This is a story about twin brothers, Ben and Charlie Beaumont. They were born in the summer of 1892 on their father's farm just outside the village of Baylham, in Suffolk. As youngsters, they worked on the farm but like most young men of their generation, when the call to arms came in 1914, they answered and duly joined the army on the western front. Unlike like a lot of men, however, they survived. They had been called upon to drive and maintain one of the steam powered road locomotives that hauled huge guns, ammunition and other supplies along the muddy roads and tracks of that hellish part of Western Europe. It left them changed men... both physically and more importantly, as it turned out, mentally for they had been mightily impressed with the power and durability of those great hissing behemoths.
When, eventually, they returned home they had decided to carry on where they had left off five years earlier and take up their trade as "Ploughmen", but not for them would it be behind a pair of Shires, breathing methane and treading in horse shit all day... oh, my word no! This was the twentieth century and they were Contract Ploughmen. They had bought two of the biggest steam ploughing engines ever to come out of John Fowler's factory in Leeds.... AA7 Class, 18 new horsepower, 22 ton monsters, a matched pair; one right hand and one left hand with sequential numbers. The brothers had named them Samson and Hercules as befitted their strength and power. Each one had a winding drum beneath the boiler and each drum carried a full half mile of steel cable. There wasn't a field in the whole of East Anglia that the brothers couldn't plough. For nine months each year, Ben and Charlie drove their engines all over Norfolk, Suffolk and the fens of Cambridgeshire, going from farm to farm, ploughing fields, dredging lakes and even, occasionally, pulling tree stumps. It takes two to operate a ploughing engine so they were accompanied by two plough lads who's job it was to keep the boilers stoked, make tea and do the other menial tasks. On the road between farms, each engine towed a living van, one for the brothers and another for the lads and behind them, Samson towed the great, seven furrow balanced plough and Hercules towed the trailer that carried the coal, dredging bucket, the big single furrow 'deep' plough, the spare cables and all the other bits and pieces they needed.
It was Christmas Eve; the final contract of the year had been successfully completed and the brothers were on their way home. As had become a tradition over the years, the lads pulled into the field, adjacent to The Lion public house, just outside Needham Market where they would spend their last night before reaching their father's farm for Christmas the next day. It would be a treat for them all to sleep in a pub instead of the living vans. As he did every night before turning in, Ben checked his beloved engines. He made sure that the boilers were full and that the fire boxes were damped down for the night, ready to be opened up again in the morning. They ate a hearty pub meal, supped a pint or three of the locally brewed Tolly Cobold ale and chatted to their old friend, Peter, the landlord before retiring for the night.
As usual, Ben was the first to rise in the morning, eager to make sure his precious engines were all right. He checked the boiler water levels again, opened up the firebox dampers, raked out the ash and stoked the fires. Whilst waiting for the steam pressure to rise, he topped up the oil boxes and screwed the grease caps down a turn. He check that the gears were all disengaged and slowly pushed Samson's steam regulator forward, allowing steam into the compound cylinders. The huge flywheel started to turn and gradually picked up speed as Ben eased the regulator further forward.... but something was amiss. There was 'knocking' noise that definitely shouldn't have been there. Ben listened intently, trying to determine exactly where it was coming from. No easy task with so much ironmongery whirling around. A voice from behind him said "It's the crosshead on your high pressure cylinder. The cotter has worked loose." "Do you think so?" asked Ben as he turned to see who had spoken to him.... but there was no-one there. Just an old brown horse looking at him from over the gate into the next field. Ben scratched his head and looked all around but there was still only the brown horse at the gate and a grey further into the field with his head down, quietly munching grass. Ben shook his head and listened to his engine again. "Go on, then, tighten it up." said the voice from behind him. Ben turned again; faster this time, in the hope of catching who it was before they ducked out of sight but still there was only the old brown horse, quietly watching him from behind the gate. Ben was getting annoyed, thinking it was one of the plough boys playing tricks on him but he could see no one. He stopped the engine and selecting the correct size hammer from the six different ones that resided in the toolbox, he gave the cotter securing the high pressure crosshead a sharp clout. To his surprise, he found that he could get half a turn on the retaining nut. The voice had been right, after all. "See.... I told you that cotter was loose." said the voice. Ben had had enough. When he found out which lad it was, he'd reward him with a clout around the ear but there was still nobody to be seen. He looked at the old brown horse and the old brown horse looked back.... and winked at him! If this had happened a few decades later they would have said that it 'freaked him out', as it was, Ben just scrambled down from the footplate and ran as fast as he could to the pub.
Charlie and the two lads were seated at a table by the fire, tucking in to what is now called a 'Full English' breakfast when the door burst open and Ben skidded to a halt against the bar. "Quick," says he, "give me a large brandy." Peter, who was behind the bar, happily obliged. Charlie looked up at his brother. "Good God, Ben, what on Earth's the matter. You look like you've seen a ghost." Ben emptied the brandy goblet before replying. "You'll all think I'm mad but I'm certain I've been having a conversation with a horse." He related the happenings of the last few minutes whilst Peter refilled the empty brandy goblet.
"Ah...." said Peter, "that would a' been one of old George's 'orses. He used to plough with 'em before he retired, like. Were it the brown un?" Ben looked at Peter in a befuddled sort of way "Err.... yes, it was." Peter laughed.... "Well then," he said, "I'm thinking that it's yer lucky day." "Why?" asked Ben. "Doesn't the grey one talk?" and then mentally kicked himself for asking such a daft question.
"Oh..arrr", said Peter. "He can be right conversational when he puts his mind to it.... but 'e know bugger all about steam engines."
Last updated 27.10.2015