WHAT was a potato pie? That was the big question of last week. And the answer is that it was a clamp. Of course.

Last week we featured a photograph taken on a farm near Bishop Auckland by the late Jack Crawford in the decade after the Second World War. On the back, Jack had typed: “Potato Pie! Storing the potato harvest. Scenes like this are to be found all over Britain at this time of year.”

Robin Brooks of Barningham was one of several people who kindly tried to explain. “The 'Potato Pie' was a clamp, a well-known method of storing root vegetables through the winter, for human or animal consumption, before the advent of modern storage methods,” he says. “I remember seeing them on farms in the 1950s and also being made in the garden by my grandfather.

“There was an art to building them if you were to avoid finishing up with a mass of putrefying roots in the spring.”

There was such an art to the potato clamp that the Government issued a Dig for Victory Leaflet No 13 explaining it during the war.

In those days, potatoes were collected manually by an army of pickers. Schools’ October half-term was timed to coincide with the tattie-picking season so there was an army of small hands to augment the housewives who undertook this back-breaking work. Indeed, in 2013, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove tried to shorten school holidays and, referred to the tattie-picking half-term as a relic from "a world that no longer exists".

He was right. Tractors became increasingly common on farms during the war, but in some parts of the country, tattie-picking by hand remained into the 1980s. Fields in mid-October must, once-upon-a-time, have been full of tattie-picking, so any tattie-picking memories would be most welcome…

Once the potatoes were safely gathered in, the clamp was made – certainly Durham people knew it as a “potato pie” because its slanting walls meant that it resembled a pie that has been upturned onto a plate.

“The first step in creating the potato pie was to lay a bed of wheat straw to create insulation and avoid moisture spoiling the crop,” says Tim Brown, of Ferryhill. “When tipped from the cart, potatoes form a natural pyramid. Successive cart loads were placed along the line of the pie.

“The pie was then thatched with a covering of wheat straw.

“A drainage trench was dug around the perimeter of the pie and the turfs from it were used to hold the straw in place.”

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Tattie picking at Hethersgill near Carlisle in 1966 - has anyone got any tattie-picking tales?

TH Knox, of Great Ayton, who made clamps in his youth, says the wheat straw grown in fields in those days was ideal for the purpose because, once it had passed through the reaper-binder, it was still long and straight.

“Agricultural practices have moved on and seedsmen have bred cereal crops that are higher yielding but smaller in height,” he says, “so the old practice of strawing potato pies could not be followed today – the straw is far from straight after it has been through a combine harvester.”

Tufts of straw were left poking out the top of the clamp so that it was ventilated. If the clamp was in a garden, potatoes could be removed from the tufts as required by the kitchen. On farms, though, the clamp was to overwinter the potatoes.

“This natural means of potato storage kept the crop until May/June the following year when, hopefully, scarcity allowed it to command higher market prices,” says Mr Knox, who also remembers making carrot and beetroot clamps in the same fashion.

In East Anglia, there were sugar beet clamps, and Robert Carter, now in Brompton near Northallerton, remembers seeing them in his native East Sussex in his youth.

“To my recollection, the potatoes kept very well in the clamp throughout the hardest of winters,” he says.

Like several readers, something else in the picture grabbed his attention.

“I was also interested by the crouching figure who appears to be wearing a uniform,” he says. “His cap would suggest that he was a German. If so, was he a PoW and the picture was taken earlier than the 1950s?”

He may be wearing a German infantry forage cap – a light cap that infantrymen wore when not on military duty but were out looking for food for their horses.

Our man could have been a PoW who, perhaps for love, had chosen to remain – the photograph was taken at Brusselton Farm, near Bishop Auckland – or he could have been a Displaced Person from eastern Europe who lived in a PoW camp after the prisoners had been repatriated.

From the Darlington & Stockton Times of November 24, 1945

BY fabulous coincidence, in the D&S Times of exactly 75 years ago there was a story about potato clamps.

Mr CJ Goundrill, the landlord of the Fox and Hounds Inn at Bullamoor, near Northallerton, had devised a non-meteorological way of predicting the weather using his own records regarding changes of the moon and planetary alignments in zodiac signs. 

Although Carol Kirkwood seems not to use this method, Mr Goundrill told the D&S that he could accurately foretell when there would be significant changes in the weather.

“The present moon will continue fairly dry with not too much frost up to December 4,” he said, “but I would advise all farmers to take all frost precautions before the next full moon on December 4. All root crops in clamps should be given ample protection. Do not burn the surplus chaff, but rather put it over the potato clamps.”
December 4, he said, would mark the start of an extremely cold spell of frosts and heavy snowstorms that would last until at least the new moon on January 25. He urged dockers, coalminers and transport workers to put their industrial grievances to one side until the “battle of winter” was won by a February thaw.

“To all householders,” concluded the landlord, “I warn you to lag all water pipes likely to be frozen and save every cinder of fuel while the weather remains open.”