AT the end of tattie picking week in October, the countryside used to be adorned with piles of potatoes in pies – and groups of men brandishing strangely named items, like a riddles and igging sticks.

Their potato pie, which they also called a clamp, was a means of overwintering spuds, as we told three weeks ago.

“After the potato-picking, all the potatoes were tipped into a long row up to 60 to 70 yards long and then covered with straw and then with soil, which was dug out along the length of the pile as a drainage moat was created,” says Des Needham of Low Dinsdale, who witnessed the art of pie-making on his uncle’s farm in Nottinghamshire in the 1950s.

“It was very hard work and took many days.”

The pie had to be skilfully vented to let out the heat generated by the potatoes, but also to keep out the weather and the wildlife.

Peter Marwood was brought up on a farm near Bedale in the decade after the end of the Second World War. “When we were ready to sell the potatoes from the pie, they first had to be riddled,” he says, introducing a new word into the piemaker’s vocabulary.

“A potato riddle is an engine-driven machine with a wire mesh revolving drum which is a means of cleaning the soil off the potatoes and sorting them by size,” he explains. “One man at the back of the machine would shovel the potatoes from the pie into the drum.

“The smaller potatoes would fall through the mesh drum and be used for pig feed.

“The larger potatoes would come out of the drum and drop on to an elevator where four men would stand and pick off any stones or bad potatoes. At the top of the elevator, the potatoes would drop off the elevator into a sack weighing 8 cwt or 112 pounds.”

Riddling, though, could be dangerous: in 1954, Peter’s brother Harold, nine, got his finger caught in a jammed riddle, and the top of the digit had to be removed in hospital.

Peter also remembers that the pies worked. The abundant crop of 1953 was overwintered for the lucrative spring market.

“The price of potatoes was even discussed at school, and our schoolmaster, Mr Lewis, sarcastically commented that the Marwoods had swapped ten sacks of potatoes for a new car,” says Peter.

ANOTHER riddler was Peter Fletcher, only his was hand-driven, and he calls the unsaleable small spuds that fell through the riddle “pig tarries”.

“My father had a contract with Amos Hinton of Middlesbrough, the large grocery store in the town centre,” he says. “Every two weeks, we had to riddle and sort a supply of potatoes for them from the pie. Hintons collected them in their waggon when they delivered my mother’s and grandmother’s groceries – an old fashioned click and collect!”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Schools and factories stopped for tattie-picking. This picture was taken in the 1930sSchools and factories stopped for tattie-picking. This picture was taken in the 1930s

THE piemakers’ vocabulary was bursting with curious words. Stephen Sowray in Ripon says his family’s potatoes were riddled from the pie and bagged into hundredweight bags (that’s 50kg).

Then he says: “When the lorry arrived in the late afternoon, the bags were loaded manually on to the lorry by two men using an ‘igging stick’ to lift each bag between them, with the lorry driver stacking them on his lorry.

“Most of our potatoes went to the early morning wholesale markets which supplied Leeds, Bradford and the surrounding areas.”

DECADES ago, potatoes dominated the calendar. In mid-October, it wasn’t just the schools which emptied for tattie-picking week, it was the factories too, as Jack Dent of Yarm discovered when he arrived in Spring 1987 to be Plant Engineer with British Chrome and Chemicals at Urlay Nook.

He settled in quickly, and was particularly impressed with the typing pool of efficient women.

“But in October, something happened,” he says. “I took some notes into the typing office on a Monday morning to find about four new faces, apparently drafted in as ‘temps’ from a Stockton agency. Where were all our usual keyboard crew?

“The Works Engineer explained that they were all farmers’ daughters, and each year they all took a week or so off to go tattie picking at each others’ farms.”

He finishes with a cheeky grin on his email: “The following week’s operations in the typing pool were slightly slower for a short time as our girls attended to their manicure to repair the damage inflicted by their ‘tattie howking’.”

THE problem with potato pies was the frost – in really cold weather, farmers couldn’t open them and so the cost of potatoes soared. In the early 1960s, spuds began to move under cover.

“The research into indoor storage was done by Dr WG Burton of Topcliffe, Thirsk, who had developed dehydrated potatoes at Cambridge for the troops in the war, and which subsequently became Cadbury’s Smash,” says John Fall.

In 1968, Cadbury’s built a £1.5m Smash-making factory at Catterick Bridge, which employed 60 men and 40 women, and used 130m gallons of water a year from the Swale to wash the potatoes. With one factory, the riddles and the pies were rendered redundant, and the Smash Martians would certainly have a good old laugh at the concept of an igging stick.