Some Past Bere Link articles



When I see the huge tractors and machines in fields today I can hardly believe that as a youth I followed my father's shire horses. The ploughmen walked 13½ miles then to plough one acre--in all weathers. They were fit!
I was privileged to see the end of a way of life that had altered very little from the 19th century. All farms were 'organic' then: mixed farms with the milking cow, cattle for fattening, pigs, poultry, sheep for meat and wool. In those days before man-made fibres, the value of the wool paid many tenant farmers' rent. The majority of the animal feed was produced on the farm.
Here in the Tamar Valley most of the farms had an horticultural element: hard and soft fruit, flowers and all the vegetables. A couple could live and raise a family on a market garden holding of 5 to 10 acres.
Where did all the produce go? Before the railway it went to the three towns -- Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse -- and the Royal Navy, via our ancient highway -- the Tamar. After the arrival of the railway the whole country became the market. My father sent strawberries as far as Edinburgh and Glasgow. Three goods trains per day left Bere Alston goods yard, and daily life was governed by their departure times. Queues of vehicles, motor and horse-drawn, would tail back from the goods yard and up the hill under the bridges, waiting to offload on to the train. When the farm season arrived and the fruit left in wooden barrels, the interior of the rail vans looked like a battlefield; floor and walls stained red with spilt juice. (The tops of the barrels were covered with porous hessian sacking, held in place by the top metal band of the barrel.)
However, habits die hard. Despite the railway, the market boat continued to run on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Calstock to Devonport North Corner for Devonport market, calling at all the river quays. This service survived to the mid 30s. Many farmers' and gardeners' wives, with their containers of produce, caught this boat at Hole's Hole: often in the early hours to catch the tide and, yes, falling into the water did occur!
In the days when geography, topography and climate governed how early crops would mature, the valley had a great advantage. Steep, south-facing slopes were cultivated by hand and kept in immaculate condition. Every few years the eroded soil would be brought back to the top of the slope by horse-drawn earth scoop, with wire rope and snatch blocks.
All this hard hand work required a huge labour force, and the village and surrounding farms and gardens were very inter-dependant. Besides the staff living in the farmhouses, a whole army of men and women left the village daily to work the land. Their weekly wage depended on a successful industry. For example, at Higher Birch Farm my father employed 9 fulltime men and 6 virtually full time women on 70 acres. With the exception of Hewton Nurseries, you won't find 9 men employed in the whole parish now.
It did mean, despite the hard graft in all weathers, that people often worked in small groups. With a few jokes and the latest village gossip and scandal, it helped one to cope with the work. Farming today is a very solitary existance. I am old enough to remember the large number of market gardens and farms in the parish. Sadly, most of the former are now wildernesses, while the latter are much reduced in number, with land amalgamated and house and buildings sold off. I cannot see a reversal of this trend. Why? I think it would be difficult today to find a man or a woman who will turn over an acre of soil on a steep slope with a garden fork! But that is how it was!

Stan Sherrell

Bere Local History Group

The group met on the 25th September, when the speaker, John Snell, had a large audience for his talk ‘Growing up in the 1940s - Spam and Rabbit Pie!’ The evening proved to be highly entertaining with his recollections of Gunnislake and the Tamar Valley in the 40s and 50s. The area comprised a very close-knit community; everyone knew each other and some folk hardly left Gunnislake during their entire lifetime. They pulled together through war and peace. Life was indeed based locally; employment in Hingston and Kit Hill quarries on the land or in the Dockyard after the war. Entertainment revolved around the radio (do you remember ‘Workers’ Playtime?’), the churches (five in total) and the Anniversary and Sports Day held at Whitsun was a particular favourite. A Mr. Nettles brought ‘the cinema’ to Gunnislake on Wednesdays and to Bere Alston on Fridays, charging one shilling (5p). The Men’s Institute provided billiards and snooker and ladies could join the Women’s Institute. (Who, presumably, didn’t provide billiards and snooker! Ed) The library opened from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays only. In the 1940s, Gunnislake could boast no fewer than forty-five shops of all descriptions. Mr. Boly, the draper-cum-toy shop, drew Mr. Snell like a magnet, as he was the local Hornby agent - generating a lifelong passion for trains. (A ‘Princess Elizabeth’ engine costing £5.5s.0d in 1937 sold at auction in 1999 for £4,000!)

Most houses had outside toilets and no indoor water. Fridges were practically unheard of: safes and larders were the norm. You had to pay for treatment if you were sick and Dr. Leaky made up the prescription and dispensed it himself. If you passed the scholarship for the local grammar school but your parents were unable to afford extras such as the uniform then you had to forfeit the place and attend the secondary modern school. There was a manual telephone system, and a parish constable (an improvement on present day policing!). Gunnislake had a gas works, built in 1872, so the streets were lit - apart from the war years, when the blackout was rigidly enforced.

The war had an extraordinary effect on the small community, as indeed it had nationwide. There was a nightly exodus from the city of Plymouth - people cramming into seven coaches pulled by two engines as they sought refuge in the relative safety of the countryside in the Tavy and Tamar valleys. Evacuees were billeted with local families and everyone issued with identity cards, gas masks and ration books. Most villages organised a Home Guard, and National Savings was introduced. (Even school children were encouraged to save.) The Yorkshire Regiment was stationed in Gunnislake and was joined in November 1942 by a contingent of American soldiers, who were housed in an old Sunday School building. There was also an army camp of canvas tents on land now known as Sylvia’s Meadow at St. Anne’s Chapel. John and his friends used to scrounge field rations - a great prize! Incidentally, white and coloured Americans were segregated, film shows for both shown separately. There was a prisoner-of-war camp in Callington on the present Ginsters site. At Battens, Bere Alston, ack-ack machines were stationed, and in August 1941 a plane crashed at Orestocks - a remarkable event and teenagers came from miles around as sightseers and hoping to obtain souvenirs.Villagers were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’, but the market gardeners of the Tamar and Tavy Valleys were badly affected by the war as they were instructed to plough up their bulb fields and to plant vegetables.

John Snell’s talk brought back a host of long-forgotten memories to his appreciative audience - not least those of rationing of food, furniture and clothes, which finally ended in 1955. Spam became a basic, as did rabbit pie at 2/6d each - or for free if you had the wherewithal! By today’s standards, the food rations per week for an adult were frugal in the extreme: bacon 2ozs, sugar 8ozs, tea 2ozs, butter 2ozs, margarine or lard 6ozs, cheese 2ozs, one shillings-worth of meat. Eggs became scarce and dried egg was imported from the USA. However, it is a debatable point, but maybe the country as a whole was fitter on this enforced diet. One thing is certain: the housewives during the war were indeed imaginative cooks from necessity.

Following the talk refreshments were served and - yes, you’ve guessed it - they included ‘Spam’. A great deal of interest was also shown in the memorabilia on display, people rifling through the pamphlets, posters and ration books. John was thanked by chairman Trevor Bond.

Betty Endean

Computer games with the devil

Jesus and Satan were having an on-going argument about who was better on his computer. They had been going at it for days, and Peter was tired of hearing all of the bickering. Finally Peter said, "Cool it. I am going to set up a test that will run two hours and I will judge who does the better job."

So down Satan and Jesus sat at the keyboards and typed away. They moused. They did spreadsheets. They wrote reports. They sent faxes. They opened e-mail. They sent out-mail with attachments. They downloaded. They did some genealogy reports. They made cards. They did every known job.

About ten minutes before their time was up, lightning flashed across the sky, thunder rolled, the rain poured and, of course, the electricity went off. Satan stared at his blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld. Jesus just sighed. The electricity finally flickered back on, and each of them rebooted their computers.

Satan started searching frantically, screaming "It's gone! Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all of his files from the past two hours. Satan observed this and became very irate: "Wait! He must have cheated. How did He do that?" Peter shrugged and said, "Jesus saves."


The frog-spawn that I reported in our pond is still sitting there relatively unchanged, over five weeks later. The chiff-chaffs haven’t returned yet and on a recent walk I encountered hundreds of redwings still foraging in the woodland. Three weeks of freezing overnight (I recorded lows of minus 60C several nights in succession) has brought things to a standstill in more than one way. However as I write this, there are signs that things are on the move, so we should be well into spring by the time this is published. In the pond, the frogspawn should have survived its period of suspended animation. Fortunately for pondlife, water reaches its greatest density at 40C. Below this temperature the colder water rises rather than sinking. As a result, ponds freeze starting from the surface, with the ice getting thicker as the temperature falls. If the pond is deep enough and the temperature doesn’t fall too low, the flora and fauna should survive in the depths. In the last few days, some early-morning croaking and thrashing of the surface announced the return of the frogs: in fact a new batch of spawn has just appeared! I guess that at least one pair had not got round to it before the cold spell. I don’t expect that they will be far behind by the time of hatching. Our native wildlife has generally evolved to be able to cope with quite a wide range of conditions (though it did take five years for the long-tailed tits to recover their population numbers after the prolonged freeze in 1965). In fact we are probably back to a more traditional time schedule. I notice that the buds on the blackthorn are already showing white tips so they should be fully in bloom by April. The local birds are also busy, carrying beaks-full of nesting material. I hope that anyone contemplating major work on their hedges will have completed cutting by the end of March so that the birds will remain undisturbed from then on. April should also see the return of insects to the local scene. Any adult butterflies and moths that ventured out in February will almost certainly have perished, but hopefully there are more to emerge from “hibernation”. There were certainly plenty of gnats about one morning as I returned from an early morning trip on my bike—enough to make me keep my mouth closed! They were keeping close in to the hedge on the sunny side of the lane. I have yet to see the first ladybirds of the year (rather than the few in January which I presume were left over from the previous year). (Spotted one in our garden on 20th March! Ed.) This is the sixth species, for which records are being requested by the Springwatch survey that I mentioned last month. In a separate survey we are asked to look out for Harlequin ladybirds: bigger than our native seven-spot, more variable in colour though generally orange and bearing more spots. They have the reputation of eating the same food rather more quickly than the seven-spot and then turning their attention to their local cousins! PS Did anyone notice that Tuckermarsh got a mention in a ‘rival’ nature column in The Guardian early in March? Watch this space!

Pete Mayston

More past Bere Link articles can be found here.