Passing of one of Britain’s best-known grain merchants

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Many of us seemed to cough, wheeze and snuffle through January.

Whatever the bug, there was – copyright the medical profession – “a lot of it about.”

A pity, because it was the sunniest January for a decade, packed with good-weather days, those crisp, cold, blue-sky and sunshine ones that are a joy to be out in and working or playing when feeling fit and well.

Not quite so good when ill and struggling through the mud and pools legacy of earlier heavy rain to get feeding to out-wintering cattle and sheep. What many of us could do without is any more mole activity.

Memory is subjective, but I can’t recall a winter when I’ve seen more molehills, not only in easy going such as golf courses, gardens and lowland grass, but way out on the hills. Not only the quantity, but the size of individual molehills is surprising. It can only be a matter of time before we get a “Giant Mole Terror” headline. Or perhaps I’ve already missed a Twitter storm on the subject.

I was sorry to see that Henry McCreath, in his time one of the best-known grain merchants in Britain, had died at 99. A keen, and excellent, batsman for Berwick in his prime, he would have appreciated the irony of falling just short of a deserved century, although his health had failed in the past two or three years.

Thankfully, well into his 90s, he was dismissing any offers of help to clear his snow-filled drive, preferring to shovel himself, and was as assiduous as ever in his attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies as well as visiting local schools.

There are probably others still alive I didn’t deal with, but in many ways Henry’s passing is the last link with old-style grain trading, when malting barley was the supreme crop in the Borders and Northumberland and corn-exchange days and merchants visiting farms were the way business was done.

Deals were made as farmer and Henry took handfuls of grain from sacks in a granary, assessing quality by bite, sight and feel, and bargains made at so many shillings (old money) a quarter (confusingly to us youngsters, four cwts or one fifth of a ton). When a further conversation was necessary, my father always reckoned that from his Berwick office Henry’s baritone could have reached him without using the phone.

Henry didn’t talk much, if at all, about his experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war or, something I didn’t find out until a “Northumberland at War” exhibition a few years ago, that he was also a veteran of Dunkirk.

Talk about frying pan to fire! What I do remember is that our long-serving tractorman had been one of Henry’s men in the POW camp and always spoke of him with great respect.

In turn, in the days when he still travelled the farms, Henry never failed to ask for him. It’s true – we just don’t produce men like that any more.