A country man

Joe Reeves was the epitome of a rustic man. He odd-jobbed all his life on a number of local farms and estates. His knowledge of country lore, animals and the weather was second to none. He would be seen wearing strong corduroy breeches, leather gaiters, hob-nailed boots and a battered peaked cap.

In his latter years poor old Joe became rather a sad, pathetic figure in his scruffy cottage on Laundry Row. The front of the cottage was completely hidden by an overgrown privet hedge, about seven feet high and almost as thick. The windows were covered in grime and had bits of brown paper and old newspapers stuck over broken panes. The grubby remnants of old net curtains festooned the inside of the windows, which hardly let in any daylight.

Inside the cottage was really quite appalling. It was a place where any of Joe’s few visitors rarely lingered any longer than was absolutely necessary. Dirty plates, pots, pans and cutlery were left scattered all over the place. The floor was strewn with all kinds of debris and some of the smells emanating from the corners of the room were overpowering. Peeling wallpaper hung off the walls and you had to be careful where you put your feet! Joe resisted anyone who offered to help tidy the place up.

Joe’s lavatory, like all the others along the row of cottages, was in the backyard, but Joe’s was unique. It had an elderberry tree growing in it! Its branches had broken through the roof and forced the door down, making it unusable. I shudder to think where Joe attended to the calls of nature when he was in the cottage and of how and where he disposed of it.

Joe had a small plot of land on the side of Mag Clough, and another garden at Goatscliffe Farm, where he grew some ‘master’ vegetables. He was a regular prize-winner at the local village shows, where his peas, beans and above all else, his potatoes were often unbeatable. Competition was always very fierce at these shows and on several occasions Joe’s fiery temper got him into trouble with fellow competitors and judges. At Grindleford Show he once caused a major upset after a lady judge had placed his potatoes second to his oldest rival. Joe stomped up to her and demanded, “Put my bloody spuds second ter Frank Riley’s marbles ‘as tha? What’s thee know about growin’ taters Missus? I bet tha’ don’t even know ‘ow to cook the buggers proper thissen!”

It was nothing unusual when, if he had only been placed second or third in a class, to claim that the winner had stolen the vegetables from his plot. He would swear to it that they belonged to him, asserting that he had “Growed ‘em wi’ me own ‘ands”.

Joe Reeves. Pictured ‘up the clough’ – his regular stomping ground. 11th November 1930.

If you wanted a reliable weather forecast, Joe was the man to see. He had the countryman’s knack of being able to smell the weather out. It is a mystery how he did it, but he would raise his nose into the wind and sniff in strongly, squint up at the sky and then, after cogitating for a while, would spit on the ground and deliver his pronouncement. It was often short and to the point, such as,
“’Er’s a-goin’ ter pissle it down all bloody day termorrer”.
On the other hand he could give a detailed forecast for up to a few days at a time. Whichever he gave, it was invariably right. This was often a great help to me in my gardening plans, enabling me to judge just when to plant out tender plants in our frost-hammered valley.

Joe looked after the land around Mag Clough for many years and he always accused the local lads of poaching up there. He was always telling me that he had seen our boys up there after rabbits with an airgun. It was true that they had an air gun, but I was very strict with them over its use. I would never let them take it outside of the garden, where I had rigged up a target for them to shoot at. So I knew old Joe was wrong in his accusations.

He had a brilliant skill carving walking sticks and spent many hours shaping the top of an ash stick into the shape of a sheep’s or cow’s head. He would also use bone or cow horn in the same way. I once remember getting some ash poles from along the roadside up Stoke to use for a bean row. Joe came along the garden fence as I was setting the poles in position in the ground.
“’Ere up,” he said, “that thur bloody stick, second from t’end, is one as I were goin’ to ‘ave fer a clothes prop and next un to it fer a walkin’ stick. Dids’t get ‘em from up Stoke by Blind Lane?”

I confessed that I had got them from there. I wondered how ever he could tell that they were indeed the very same sticks that he had earmarked for his own use. Or was he just pulling my leg?

Another of Joe’s country crafts was the art of tree-felling. He could drop a tree down exactly where he wanted it. I had first hand experience of this when a dangerous tree alongside the Main Road at the side of Goatscliffe Brook. It was a tricky job because on one side was the carpenters shop, on another the busy road, then the stream and the boundary wall. Joe had a narrow strip no more than eight feet wide in which to drop the tree safely. This he did exactly, with great skill using a rope pegged into the ground which I had to pull on as he cut through the trunk of the tree.

When he was a young man Joe was very handsome and liked the girls. He was courting a lass who was a barmaid at the Chequers Inn on Froggatt Edge. At this time he lived at home, which was Goatscliffe Knoll Farm, with his mother and brother, Frank, with whom he was perpetually arguing and fighting.

One night he was in the Chequers to see his bit of stuff, planning to do a spot of courting after closing time when he saw her home. As often happened with Joe and his girlfriends, an argument started and he and his little love were at loggerheads. Things got steadily worse and looked like turning nasty, when the lass told Joe to leave, only she used stronger language. Joe turned and stormed to the door, where he turned round and shouted that if she didn’t care for him any longer, then he would throw himself into the river off Froggatt Bridge. His brother Frank witnessed this, and said,
“Bloody good job an’ all – he canna soddin’ swim!”
Which brought roars of laughter from the assembled company.

This enraged Joe even further and off he went in a blue haze of bad language. Frank stayed behind in the pub until closing time, when he set off back to walk to Goatscliffe. As he passed over Froggatt Bridge he couldn’t help laughing about his daft brother’s threat.

When Frank arrived home he found that his mother was still up waiting for her son’s arrival. Where was Joe? Was he out courting? She asked. Frank replied that Joe should have been home some time ago. Then he told her the story of the night’s events in the Chequers. When he came to the part about Joe’s threat to jump in the river, she shot up straight away and put on her hat and coat. They must go and find Joe at once. He could not swim, he would drown in the deep waters of the river. Frank had been a fool to let him go off like that.

So off the two went down to Froggatt Bridge, where they began a search of the river banks in the moonlight. They went downstream as far as the weir but found no trace of Joe anywhere. They called at the home of his now estranged girlfriend. After scolding them for getting her out of bed in the middle of the night, she told them that she had not seen Joe since he stormed out of the pub. Good riddance to him – the fishes were welcome to him.

It was nearly dawn when Frank and his distraught mother returned to Goatscliffe after abandoning their search. As they stood in the yard watching the first rays of sunlight rising above Froggatt Edge, Frank heard a noise which came from the coalhouse. He crept stealthily to the door and carefully lifted the latch, expecting to find a tramp or some other intruder inside. Instead he was rewarded with the sight of his long-lost brother Joe, snoring loudly, sleeping soundly on top of the coal heap in a drunken stupor. Frank could not control his temper after losing a nights sleep in a wasted search for his fool of a brother, and he flung himself on the sleeping Joe. After a lengthy battle in the coal, the two brothers were eventually pulled apart by their mother, who gave them both a good ear-bashing.

Over mugs of hot, strong tea in the kitchen, Joe revealed the mystery of his disappearance. He had gone from the Chequers to the Eyre Arms at Calver Sough. Instead of drowning himself in the river, he had tried to drown his sorrows in ale! It was the end of his courting for some time.

When our village was being converted to North Sea Gas in the mid-sixties, Joe’s cottage gave the gas board a bit of a headache. He still used the old fashioned gas mantles and he would not have them taken out under any circumstances. The trouble was that the Gas Board could not convert them to take the new supply as they were obsolete. For several days a steady stream of vans came and went, gasmen could be seen to come out of the cottage shaking their heads in disbelief. In the end though, the mantles were sealed off as being too dangerous. It was said that it had been a miracle that he had not blown the whole row of cottages to Kingdom Come. So he had to have the new fangled ‘lectric light.

Joe would come into the shop on his weekly shopping expedition at the same time on the same day, week in, week out. He would carry an old corn sack to carry his groceries in, always buying the same items each week. These included chewing tobacco, which he would also smoke in his pipe after first chewing it and then drying it out. His final request was always for the same thing,
“’An ‘alf a ton ‘o mint rock”.
By this he meant a quarter pound of Dixon’s mint rock!