of each rural community who worked their way up and down the fields, turning over the heavy swathes and tossing them up into the air. This loosened the hay and allowed it to dry more easily. The hay was raked and arranged in small piles alternately down the field, with enough space between each row to allow a horse-drawn haywain to move between them, ready for loading.

The piles of hay, known as cocks, were not too tightly packed as this allowed for good ventilation. The hay was slanted downwards and outwards so that rain and dew drained quickly away and the last forkful of hay was laid across the top, rather like a thatched roof.

The workers in the fields were well aware that hay is best harvested in a dry state, as damp hay, once formed into a stack, heats up and may catch fire. For that reason, small, more easily managed stacks were preferred. Once the hay had been brought in from the field in the haywains it was built into stacks on a foundation of stones or something similar.

Quite often a thick covering of green bracken was placed over the stones. Bracken stays remarkably dry and it also prevents damp from rising up through the stones to affect the hay. As it does not sink down to pack tightly together as hay does, it allowed air to circulate through the stack. It also warded off rats, which dislike gnawing through the tough bracken fibres, which make their mouths sore.

Another crop on which the farmer kept a close eye during July was flax. This, according to Thomas Tusser, should ideally be sown in May. So important was flax that in the Tudor period laws were passed to enforce its growth. The suggested portion was one rood of flax to every sixty acres. A rood was an ancient, measure of land, roughly equating to a quarter of a modern acre. 

Most households grew flax for their own use, making it into shirts, sheets and similar household items. Even the seeds were useful, for besides being set aside for sowing next year, they were also pounded and mixed with boiling water to make a poultice. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, originally published in the early 17th century, tells us that:

"it is of great service in all diseases of the breast and lungs, as pleurisies and peripneuemonia, coughs, asthma and consumption. It likewise helps the colic and stone, both taken at the mouth and given in clysters.” 

During July, as in the early months of summer, people would be combing the hedges and woodlands, gathering in the flowers and herbs that could be used in folk medicines. These could be dried for later use or were treated in a variety of ways to produce healing salves, ointments and medicines. Quite often, these plants were a useful addition to the diet. An old Welsh proverb warns us that “In pottage without herbs, there is neither goodness nor nourishment.” 

Even the nettle, avoided for its sting, was gathered in by our ancestors for its benefits. Known in Welsh as ddynhaden, it was crushed and pounded to obtain its juice, which was then mixed with white wine, the mixture being strained through a fine mesh before being allowed to cool. It was firmly believed that a good swig taken each morning and evening warded off jaundice, rejuvenated the blood and, if mixed with barley wort, cured pleurisy. I make a delicious soup with it each spring, though only the new and tender upper leaves should be used. It also makes a good vegetable at that time of year, boiled and seasoned with herbs, garlic and butter.

Thistles, which we would today tear up if we found them growing in our gardens, were carefully gathered in. Known in Welsh as Ysgall Bendigaid, the Blessed Thistle, the leaves and flowering tops were gathered in July, just as the flowers appeared. It was thought that a brew made from a thistle was an excellent tonic and stimulant, and a cure for stomach complaints. 

July was often referred to as “Good July” because of the rich pickings from the hedgerows and woodlands. The Anglo-Saxons named it Haymonath, the month of hay-making, or Maed Monath, the time of the flowering of the meadows. The name July, or Julius as the Romans knew it, is actually in honour of Julius Caesar. Originally it was the fifth month of the year, Quintilius, but when the Roman calendar was re-structured to include two extra months, Quintilius became the seventh month and the Senate renamed it Julius.

Pembrokeshire is a land full of mystery and history! Explore more stories on a summer break at Bluestone and join Terry on his guided historical walk of the resort.

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