Sunday, 16 June 2013

Frost Burning

Frost burning was a spring activity which took place on the fruit farms of Kingsley. More specifically within the orchards which were for the most part apple orchards. There were a few pear trees here and there but these were very much a minority crop. The two main areas where I used to go frost burning were at Rookery Farm which was on the way to Oakhanger and almost opposite the pond on Shortheath common and the nurseries beyond the Straits towards Binsted. Rookery Farm at the time was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Robins. The area covered by their orchards was large and extended westwards towards Worlham and Green Street. The nurseries beyond the Straits were situated on both sides of the sharp bends where the Straits road turns north before joining the Binsted road just south of South Hay on the lane that I have previously referred to as The Old Lane. This was just above what is now Jude Farm, which for the early part of my childhood did not exist. Jude Farm came into being after we had moved from the Straits to Woodfield when the land was bought by Mr. Lamport who came to Kingsley from over Lindford way, I think. The nurseries were owned by the Jones Family and appear on my map as Kingsley Nurseries. This was the same Jones family which also owned Coldharbour to the east end of the village. The orchards at Kingsley Nurseries extended on the left of the lane down towards the old lane and behind where the farm buildings then were situated. They also went up the road on the right hand side pretty much all the way up to the junction with the Binsted road and then they followed under the hanger right the way back between the hanger and the Straits road until they came to the left hand side of Wheatley Hill. The whole of that fillet of land was then covered by the orchards of Kingsley Nurseries. Kingsley Nurseries also grew a lot of flowers which included large headed Chrysanthemums that were grown under glass in the large green houses which the nurseries then had. I well remember the pungent smell of those magnificent blooms.
Anyway, back to the frost burning, at this time of the year the fruit trees, in this case mostly apples, begin to come into bud. Of course, this does vary from season to season and can be as much as month late or early. When the trees are in bud they at their most vulnerable to frost. I think this is before the blooms open and the fruit begins to set. If the delicate little buds are burned by frost the crop is severely reduced if not destroyed all together. It, therefore, follows that much effort was made to prevent, or at least reduce, the damage done by late frosts. That is where the frost burning came in. The rows between the trees in the orchards were lined with metal drums which had holes punctured into their sides and looked like braziers. These were filled with all sorts of stuff, wood, straw and finally coke. The drums were probably about five or six yards apart and as can be imagined there were hundreds of them needed to cover the whole of each orchard.
So, what happened was, members of the regular staff would monitor the weather forecast for frost warnings. When such a warning appeared their attention would then be directed to the many thermometers that were strategically placed all around the orchards. The reader will understand that weather forecasting in those days was rather more hit and miss than it is now. Obviously satellite’s had not been invented and guessing was rather more the order of the day.
The staff involved, apart from the weather forecasts, relied heavily upon local knowledge. They knew from years of experience where frost pockets existed in each of their areas. It was these places that would have provided the first evidence of a serious drop in temperature. When a frost was anticipated those of us who went frost burning would be contacted during the day before and put on standby for the forthcoming night. This did two things it established how many of the regular burners would be available for the task and it also alerted the individual to the prospect of a late night or, rather more usually, an early morning. It was, in my experience, the early hours of the morning when we were called out the most. Once again the reader will have to cast the mind back to an era when, for the most part, the people of Kingsley did not have phones. The village was served by a couple of telephone kiosks and that was that. No doubt difficult to appreciate in this age of the mobile phone but, that’s how it was, and life went on.
As the staff in the orchards found their thermometers showing the temperature dropping seriously, at a certain point, (and I don’t remember now what that was), the order was given for the call out to be embarked upon. This meant designated staff doing the rounds of the houses of those on standby to knock them up and get them to the farm involved. Those selected for this task had been previously made aware of the location of the bedroom occupied by the on call burner. This, as far as possible, ensured that parents or other inhabitants of the house remained undisturbed. Although, not foolproof, it worked quite well. In my case I was usually awoken by small stones hitting my bedroom window followed by the thrower telling me to get up and get a move on as, "we are lighting up".
One was not expected to hang around, and again in my case, I had usually made some food up before going to bed and primed a flask. It will be understood that on some occasions the task ahead could last for many hours so food and drink were essentials. Warm clothing, but old, was also necessary. I say old because after a nights frost burning your garments were not fit for much more than the bin.
Upon arrival at the farm the burners would be gathered in a designated hut and the foreman would outline the situation. It might be that the temperature had risen slightly or had not dropped to a critical level. In this case we would all remain in the hut and doze away the time until called out for the lighting. If on the other hand the temperature had dropped to a dangerous low we would be directed to our individual area and told to light up. The drums would have paraffin soaked sacking in the bottom and would all be ready for ignition. The burners were provided with flares which were again made of sacking which was bound around the top of a stick. The stick would be about an inch thick and probably about three feet long. The sacking having also been soaked in paraffin. They would actually burn for a long time. But in any event there was never any shortage of flares. These then were used to ignite the drums. It cannot be imagined just how ghastly it was when the fires were all lit. The smoke and pollution was quite dreadful. Of course the fires generated a significant amount of heat but, I seem to recall, it was the thick smoke that they created which engulfed the trees and in so doing protected the tender buds from the demon frost. This black mess seemed to hang low throughout the branches and was achieved by design because the fires all generated lots of smoke and were not allowed to burn clear. From the point of view of the burners we, of course, were breathing in all this filth. No Health and Safety then! The fires were kept alight until all danger of damage to the trees had passed. In some cases this went well into the next day and meant that those of us that had other jobs had to depart in order to attend our own work. Generally, I seem to remember, that by dawn or just after, the temperature rose and the fires were left to burn out. These were late frosts and not the long hard frosts of mid-winter.
On returning home the extent of the filth became all too clear, faces and hands were covered by the thick oily smoke and one was filthy. Why did we do it, I hear you ask, well we did it because we were well paid for out efforts, as simple as that. If you were lucky and didn’t light up you still got paid for being called out which was very popular amongst the burners.
I have often wondered what the cost of those frost burning exercises was. Clearly large amounts of fuel was consumed during light ups. The number of burners was considerable and the overtime for the regular staff must have been huge. However, it is obvious that the farmers would not have undertaken the task had it not been profitable. I can only guess the increased crop and the returns on fruit in those days must have justified the cost and effort. But none the less, having been a part of the process and witnessed the magnitude of the undertaking, I still find it difficult to make the sums fit.

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