11 December 1998

Norfolk steam

threshing gang relive past

A rare Norfolk treat as we

join a steam threshing gang

in action. Andrew Pearce

timetables the day

EIGHT oclock on a mid-October morning; summers short hold is gone, the land sliding back towards winter.

You would swear Jack Frost has been about but he hasnt, not yet, even though the air has that breath-steaming sharpness to it.

Away behind the village an engine and threshing drum glint as the overnight sheets are drawn back; overhead, the East Anglian sky arcs wide and blue. We are at Fengate Farm, Weeting, and the clock is soon to wind back 70-odd years.

Some background first. Modern pressures make sure Richard Parrotts 600 mixed acres dance to todays tune, though everywhere there are signs that he would not have it that way.

Monstrous engines loom in quiet corners, man-sized tackle sleeps or waits for a rebuild. Apart from a short interlude with tractors in the 1950s the Parrott family has been steam threshing since 1872, and Richard is not about to break that time-drawn thread. So once 12 acres of Axona spring wheat comes ready it is cut by binder. The long-strawed sheaves are stacked in an open-fronted barn, then over the next summer are eked out for working demonstrations.

Today, though, there are no crowds. Just two engines, an eight-strong crew, and a constant trickle of villagers drawn by the sound and smell of the way work used to be.

13.24. There is a feed problem with the baler, which, apparently, has not been quite the same since it caught fire. But it is a wonderful piece of kit, with a socking great ram trundling to and fro on rails and a feed arm pecking up and down like a great steel chicken.

15.00. John Grass finally finds the sheaf he has been looking for, hiding right at the bottom of the second load. Up it goes and proceedings start to draw to a close. The last sack is weighed off and tied – a back-breaking 18 stone (114kg) to be manhandled. Cant imagine what the EU legislators would make of that. By 15.20 the clearing up is done and both Burrells go back to idle. As their chuff and clatter dies away, two F-16 fighters howl past on their way home to Lakenheath airbase. The spell is broken. Welcome back to the late 20th century.

10.50. No power steering here as Ron Feakes lines up "The Old Chap", an 1891 8 nominal hp Burrell. Its regulator is a bit fierce and there is a fence just behind, so this is tricky work. But with several blasts of steam and much arm-twirling, engine and baler are set right. Just after 11.00 the baler rumbles into life and everything looks ready.

11. 50. At ground level there is just the rhythmic thump and click of the engines and the soft hiss of straw hitting the drum. Up on top it is less sociable, with the cylinder humming hard and gritty smoke from the engine stack gusting by. John Naruszewicz picks up a sheaf on the back of his knife, slices the string and in one sweep, fans the bundle evenly across the drum feed belt. That is not quite as simple as it looks…

8.10. David Blackburn gets among the firebox tubes of "Dreadnought" before lighting up. A contractors tool and classic Norfolk threshing engine, this 1907 Burrell is on drum duty today. By its standards 8 oclock is a very lazy start: in their heyday engines would either simmer overnight with the fire banked up, or be lit by early-rising carters. Either way work would kick off at seven.