When Fred Archer was a boy, men’s voices were deep and mellow as they rang out following the plough, or in church on Sundays; a farmer could make a living with a herd of twenty cows; and each village had its own blacksmith and wheelwright. The Cuckoo Pen recreates those days of the 1920s and ‘30s when life was so different from today. Here was a time when workers enjoyed a mutual rapport, their long days of hard work punctuated only by the turning rhythm of the seasons and the pleasure of a chat.
Edward Roberson was the doctor at Ashton-under-Hill for 40 years, until his death in 1928. Revered and respected by the men on the farms, he visited his patients on horseback until the day he died. To young Fred Archer he was a mystic, a miracle man, mixing his medicines from the herbs that grew on the hill. But the villagers loved him - for all his faults, he was kindly and benevolent, never sending his bill to the poor but counting on their votes when he stood for the District Council.
To Fred Archer, born in the village of Ashton-under-Hill in 1915 and growing up in the 1920s, nothing seemed to change except the seasons. This was the age of paraffin lamps, earth closets, and the last train from Evesham at 7 o’clock in the evening. The village was a self-sufficient community with its own hierarchy, strong Church and Chapel, fierce politics and home-made entertainment.
In Golden Sheaves, Black Horses, Archer has recorded the beauty of the west of England and the villagers living in the area during the last decades of the 19th Century. Archer explained his decision to write about these stubborn and strong characters by saying: "I felt it would be such a pity if, when these characters died, their sayings, customs, ways of life, how they dressed, should vanish with them." Thanks to Fred Archer's powers of observation and memory, and above all his truthful turn of phrase, they never will.
This is the story of a Worcestershire farm from the 1930s to the 1970s, highlighting the great changes in farming practices and the people who found themselves part of the agricultural and country life. Alongside the story of the owners, Fred Archer provides the listener with rich anecdotes of village life - the pea-picker and his gypsy wife, the excitement caused by the arrival of the land girls and the terrible effects of myxomatosis.
Fred Archer grew up on his father’s farm in the Vale of Evesham in the 1920s, a time when the horse was supreme and shepherd, dairyman, and carter were kings within their callings. With wit and warmth, he describes local characters, and documents a forgotten rural life - the way an elevator pole was used to build a hayrick, how small boys were sent under cornricks to cut off with scissors hanging straws that mice could use as ladders, and how cottagers kept songbirds in cages.
Fred Archer, the master of the rural tale, has gathered together a fine collection of Worcestershire country folk. From the alluring barmaid Amy Lights – a “rural Venus” – to the Reverend Vernon, who rides a tricycle “religiously” and excels at funerals, all the characters embody earthy warmth and ruddy humour. Central to the tale is Sacco, a builder’s apprentice, who seduces the local girls and startles older folk with his much-prized motorbike. With a witty remark and a quick answer to all of life’s perplexing questions.
The local newspaper of 1900 covered the weekly happenings of men, farming, and weather, but what of the Secret Things that were not reported in the papers that first year of the new century? Fred Archer resurrects the way of life of the village folk: how they lived in the cottages tucked away in every coomb under the hill, an outcrop of the Cotswolds that lies between them and the Malverns like a stranded whale, where the beech trees thrive on the limestone, overlooking the snaking Avon river.