The Clearing and Building

When the timber had been removed, the slope became a pattern of tree stumps, dotted like mushrooms across the field. Then men with pickaxes and narrow digging spades cut round each stump, chopping off the roots, exposing the sides, undercutting where possible. A chain was passed round the exposed stump and a huge shire horse, its flanks shining and glistening with sweat, pulled and heaved until the stump began to move. At that moment Phyllis, after the first ocecasion, turned away and winced, for no sooner did the stump move than the carter cut the horse violently with his whip. Each time this produced a frenzied whinny and a scrabbling with the hooves as the horse dragged harder and the stump broke clear. Soon Phyllis could bear it no longer and ran home crying, with me following, trying to comfort her.

By the time we ventured back next day the stumps had been piled in long heaps and burning had started. Not with great blazes, but slow combustion, tardy and fitful because the wood was wet and full of sap. The men kept returning to their fires, pushing them together as the centres burnt to ash, shaping the mounds and coaxing the stumps to burn.

A few days later there were piles of wood ash all over the site and unlevelled pits left from the tree stumps. The burnt-out watch fires of a vanished army near their abandoned fox holes. When I pointed this out to my father he said,

"Too much like Flanders," and refused to say any more.

The more knowledgeable gardeners collected some of the wood ash to put on their flowers, but most of it washed away. By the autumn weeds and grass had sprung up, colonising a landscape which had,for centuries, been too shady for them to grow. Within a month there were men marking out the site with pegs and strings in a way that we children could not understand. Trenches were dug for no apparent reason. Great heaps of gravel and sand arrived in two wheeled carts, drawn by the inevitable shire horses, with their huge hooves and hair-fringed anklets. These carts were always exciting because the carter backed them into position, pulling on the cheek harness where it met the horse's bit until the cart was in the correct place. Then he knocked out a holding wedge and the cart body tipped up, suddenly and violently, depositing its load in exactly the right position.

These mountains of sand and gravel were to be features of the landscape for some years to come. Each time the same process was repeated. Two or three men began wheeling so many barrowloads of sand, so many barrows of gravel, so many sacks of cement, into a huge pile which they turned until it was all the same grey-yellow colour. Then they made a hole in the centre, filled it with water and carefully turned the dry mixture into the centre. Steady turning, controlling the water so that it could not escape from the centre, watchful mixing, to produce a great lake of concrete, ready to be poured into the narrow trenches to form foundations for the houses. This mixing process would be repeated along road after road as the houses were built, year after year, until the estate was complete. The first mix was for foundations. They would use different proportions and different materials for the bricklaying mortar, but the process of batch mixing would be used on all occasions. There were no concrete mixers. No ready-mix concrete was delivered to the site in revolving conical vases, carried on huge lorries. These machines were still light years away. Bricks were delivered by lorry or cart and unloaded one by one. The impression the whole time that the estate was being built was of armies of men, with their different skills, working by hand, following each other in turn from house to house, without any of the modern machinery we expect today.

 

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