Harvesting Vraic


My big brother Dennis is twenty years older than me and I’m a child of the 50s so our combined memories go back a long way. Plus Dad was born in 1911, his dad, who was a big part of my childhood, in 1882, his dad in 1855 and his dad in 1826. As my 1882 Grandad knew his 1826 Grandad I was being told stories about the Camp family from over a hundred years earlier when all I actually wanted to do was read Biggles Flies North.

Now I realise many of those memories are gone forever but the favourite often repeated ones are still in my mind and I want to coax them out and get them into the ether until the next generation of Camps no longer want to play Batman in 3D on the Wii or watch Twilight but start to wonder where they came from.

What has that got to do with Harvesting Vraic? Absolutely nothing at all. Except, big brother Dennis found an old photo album in his damp shed and brought it to me to see if I could salvage anything from the wet pulp his photos had become.

In most cases it was impossible but one photo had broken into many wet soggy pieces. I spent sometime in piecing it together and then scanned it into Picasa and tried to make something of it. It still looked a mess and was destined for the trash can when in a flash I realised my memories of stories told to me in my childhood were in the same soggy, broken mess that this photograph had become. If it was worth the effort to preserve a random photo then the important events that created Camp family culture was equally worth preserving.

Hence this blog!

I will tell one harvesting Vraic story which isn’t politically correct today and certainly not in keeping with modern animal rights legislation. Please remember that the past is another country and they do things differently there. Remember also that a horse was not merely for recreation but was a piece of farm equipment in the days before tractors or even when tractors became cheap enough to replace them.

Vraic is the generic name in Guernsey for seaweed of which we have vaste quantities just lying on our beaches free for all to take. Now it is an unsightly smelly thing which attracts a lot of small flies. Then, whenever then was, it was a valuable crop spread liberally on the land as a manure and rotted away beautifully to enrich the soil and help produce bountiful crops.

I will take a little aside here to elaborate on when any of these rambles are set in time. Each tale some of them very tall and elaborated upon over the years did not come with a date stamp. Where possible I will try to establish a period and I will know whose life they appeared in. Otherwise each tale comes with a date of probably before 1960. Back to Vraic Harvesting.

Vraic is free for anyone to collect but if you don’t want the bother then you buy it off someone who is prepared to do it. My Grandad, a complex character with a shady past, ran several businesses one of which was selling Vraic. He was able to utilise the cheap labour provided by his sons and the horses from his second hand horse business to undercut the competition and grow a large client base.

The Vraic can only be collected when the tides permit so vraicing time is limited and with a big order book to fill maximum output was essential. The horse would pull the traditional Guernsey red and blue boxcart down the beach where it was loaded with vraic by hand. Then up the beach and to the field which could be a few miles away where it was tipped. Then a rush back to the beach and do it all over again.

Every last load was important and the fact that a box cart full of vraic will float was often used to get that last load out with a horse up to its belly in water and the cart floating.

So imagine the problem when my Grandad brings a new horse down to the beach to replace the one he has just sold. The changeover takes place and New Horse is asked politely to pull the cart up the beach. It refuses. A more robust request is made. No response. The box cart is full and the tide is licking at its wheels. Pulling, pushing and cracking a whip motivates the horse not one jot.

Dad looks at the results of his hard work and accepts he will have to unload the cart. Grandad looks at the box cart and sees Pounds, Shillings and Pence. This is not the time to hesitate. Even my Grandad couldn’t halt the rising tide.

Whipping off his jacket he removed his shirt and placed it on the sand under the horse’s belly. Quickly striking a match he lit the shirt and flames quickly flew up and licked the horse’s tender underside. Ears back and now fully motivated New Horse flew up the beach leaving Grandad and Dad racing after it.

Grandad knew how to motivate both men and animals. Possibly only in ways that would see him behind bars today.

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One Response to Harvesting Vraic

  1. That is an absolutely wonderful tale, Horace and you tell it well…looking forward to more of the same….:-}

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