|Avis Part Fifteen - A Farmer's Tale|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
From 1957 until 1964, Ascension had three distinct communities; the US Base, Georgetown and the farm on Green Mountain. The farm supplied fresh food, milk, meat and water to all the Cable & Wireless staff, both in Georgetown and at the farm itself. The US Base was totally self-sufficient, relying on supplies both shipped and flown in.
The importance of the farm has to be seen against the background of the shipping service. Ascension had only three or four supply ships per year, with the Union Castle Mail ships also calling in regularly on both north and south bound voyages. There were few supplies carried on the mail ships however, as the stay at Ascension was very brief. Frozen and fresh foods were difficult to import, with frozen food generally being bulk supplies, rather than the consumer range we know today.
In those days the farm employed 20 people under the control of C&W's Peter Critchley, the Farm Manager. It had a dairy herd, managed the sheep flock throughout the island, and grew produce both as animal feed and for distribution to the C&W residents. Areas under cultivation included the Home Farm area, other terraces both below and above Home Farm, the Tennis Court Garden (off Ruperts Path), Nursery Gardens (off the Dew Pond path), Weather Gardens, and Ascot Fields (both on the South Eastern slopes of the mountain). Other areas were used for grazing the cattle, with a total of 11 cows being kept plus calves. The sheep flock was estimated at 1000, with a small number of pigs also being kept.
Life on the mountain had improved slightly from the days in 1949 when Desmond Stevens worked at the farm. Peter Critchley and his family lived in Garden Cottage. Rock Cottage, Barter's Cottage and two storey Bell's Cottage were used as rest houses by the UK staff working in Georgetown. Olive Cottage and Benjamin's Cottage housed three workmen and their families, while the remainder of the men lived in the Red Lion. The ground floor of the main Red Lion building was a store; the upstairs part, known as Officer's Quarters, was partitioned off into separate rooms for the most senior men. The others slept in a large room - the Cadets Quarters that formed the upstairs part of Red Lion Cottage. When Wilson Scipio first came to Ascension he worked on the farm. Issued with his own mug and plate, he was shown to the Cadets Quarters, where a mattress and three grey blankets awaited. If you wanted sheets, he was told, you had to bring your own. The mountain men had a small club at the end of Benjamin's Cottage, famous as the location of the Christmas Dance.
The mountain men had their own mess. The cook would draw rations for the month on behalf of workers; if there were surplus rations, they were divided out. Unfortunately, if there was a shortage, extra rations couldn't be obtained. In common with the Georgetown residents, fish formed a significant part of the diet. Three times a week, the farmhands would take it in turns for a party of three or four to walk to North East Bay for a fishing trip. No fish - no supper! One advantage of the mountain fish supply though, was that the choice of fish was wider than that in the Georgetown mess. Washing facilities were rather basic at the Red Lion; no baths or showers. Water, as in Georgetown, was limited, but the facilities provided allowed for that; you used a bucket. George Moyce once described the joys of a bucket bath. Using a small amount of water, you wet and soaped the body, and washed. The remainder of the water was then gently tipped over yourself using a mug or cup, to rinse away the soap. George described it as very refreshing. In the cool air of the mountain it was probably rather bracing. One other problem with the bucket bath system at the farm was a shortage of buckets. The young men soon learnt that it was better to let the older staff have first use - if you didn't, the bucket got taken anyway, and running naked through the garden trying to get the bucket back certainly got you talked about!
The shortage of water also meant that toilet facilities were rather basic; no flush toilets, just the "Earth Closet". These had to be emptied daily, a task that generally fell to the newest arrivals. The containers were carried down to Booby Turn, where a chute was strategically placed, so that the contents could be tipped down into the valley near Middleton's Ridge. (I always wondered why the bananas grew so well in that area!)
Electricity was provided by the generators at the farm; no single power station in those days. Half past ten at night was "lights out", as the generator was closed down until the morning. It made for interesting night time trips to the toilet.
Fertiliser for the farm was readily available on Boatswain Bird Island. The Farm Manager would organise a trip once or twice a year to allow guano for the farm soil to be collected. If General Manager Mr Bruce accompanied the expedition, then someone had to be on duty at Weatherpost to relay any messages in case he was urgently required.
Ascot Fields and Weather Gardens were used mainly for the production of sweet potato, used partly as a vegetable, but also to supplement the animal feed. Four donkeys were in use as pack animals around the mountain area, giving a reminder of older times. The work regime was hard. The dairymen had to rise at 5am to bring in the herd of cows and milk them. Others started at 7am to visit the more remote fields to dig potato or collect other vegetation for the cows and the pigs. Then at 8am it was time for breakfast. The joys of rising on a misty cold morning and going to work before breakfast had to be experienced to be appreciated.
As well as the weeding, planting and harvesting required in the garden plots, the sheep also required attention. One man was specifically appointed as shepherd, and his daily task was to visit the watering places so that each was checked at least once per week. North East, Castle Rock (near the Ashpit picnic area), Middleton's Ridge, Breakneck Valley, Sheep Walk Gardens, God Be Thanked and the Zig-Zag tank were just some of the spots that had to be visited, on foot, and at each one the trough was filled from the nearby tank.
Twice a week, more men were used to catch sheep for slaughter. The sheep were driven towards fences that channelled them to holding pens; Two Boats, North East and Breakneck Valley were the initial sites, later a further fence was added at Ragged Hill. In Breakneck Valley there was an added complication in that it was impossible to get at vehicle in the area. The sheep therefore had to be got back to the farm through the tunnel, sometimes by carrying them. In October of each year, a more intensive roundup was done with the object of capturing each sheep, docking tails, sheering and dipping the animal. The fleeces were exported, with the men being paid 4d for each fleece they cut.
So that was life at the farm at the start of the 1960's; living conditions best described as basic; steady, hard work involving a lot of walking, but also days of great comradeship and friendship fondly remembered by those involved.