Eddie Wressell has seen over 80 Christmases. Lucy Oates talks to a true East Yorkshire countryman about old and new.
I have a vivid childhood memory of visiting Eddie Wressell’s blacksmith’s shop at Goole Fields with my father.
This would have been in the mid-1980s, at a time when blacksmiths’ shops were already starting to seem like relics from a bygone age. Eddie’s was one of the last to close in the Goole area on his retirement in 1994. The empty, near-derelict building still stands there today.
Eddie, now 81, saw methods which had been employed from time immemorial vanish almost overnight.
“In the early days shoeing horses was a big part of the job,” he says. “We had 256 working horses on the books at one point, but within a two-year period that had dropped to six. That just shows how quickly things changed when farms became mechanised.”
Raised in Fockerby, he has lived in nearby Whitgift for most of his life. “Growing up, we’d spend all our time out in the fields surrounded by nature. It was all grassland then – they only ploughed the fields out after the war.”
After Goole Grammar School he started work in 1946 for Fred Hill in nearby Swinefleet. Fred was a wheelwright, joiner and blacksmith, and it was there that Eddie began to learn his trade.
The following year, he joined Harold Hodgson at his blacksmith’s shop on Goole Fields. In 1948, Eddie was expecting to be called up for National Service but was told that he didn’t have to go into uniform because his skills were needed to repair farm machinery here.
Eddie remained at Harold Hodgson’s, taking over the business in 1984.
He fondly recalls shoeing the last working horse in Goole. It belonged to a local farmer called Albert Phillipson and was used to transport materials between the docks and shipyard at Goole.
“Harold was out at the time and, because there was less demand for shoeing horses by then, the shoes weren’t ready when Albert brought the horse in. So I had to make them before I could put them on. When Harold got back, Albert said to him ‘we don’t need thee, we’ve managed’. I’d remembered what I’d been shown.
“When I first started work, all the villages had a blacksmith so if you didn’t do a good job people would go elsewhere. Gradually, as the others closed, I’d go out further afield and do jobs on farms throughout the Goole area.
“There were still a few carters in Goole – certain jobs were easier with a horse and cart. But after that our work changed to repairing farm machinery and welding motor cars for people so that they’d pass their MOT.
“I made staircases and fire escapes for some of the businesses in the town and repaired fire places and things like that. We did anything that people wanted.”
Eddie reminds me that one of the farms he visited regularly was my late grandfather’s at Asselby near Howden.
“It was a different world in those days, every farm was lived in and some also had houses for the workmen. You could always go in for a cup of tea and bit of fruit loaf or slice of apple pie.
“Half the farms in Goole Fields have been sold off or pulled down now. There are only a couple where farming families still live. It’s a shame.
“You wouldn’t make a living as a blacksmith now – it’s a different type of work.
“We had to change with the times.”
One of Eddie’s customers was Associated British Ports, operator of Goole Docks. They wanted nuts and bolts to order. Some of these bolts, up to 32in long, were used for piling work along the banks of the River Ouse, which flows through the Goole Fields area and on towards the docks.
These days, Eddie is more likely to be found at RSPB Blacktoft Sands, where he has worked as a volunteer for almost 40 years.
This enduring commitment recently earned him the RSPB President’s Award, a high- profile, national accolade. Yet, this is just one of many activities that have occupied him since he retired.
He also found time to become clerk to several local parish councils and counts the years he spent playing the accordion for The Marshland Singers as “some of the happiest of his life”.
Eddie and his wife, Marjorie, performed at venues across Yorkshire as part of the well- known group of singers and musicians.
I met him at Blacktoft Sands just before Christmas. He was sitting contentedly by a roaring stove in one of the hides watching a Marsh Harrier swooping over the frosty reed beds. It’s clear that this is a pastime from which he derives a great deal of pleasure.
He’s been involved here since Blacktoft Sands became a nature reserve in 1972. “I used to spend a lot of time walking on the riverbank and coming onto the island here.
“When the RSPB first began leasing it from ABP, I made the original steel sluices to control the lagoons and also repaired machinery for them.
“The warden at that time asked me to be a guide because of my knowledge of birds, so I started taking visitors on tours of the site.”
Two hip replacement operations have left Eddie less mobile, so these days he tends to sit in the hides and visitors come to him, but he continues to offer his services as an information warden.
Although he admits that it’s nice to see more unusual visitors to the site, he enjoys watching the diversity of the wildlife that visits on daily basis, adding: “I remember one occasion when everything was under ice and snow and I was sitting in a hide starting to think I should have had more sense than to bother coming down here, when I saw three hen harriers and two short-eared owls circling the lagoon.
“When I looked, there was a stoat in ermine (its white, winter coat) down on the snow beneath them – that’s an outstanding day!”
Eddie finds it particularly pleasing how many families with children come these days. “You’d be surprised how knowledgeable the children are. Here they get fresh air, exercise and their minds are active. A place like this is really somewhere special.”
As someone with fond memories of a time when life was much simpler, Eddie recalls Christmases of the past: “When I was younger, it wasn’t the value of what you had but the fact that you got a present, had a tree and the family was all together.
“We used to have a goose, which was something special that we only ate once a year.
“We were always happy as kids. I went carolling once and got a penny – I thought it was the world!
“I’ve never had lots of money but I’ve been very rich with the people I’ve worked and mixed with.”
RSPB Blacktoft Sands reserve
Blacktoft Sands is on the largest tidal reedbed in England and is important for its breeding bearded tits, bitterns and marsh harriers.
RSPB Explorer Backpacks are available for children containing binoculars, bug viewers, wildlife guides and activity booklets. No dogs are allowed.
By bus from Goole, take the Number 357 from North Street which stops at the reserve entrance. By car from Goole take the A161 road to Swinefleet, turn left at the mini roundabout, turn right at next T junction, follow the RSPB signposts for next five miles.