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The Black Bullocks

By John Chatterton

“I was born in the middle of an airfield.”

That remark, casually dropped, if ever there was a lull in the conversation in the mess, was guaranteed to raise a host of ribald remarks, the cleaner ones referring to there being a shortage of gooseberry bushes that year, or to the storks having been given the wrong QDM. Mind you, there were not many quiet nights in the mess, unless it was a Friday and scrubbed ops on Wednesday and Thursday had resulted in the beer ration running out!

My birthplace was Grange Farm, where my father ran one of the four farms in the parish of Hagnaby, all tenanted from the local Squire who lived at Hagnaby Priory and owned all the land. Hagnaby was really too small to be called a parish, it was more of a hamlet, with no shop or Post Office, and none of the usual independent tradesmen such as butcher, baker, wheelwright, blacksmith, etc. Everybody either worked on the farms or for the Squire as forester, gamekeeper, coachman, butler and so on. My mother’s father held the grand post of Head Gardener, and lived in a superior thatched house about a mile up the road from Grange Farm. (Dad had no distance at all to walk to do his courting.)

By the late 1920s the Agricultural Depression was forcing many farmers into bankrupcy, so dad decided to cut his losses by giving up the arable side with its necessary work force, to concentrate on grassland farming and livestock. This meant that we gave up the tenancy at Hagnaby Grange and moved two miles north to the next village of Old Bolingbroke where we owned some grassland. He ran the job single-handed until his sons acquired enough size and agility to become the best sheepdogs in the village. He still had four grass fields that belonged to his sister at Stickford,just southeast of the Grange, so a great many movements of cattle and sheep took place on the road past my birthplace. There was no motorised cattle transport, it was all done by ‘droving’, the final journey being to the local town of Spilsby, at crack of dawn on market day.

During the grazing season, from spring until late autumn, the Stickford livestock had to be checked (shepherded) every day, wet or fine, which entailed a journey by dad, or one of his sons, on an ancient ‘sit up and beg’ bicycle with half a hundredweight of cattle cake in a hessian bag, balanced precariously on the handlebars. The insecure load could easily slip and get caught in the front wheel, precipitating the rider ignominiously into a ditch.

By the Thirties the Squire’s descendants had all died out and much of the fine front of the Priory was pulled down. The County Surveyor attending the sale, with the intention of buying a rather nice staircase, decided he would like to live there and converted the remaining servants’ quarters into a pleasant house, little knowing that in a few years time a huge bomb store would be built at the end of his front garden.

When war broke out, the massive Airfield Building Programme selected the flat, well-drained fields of Hagnaby Grange Farm as a suitable site. Messrs Laings, the contractors, put the technical buildings and accommodation blocks in the neighbouring village of east Kirkby where they had their office, so the postal address became RAF East Kirkby. It was a great upheaval for a quiet, rustic community (and even more so when two thousand RAF personnel arrived), but the villagers were delighted to swap their ‘down the garden path privies’ for flush toilets when they were connected to the main sewage works.

At Hagnaby Grange the farm cottages were demolished and the local brook piped in, but the Grange itself was unaccountably spared and remained inside the eastern perimeter track, perhaps acting as a bit of camouflage. Alas, it was wrecked in the last month of the war when a bombing-up accident destroyed five of No 57 Squadron Lancasters that were parked nearby. One particular feature of the airfield layout, which as a pilot I later appreciated, was the long straight taxiways of perimeter track linking the runway ends, the only kink occurring where Granddad’s house had stood; alas this was not due to the preservation of a historic building but merely the proximity of the bomb dump!

Before all this happened, there was another interesting development. In the first years of the war, some fields to the east of the Grange were laid out as a dummy airfiels, or K site. Wooden replicas of Whitleys were constructed at Elstree Studios and positioned to look like dispersed aircraft and a team of airmen had the unenviable task of lighting up a ‘flarepath’ each night and retiring to a rudimentary shelter as streams of Heinkels and Dorniers crossed the eastern counties to bomb Coventry and other midland cities. A few bombs were dropped, one stick of which stretched as far as our Stickford fields. I was on leave at the time, from my duties as an armourer with a coastal Blenheim squadron, and the next day, with my brother, went to do the daily shepherding. We found two small craters and between them a neat round hole about a foot in diameter, and being curious we got a long stick to poke down the hole, as one might plumb a well to find the depth of water. It suddenly dawned on us that this was perhaps a bit hazardous - an armourer should have known better! So we moved the cattle into the next field and shut the gate behind them.

The Lincolnshire skies in those days were full of fighters and training aircraft as well as predominant Hampdens, and there was much speculation in the villages as to what aeroplanes would operate from the ‘old farm’. The three Chatterton boys, now in the services, were soon scattered around the globe and eager to hear of developments via mother’s fortnightly letters. Obviously she could not specifically mention planes and runways, so she devised a code whereby she would talk about sheep on our ‘old farm’ if East Kirkby got fighters, and it would be bullocks for the heavier bombers. Our allies from the USA might easily have come there with day bombers, so when the Lancs arrived they were naturally ‘Black Bullocks’. As a further refinement she went on to call them Aberdeen Angus cattle, which every farm boy knew were black, whereas a possible censor only knew them as prime steaks.

Mother’s news from home was most avidly received by brother Chris who was with the Royal Artillery in Burma. Everyday life in the jungle was pretty miserable, with the ever-present danger of Japanese attacks and no comforts at any time due to the incessant mosquitoes and the pervading humidity, leeches and snakes. His sanity was only saved by the continuing saga of home life: the orchard trees in blossom and fruit, the progress of Mother’s hens hatching record numbers of chicks, how the fattening pig was developing, the yield of the onions and carrots, the frogspawn in the pond, as well as the foibles of the local village characters.

But best of all was news of the ‘old farm’ and how it had acquired a new herd of Angus bullocks (57 Sqn had arrived). The animals were prone to accident and escaping, tending to break through the boundary fence into Ikey Hipkin’s garden. One finished up in Mr Elmitt’s field with a broken leg and the vet had to be called to put it down; they made quite a mess of the wheat crop loading it up to cart away. The herd also seemed susceptible to disease, as at one time she reported that three had died, but later some new ones had been brought in to augment the numbers (when 630 Sqn joined 57).

Chris replied in the same vein, saying that his local terrain was not suitable for cattle, probably alright for sheep, but all he saw were goats. (My two mates flying Hurricanes and Thunderbolts in Burma would not have felt complimented.) He also mentioned mules a good deal, which was an unexpected one for the code, until we heard on the BBC news the important role of load-carrying Dakotas.

Down the years Mother’s Black Bullock stories passed into family legend and were circulated, sometimes with a bit of embroidery and not a little pride, right down to distant cousins. One outspoken and irreverent uncle tended to call it ‘all a load of bullocks’ - but not in mother’s hearing!

Sixty years on and Mother’s grandson Mike was fighting another war in a distant land and living in an inhospitable desert for three months. When Chris received Mother’s letters the news from home was many weeks out of date, but Mike’s e-mail was immediate. His sister Jen, remembering how her uncle Chris’ morale had been kept up by Mother’s bulletins, took on her grandmother’s mantle and the task of supplying the ‘Black Bullock letters - 2003’. So every week, in addition to family news supplied by his wife Wendy, Mike was brought up to date on the progress of the snowdrops and the daffodills, and how the Canada geese had a nest with seven eggs on the island in the pond. She visualised him in the dusty, turbulent upper air over Iraq, perhaps two thirds of the way through an eleven hour patrol, sweating to hold his Nimrod steady while hooked up to the vital tanker, then thankfully handing over to his copilot, relaxing clenched limbs and taking out of his pocket the latest e-mail. The thousand square miles of sand below are momentarily replaced by the green wheat fields of Lincolnshire and that armoured vehicle down there becomes a Massey Ferguson tractor with a six furrow plough. His favourite apple tree, ‘Sunset’ is loaded with blossom and promises to fruit well, and a robin has made a nest in the coil of wire at the back of the implement shed.

Just to remind him of his grandmother, each e-mail must always carry a bovine reference, although, alas, there is no need for coded stories from home. Our present farm has run a beef enterprise for the last hundred years, so there is no shortage of subjects, with cattle yards full of exotic breeds - Belgian Blues, Simmentals, Limousins and Blonde Aquitaines. There are also cattle that grandma would have recognised: local Lincoln Reds, Herefords and, of course, a few Aberdeen Angus. When turned out to grass in March it was inevitable that one would find a weak spot in the fence and be reported as an escaped cow by a helpful rambler. Jen’s ingenuity knew no bounds and, for a change, the animal might appear in a mouth-watering description of a Sunday lunch with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; or perhaps a reference to a local hostelry, the Black Bull, although critics might say that was not entirely correct.

Grandmother would have been delighted that her cryptic name for warplanes was still viable after sixty years when Jen passed on news of two Lancasters that Mike still called his own. The BBMF Lancaster moved from Coningsby to take up summer residence at Barkston Heath, but most pertinent of all was the Lanc at East Kirkby, where a Black Bullock still roams the fields at the Old Farm.