Living By The Land – Episode 01

“GET a shift on, girls. The King’ll be here in an hour and you’ve still got your dainty little hands wrapped around udders!”

Louisa Harris looked up from the cow she was milking to see Martha, the burly head of the dairy at Lower Meadow Farm, pacing the milking shed like a woman possessed.

Amelia, Louisa’s fellow dairymaid, laughed.

“It’s not the King, Martha, just his men.”

Martha threw her hands in the air.

“Same difference, you cheeky wench. They’ll be reporting back in minute detail and I don’t want them telling His Majesty that my dairy has a dirty floor.”

“But you’ve washed it twice this morning already,” Amelia objected.

Louisa had been thinking the same, but having been at Lower Meadow Farm for only two weeks she was still a little scared of her brusque boss. She looked up and saw Martha tugging anxiously at her mobcap, checking her rollers were still in place. Louisa knew how much this afternoon’s semi-royal visit meant to everyone here. Martha wasn’t really criticising, she was just worried about letting Farmer Robert down.

“I’ve got one more cow to milk, Martha,” she said quickly, “and then I can go for the mops.”

Martha’s face softened.

“There, now, you’re a good ’un, young Louisa. Hard worker, too, eh, Amelia?”

From safely behind the broad side of her cow, Amelia stuck her tongue out in Martha’s general direction. Louisa suppressed a giggle and applied herself to her milking. Amelia Cooper was Martha’s second in command. A small but irrepressibly lively girl, she’d taken Louisa under her wing from the moment she’d arrived at Lower Meadow. Louisa was grateful for her friendship, though sometimes a little stunned by Amelia’s rather boisterous approach to life.

“I work very hard,” she was protesting to their boss now, rising as she finished milking her cow and carefully gathering her skirts.

“You’re not so bad,” Martha conceded, “as long as there’s nothing in trousers about!”

Amelia giggled.

“A girl has to think of her future, Martha,” she said, pouting.

“A girl has to watch her reputation,” Martha retorted tartly. “Now, hurry up with that milk and we can get the dairy sparkling before these blasted visitors turn up to inspect it.”

With that, Martha strode out, back towards her precious milk churns and cheese presses. Lower Meadow was well known for its dairy produce and Martha wanted it all just right. Louisa increased the pressure on her final cow’s udders, cursing her slowness. She’d been milking since she was a little lass but never so many cows at one time, and her fingers still tired more quickly than the more experienced Amelia.

“There’s nothing wrong with my reputation,” her friend was saying now, as she rounded up the cows from their pen and began shooing them back towards the bottom field just beyond the back doors of the shed.

Louisa wisely kept silent, for Amelia, for all her kind heart, was rather wild when it came to the boys on the farm. She made no bones about the fact that she was looking for a husband and was for ever encouraging Louisa to do the same.

Louisa had to admit that she liked watching the easy banter between the male and female farmhands around the big kitchen table of an evening, but as of yet she hadn’t plucked up the courage to join in. She would, in time, not least because she had a suspicion that her dear father had had a similar idea when he’d sent her to do her apprenticeship on the big farm where he’d learned his own trade.

“You’ll have more fun at Lower Meadow than here,” he had kept on telling her in her last weeks at home. “It’s a big old place, always full of people – workers, students, guests. Robert’s full of ideas. There will be far more there for a young woman than I have to offer.”

Louisa had rushed to assure him that she loved life on their little smallholding and, remembering his brave words now, she felt a rush of pain. Leaning a suddenly hot cheek against the soft side of her cow, she shut her eyes against tears. Louisa’s family farm was no longer the happy little place in which she’d grown up. Six months ago her beloved mother had succumbed to the lung disease that had been making her pale and short of breath for a worryingly long time. The steadfast woman who had been up at dawn every day of Louisa’s life could suddenly get up no more.

Alison Cook