Friday, 17 December 2010

The old barn

It stood there when my husband's Great Grandfather took on the tenancy of the farm.

It stood protecting the front door of the farmhouse, just a little to the west and shouldered the worst of the west wind.
It is not the biggest barn, in fact it is a tiny barn, stone built, honest cobbled floor and has small nooks in the inside wall where stones have loosened at some point in the past 150 years and had become a resting place for  dim oil lamps. It has been whitened with lime a long time ago. The lime slakes off in long strips, revealing the cold, gray stone.

It is just big enough to house a dozen cattle, six either side of the gully which runs down the middle to the door. There are marks on the wall where the hay hake was once fixed. If you stand for long enough and free your mind, you can see the stockman tending to his herd. You can feel the heat from the cattle and smell their distinctive sweet smell.

You can garner a sense of the backbreaking job it was to muck the dung from the cobbles using only a 'graip' and shovel.
The old stones have captured a faint feeling of achievement, the calves successfully brought into the world, the sick cattle returned to health. Sadness too. The cattle who entered the little barn and never left. Their last breath absorbed by the stone.

Over the years and generations of the family, the barn stopped being used for cattle and became a coal shed and a workbench was built against the back wall.
It was dark in there and things scuttled. Owls swooped silently from it's rafters.

The roof timbers eventually became rotten and slates fell off. The little barn, dark and windowless now began to allow shards of light explore the darkest corners. It allowed moonlight to shine her soft light inside and the barn was transformed into something quite beautiful.

Repairs were attempted but woodworm had greedily consumed more than it's fair share of the pitch pine. Lumps of rafter fell to the dusty ground and it became unsafe to go near the barn.

The tenant farmer asked the landowner to repair the roof or at least make it safe because after all, it was his property and the Law of the day stated that once a fixture had lived it's life and could no longer be repaired, it had to be replaced.
The tenant farmer was worried about the barn as he had young children running about the farm and the barn was so near the front door.
The landowner was not worried about the tenant's children or the barn and constantly ignored his obligation and the letters.

The children grew up and one day the son, now the next generation of tenant, had children of his own.
He too had tried to make the old barn roof safe but there was nowhere sound enough to accept a nail.
He warned his children not to go near, just as his father had warned him.
He wrote to the landowner about his fears but the landowner still did not care.

The tenant finally went to the landowner and asked his permission to use his own money to fix the barn roof. He did not remove his cap nor tugged his forelock but he did feel humiliated and angry to have to ask.

The tenant's wife was furious when she realised how humiliated her husband felt. She knew this humiliation went back a long way to a time long before the barn was built.
She knew that tenants were given a very raw deal by uncaring landowners and were seen as hindrances and property.
She discovered that the tenant was now 'owned' by the landowner's grandchild.

In a rage, she threw a rake at the roof of the little barn. The roof gave a deep exhausted groan and completely collapsed.

"I am so sorry. So terribly and completely sorry" whispered the tenant's wife to the little barn. She felt wretched.

A few days later, a letter arrived from the landowner. "This is to remind you that the barn is my property and any home improvements must have my permission. Please instruct on your intention in replacing the damaged property".

The little barn stands  with four walls. It looks odd like a snowman in the snow, missing his head. It still shoulders the raw west wind from the farmhouse and protects the farmyard from the worst of the weather.

Sunlight floods the cobbles and rain has washed them spotlessly clean. Mice no longer feel they have found a safe, dark shelter from the owl's all seeing eye. The owl has nowhere to hide and moves to another barn.
The hunter and hunted left vulnerable.

The tenant makes a vow to make the barn complete again because he does care. He cares for the mouse and the owl and barn; the barn which has protected the family and stock for more than one hundred years. They are all part of the bigger picture.

"The prosperous man is asleep,
Nor hears how the whirlwinds sweep,
But Misery and I must watch
the surly tempest blow:
And it's O, fickle Fortune, O!"

Robert Burns

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