Working the land

British harvest

The following text is taken from the BBC Countryfile website (URL)

By looking back through the history and customs associated with harvest we can see why it is such a crucial date in the country calendar, says Duncan Haskell.

The word ‘harvest’ comes from the Old English word hærfest meaning ‘autumn’, aptly the season for gathering the food of the land. This was a vital time of year, when success was a genuine matter of life or death. A prosperous harvest ensured that a community would be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months. It’s therefore no surprise that it was also a time steeped in superstition and, if successful, much celebration.  Many of these traditions even pre-date Christianity.

With technological advances lessening our dependence on the seasons and the number of people working on the land greatly reduced over the last two centuries, surviving practises are now mainly symbolic in nature. Even during the pre-mechanised past it would be incorrect to suggest that there was a uniform approach to harvest or a common set of beliefs and customs, there were vast regional differences throughout the country. What did unite everyone though was the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which harvest was held. What follows are some of the better known examples from the past…

Roaming groups of labourers would seek employment from farms at the start of the season, in Norfolk they would drag their sickles along the floor to announce their arrival. A ‘Lord of the Harvest’ would be appointed and was in charge of negotiating rates and conditions of labour. Leading his workers (‘reapers’) as they scythed the fields, he would be served first at mealtimes.

The church festival that is the most common harvest celebration still held today originated in Morwenstow, Cornwall in 1843, when Reverend Robert Hawker invited the parishioners of his church into his home to receive the Sacrament in “the bread of the new corn.” Whether from the Divine, the elements or the mystical, all help was gratefully received.

Now that most of us neither sow nor reap what we eat, it is almost impossible to imagine how crucial this time of year was in the calendar, but by knowing a little of the history and keeping these traditions alive we are honouring those who depended upon it.

Harvest time

From field to field it is a busy time on the farm.

© 2020 All images and video are copyright of David Townsend