Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Talking turkey and going on a mental drove with Defoe

“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize turkey: the big one?” “What, the one as big as me?” replied the boy. “It’s hanging there now.” “Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.” From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

IT’S Friday morning and I’m standing in a large shed, holding what feels like about half a hundredweight of live turkey up by its legs. As those Beach Boys once said, I get around.

The night before, I’d dropped in at an American friend’s Thanksgiving dinner just down the road from me. I tasted a morsel or two of their turkey, bought – I hate using the expression “sourced” – locally. It was quite the best-tasting and most succulent turkey I’d ever had.

Later that evening, Sally, our hostess who’d cooked the bird, told me how she’d done it: over many more hours and on a slightly lower heat than is usual, apparently.

The very next morning, by sheer chance, the farmer who’d bred the same turkey is giving me a tour of his farm. The farmyard, a 15-minute bike ride from my home, is the tidiest I’ve seen.

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When I say as much, the farmer tells me that farming has changed a lot and that it continues to do so.

It’s a very good thing to have a yarn with a farmer every so often. Because if you can actually get one to open up and talk about their work for a while, some enlightening things will emerge.

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In fact, it would probably be a good thing if some of our celebrity nutrition police, who spend their time parading their angst in public, were sat down and persuaded to listen to a farmer before they started rattling on about things which they know little about. More upon that subject next week.

Back to the turkeys, for now.

The first time I saw this many, this close up, was probably in the late 1950s, when I was a very little boy. My dad took me on a long bus journey out to his brother’s farm in Buckinghamshire. It was dark by the time we got there. I can still remember the noise and general kerfuffle in the muddy yard as I stood in a pair of oversized, borrowed, black wellies, staring at a couple of hundred or so of the alien-looking birds. The wild turkey, a forest bird which, at five to 20 pounds in weight, is much smaller than its domestic counterpart, originated in North America. It arrived here in the mid-16th century, imported by one William Strickland. We quickly became adept at breeding turkeys, especially here in East Anglia, and were soon re-exporting a much bigger domesticated version of the bird to the New World.

Turkeys, therefore, were well established here by the early 18th century when Daniel Defoe undertook his famous A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain.

Norfolk, and Suffolk in particular, by then were famous for supplying London with turkeys. Daniel Defoe noted that the turkeys were walked to London in “droves” of between 300 and 1,000 birds at a time.

Over the course of the season, the writer estimated that up to 150,000 birds were transported in this manner to the metropolis from places as far away as King’s Lynn. I have to confess that I became rather side-tracked by the logistics of this. Supposing I’d been a trader wishing to drive 500 turkeys from a farm, say, 20 miles north of Ipswich, a distance of about 100 miles, to a London market. Well, I reckon, with all the piddling about, I’d probably have needed at least two men and a couple of strong lads in order to do it. Quite apart from that, the birds would need feeding and watering in transit, so that our drovers would have had to carry a fair quantity of grain with them too.

From Ipswich, the turkey drove would have travelled down the Old London Road, past East Bergholt and over the bridge at Stratford St Mary – which Daniel Defoe mentions. Now they’d have reached Essex, with over 60 miles still to go.

Then, as I discovered in earlier research, they’d have followed a route to London featuring all the destinations still familiar to rail commuters today: Colchester, Chelmsford, Brentwood and so on. What about overnight arrangements? The drovers themselves would have needed ale, sustenance and, probably, an outbuilding or barn to sleep in. I learned that poultry droves were usually quartered in places along the way called Halfpenny Lanes, which name seems self-explanatory.

Yet, how long might a drove of 100 miles have taken? Well, I reckon it would have been smart work if they’d completed Saxmundham to Smithfield, say, in much under a week.

I discovered, however, that turkeys walk quite well and aren’t too difficult to keep in rough formation. Over such a long distance, drovers needed to protect their birds’ feet. They did this by coating the claws with tar and fitting them with little leather boots.

I wonder whose job it was to sit there in a cold shed, running up several hundred pairs of turkey boots before the creatures’ claws were dipped in hot pitch and fitted for the journey to The Big Smoke.

The old Londoners, it seems, liked their turkey. We’ll talk more turkey next week.

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