Vol. 6 No. 1 - 1989
Old age has little to recommend it but I can offer one bonus - Memory. The older we grow the clearer the past becomes. My childhood grows closer and closer and just lately it has focussed on hens.
Is there anyone left who remembers the hens' bucket? It was a necessary part of the equipment in every country cottage or farmhouse and it stood under the scullery shelf. Into it went every scrap of food; cold porridge, fried bread, potato skins, for nobody peeled potatoes and there was a skin plate beside every dinner plate.
My mother as a bride of twenty, taught herself to make soda bread and, according to her, the hens' bucket was a very useful part of the lesson. In the afternoon, meal was added to the bucket, any sour buttermilk that might be left over, stale bread from the crock where it was stored and boiling water added and the whole lot stirred into a stiff mess, if you like to call it that. But it smelt good to me. Where were the hens?
Some houses had hen runs but usually the hens roamed at will. They covered themselves in dust baths beneath the hedges. They pecked round the yard and there was always the sound of contented clucking. The bolder ones knew when it was feeding time for the bucket stood outside the back door to cool with a piece of wood over the top to keep the hens out of it.
Feeding time and the bearer became a Pied Piper - not of rats but of hens. They came half running half flying from all corners of the yard, the orchard and the nearby fields, and followed the bucket to the trough, I remember our trough was a motor tyre cut in two. The bucket was emptied and scraped out and then it was time to collect the eggs.
There were nests in the hen house. A favourite one was an orange box which was divided into three and each compartment lined with hay and a nest egg in each as an invitation. Usually there was a "clocker" in a nest and she was evicted very unwillingly. Some hens scorned such luxury and laid away. That meant a search of outhouses and fields; a crafty hen might elude the searchers and rear her brood in some secret place. Foxes were very scarce then so there was little danger.
May I digress? It is a privilege of age. One day I was alone in the house, on my knees, scrubbing the tiled kitchen floor when through the open door our golden Labrador appeared with a guinea hen in his mouth. He had found her on her nest. I can still remember the eyes of that guinea hen. I had to rescue her, unharmed of course, and I can still hear her squawk as she disappeared through the door.
In the summer new potatoes for the dinner were dug every day. The small ones went into a separate bucket and were washed under the pump and pummelled with a stout stick. After a few washings they were clean and then boiled as hens' potatoes. They were beetled in the bucket, mixed with meal and hot water and that was like a Christmas dinner for the hens. Nothing was ever left, so they must have enjoyed it.
We didn't buy chickens then; we would have scorned to eat a chicken. Roosters or cockerels were fattened in the fields after the corn was harvested. They were the size of young turkeys and tasted better. Battery hens, supermarket chickens, graded eggs!! I apologize on man's behalf and will settle for my memories.