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DSCF9276The competition mowing season reaches its climax with the Eastern Counties Championships at Wimpole Hall. Simon Damant, Jim McVittie and the estate team at Wimpole Hall put a lot of effort into setting up a great event and despite the unruly weather – you can see the fuzzy spots made by raindrops on the lens – we mowed off the heavy grass in front of the Hall in fine style.

DSCF9273Wimpole has a lot of grass so it’s possible to lay out a range of mowing events – the Quarter Acre, Eighth Acre, Team mowing, 10×10 and the main event – at least for the spectators – the 5x5m sprints. The results of the competitions can be found on Simon Damants Wimpole Blog here:

- Wimpole Championship results blog .

Though the bigger plots reveal more about your mowing ability the 5×5 m plots are the main competition for the overall winner. It is always a closely fought competition and I find the wiry grass of Wimpole’s main avenue a hard challenge to mow quickly with good quality using my traditional English Scythe.

DSCF9253It doesn’t take much to lose your rhythm and a few seconds does count in the sprint. Last years winner Ded snapped his scythe snathe clean in two during the team mowing competition – that doesn’t help!

With heavier grass than last year and the rain flattening the grass as we watched – the plot you are allocated can make a lot of difference to time and quality. The heavy grass and the rain opened up the field (if you’ll pardon the pun) and placed  a few mowers in contention to win the 5×5. Who would it be?

DSCF9276-001The overall Winner was Phil Batten, an accomplished master of the scythe, who mowed his plot in a time of 2.42 with an excellent quality of 7.5. But Phil wasn’t the fastest.

Richard Brown mowed his plot in 2.41 a second faster than Phil though his 6.5 quality put him in third place. But Richard wasn’t the fastest either!

Gemma Suggitt mowed a superb race with a time of 3.02 and a quality of 7 putting her in Fourth place overall and winning the Ladies Cup.  Well done Gemma – an excellent mow! But Gemma wasn’t the fastest either!

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I expect you can guess where this is heading!  Yes, I mowed my plot in 2:17, the fastest time, and taking into account my not quite so excellent, but not quite crap either, quality I managed to come in second overall (just) as well as winning the English Scythe Cup.

DSCF9232OK so what’s the big deal?  I mowed the fastest time and came second overall and won the English Scythe Cup at the same time. Well generally the English scythe has been regarded as a big handicap in comparison with it’s lightweight, agile and high performance Austrian cousin.

Somehow that doesn’t seem quite right to me, we used the tool for centuries and I can’t believe we’d have continued to use it if it was really that bad. So perhaps it’s us that can’t make the best of the tool rather than the tool being to blame? I’ve spent the last few years relearning my ability to use a scythe and apply it to the traditional English Scythe. One of the most fascinating things to me is that we have actually forgotten how to use the tool well and rediscovering it is a research project with a hefty dose of experimental archaeology.

Whatever! I’m not trying to imply that the traditional English Scythe is the equal of the modern 21st century Austrian Scythe. It isn’t.  It’s like comparing a modern Audi (vorsprung durch ‘Scythe’) with Inspector Morse’s  MKII jag. One is high performance for the money, does exactly what it says on the tin and works straight out of the box. The other is heavy, shakes and rattles a lot, great when it goes though it spends most of the time in the garage being tinkered with – but you know what – It’s got Soul!

I’m hoping that the work I’ve been doing  will help raise the profile of the English scythe and more people will learn to enjoy using them well on the odd occasion if not all the time. On the down side I’m already noticing that the price of rusty old wormeaten English scythes is rising but I won’t be unhappy if they get put to good use rather than on the wall of a pub.

An enormous thank you to Simon, Jim, Paul, Neil, Dan, Peter, Albert and all the team at Wimpole who made it such a great occasion! Well done.

DSCF9010Last Sunday Thorney Lakes near Muchelney in Somerset hosted the 10th Scythe Fair and Championships. I spent most of the week on the site helping with the organisation and preparing for the championships.

The Radio 4 daily programme Farming Today broadcast a short article on the Scythe Fair and the podcast is still on the site for another a few hours in case you are inclined to hear what they made of it.

Here is a link to the Podcast webpage for Farming Today – Scroll down to the Tuesday 17th June programme for the scythe fair article.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/farming

How did I do in the Championships? You’ll have a wait a little to find out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSCF8703Last weekend we had storm force winds and driving rain – a shame because I was at the Bodgers Ball near Herstmonceux in East Sussex. More of that later. All change this weekend as bright blue sky with a strange yellow orb in it appeared just in time for my first ‘learn to mow with a scythe’ course of the year at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum. No I don’t know why the cart is in the field either – bit of a corny photo but there you go.

 

DSCF8712Over the last few years we’ve been introducing the scythe as an effective mowing tool at the museum. Each year we are able to take on a little bit more with the scythe as we train more people up to use them and they gain in experience. I’ve been running the courses in the orchard. With eight people on the course I was kept busy and didn’t get to take any photos until after the clearing up.

 

DSCF8692Fine though they were it wasn’t really the people or the quality of their new found mowing skills that caught my attention – but this old scythe snathe brought along by Kevin Tillett who was on the course. Next to it for comparison on the right is a more wiggly snathe , also not an American snathe, but an English branch snathe .

The blade is forged and relatively short- around 20 inches. The snathe is of an old English style much straighter than those commonly seen nowadays – many of which are American imports – and similar to those sometimes known as Yorkshire Snathes or Yorkshire Scythe Poles. Apparently he found the old scythe in the cellar of their cottage at Forest Row (which is in the middle of Ashdown Forest) when they moved in some years ago.

Despite the prevalence of the American snathes in collections and junkshops it is beginning to become apparent that there remained a wide diversity of English Scythe styles which I find fascinating and I’m keen to learn more despite the lack of recorded information.

I’d speculate that this scythe was used on the heaths of Ashdown Forest, most likely for the cutting of bracken (the fern) as bedding and/or heather as winter fodder.

 

DSCF8695As well as being a straighter pole the snathe is fitted quite heavy, rather brutal, ironwork and a short crank on the bottom handle. The tang passes right through the wooden grip and is simply beaten over in much the same way as a billhook tang. This style of pole and ironwork is similar to one in the museum collection – the only two that I have seen so far. The ironwork on the bottom of the pole is present but the scythe ring is missing which prevents the blade being fitted. Shame as it would have been great to try it out.

 

DSCF8708I think I’ll stop going on about the fascinating scythe snathe before I lose the plot entirely.  The warm weather is bringing on the wildflowers and the small meadow that we will be cutting by hand for hay later in the summer is a mass of colour at the moment.

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The cottage gardens at the museum are also looking colourful in the spring sunshine. I find it hard work teaching all day, but the weather helped and it seemed only too short a time before the day and the course were over with everyone keen to go home and try out their newfound mowing skills.

 

 

DSCF8452I had the pleasure of looking around a small woodland up on the South Downs today under the guise of giving some advice.  I haven’t got out much recently and it’s always nice to visit other woodlands. A bonus when it turned out to be a traditional Hazel coppice with Oak Standards and the most amazing Bluebell woods. So I can’t resist posting some photos.

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An intense riot of colour and smell on the woodland floor, the flowers damp with last nights rain and warming in the dappled sunlight coming through the thin canopy with the oaks just starting to come into leaf.

DSCF8456The wood has been neglected for years so the new owner has plenty of work to be getting on with. Oak standards have fallen over during the wet winter and the coppice is overstood and neglected. But the display of  bluebells shows that gentle neglect is not always the worst of management techniques, all it needs now is a little TLC and some hard graft.

 

 

DSCF7928-001My annual ‘blow away the cobwebs’ retreat takes me to the Gower Peninsula in South Wales for a couple of days. A chance to walk the cliffs and waters edge and see what the the winter has thrown onto the shore.

DSCF7916Not just about the coastline, though you are never far from it, Gower is criss-crossed by old ways running between little fields, ruined castles and standing stones on open moorland. As the sun rises higher through March it starts to creep into sunken paths it’s not seen since last Autumn. The wild garlic starts to grow, soon you’ll smell it.

DSCF7991I like to be there before it becomes crowded as it will be in the height of the summer. In March I have the beaches almost to myself – except for Oystercatchers, Gulls and the odd Shag in the water. ( In case you are not familiar with UK coastline I’d better point out that a Shag is a seabird very similar to a Cormorant. )

DSCF7963Then there are the cliffs. Scenery for which Gower is rightly famous. The stretch from Port Eynon to Rhossili is my favourite walk,  littered by headlands, narrow ledges, rocky inlets and caves – like  Goat’s Hole at Paviland – where the skeleton of the ‘Red Lady’ was discovered in the 19th century. Subsequently discovered to have been neither a lady nor red and 33,000 years old, you can easily leave the 21st Century behind as you walk towards the dragon like shape of the Worm’s Head at Rhossili.

 DSCF8045That’s helped by all the signs left from human habitation over centuries – drystone walls and limekilns lie mixed with the curved earth banks and ditches of prehistoric forts.

DSCF7947The mark of the 20th Century is not quite so well suited to the landscape. Unlike the drystone walls, limekilns, earth banks and ‘red ladies’  the mountains of plastic on the shore are not made from local materials and don’t blend into the landscape over the decades. Bio-degrading is a misnomer – they simply breakup into millions of small bits and pieces which are even harder to clean up and once small enough can enter the food chain. Somebody got here before me!  What used to be beachcombing has become beach-cleaning and every spring teams of volunteers work hard to remove as much as possible – good work! But it would be so much easier if we didn’t make and throw away so much unnecessary plastic in the first place.

DSCF8086Amonths of endless gales I managed to catch a couple of calmer spring days and as I write this blog I can hear the birds singing outside. Amazing how quickly you start to forget the wind, rain and floods once the sun comes out. The stonechat likes to sit right on top of the gorse scrub and ‘chat’ as I walk along – a very welcome reminder that Spring is on the way.

(Warning – Excessive Landrover content – you may want to look away now!)

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Anyway this is an update on the trials and tribulations of one of my old Series II Landrovers in this case Puff, my 1961 Long Wheel Base pickup. When last seen, and after an engine rebuild Puff was working hard on the commons. Just possibly a little bit toooo hard?

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But what’s this? Well I call it – Landrover Sad Face  :-(

Called Puff the magic landrover because of the registration plate PFF 623 and because one day it’s there and the next day it’s in parts again. Right at the moment is no exception to the rule.

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Just when it was all going so well. What went wrong?  Checking under the Landrover in late spring I found major problems with the chassis. No time to fix it during the summer so Puff sat waiting for attention and some TLC through the summer until the autumn. When I thought it would be a quick job. Should have known better. Should have known a lot better.

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Working on a rusted chassis is never fun – and even less so once the rain is continuous. So time to take the rear body off and throw some light and lots of rain on the subject. As soon as I remove one area I found the damage had spread along the chassis to the next. Before I knew if the rear spring hanger was off – and it’s still raining.

Most of the damage was likely caused by working on the commons through the winter. Probably an unexpected stump in the chassis area! The impact peeled back the bottom of the a cross member and tore along the bottom rail of the chassis – also cracking up the side of the chassis – which shows just how thin and vulnerable the steel had become.

Fixing it is possible – but with the likelihood of more work need each year and with the rain still coming down – I had a sense of humour failure! What I need is a Silver Machine………..

DSCF7759What’s this ? Four silver machines – maybe I’ve over ordered? Luckily for my wallet, everything is fine – mine was on the top – and the nice man from Richard’s chassis near Sheffield is on a whistlestop tour of the South of England delivering the ultimate Landrover chassis repair kits. AKA my Silver Machine. In the words of the song……

It flies

Out of a dream

Antisceptically clean

It turns everything green

Do you wanna ride see yourself going by

the other side of the sky

I mean a Silver Machine

I’ve got a Silver Machine………

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Finally I’ve worked out what Hawkwind were singing about after all this years – clear a landrover galvanised chassis – from those nice people at Richards Chassis (have I plugged them enough yet). OK  I am getting a little bit carried away and very nerdy. But I am so looking forward to working with Puff again on the commons and not having to weld him up for at least 20 years. But it seems there is just a little bit of work to do first. Meanwhilst back to the woods…..and it’s still raining!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSCF7675I had been intending to write about something other than fallen trees in February. It seems that my life this winter has been dominated by the incessant storms and their consequences the fallen trees and the wet weather.  It’s still happening! We’re told that this has all been caused by a wrinkle in the North Atlantic jetstream. Some wrinkle.

A few of the resulting storms have even been given names like the St Jude Storm, the Christmas Eve storm and the one two weeks ago which caused a lot of damage across the south of England and I’m calling the Valentine storm. I know that commuting to work can be a big problem in the South of England and the wrong type of leaves on the line is an excuse for train delays that we are all used to, but this time it was the wrong type of tree on the track.

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It all started back in October with the ‘St Judes’ storm – which now pales almost into insignificance in comparison with the later arrivals, but it did have some powerful gusts which caused a lot of tree damage in small swathes where it moved through. The gusts have been features of these storms reaching twice the speed of the winds. This makes the damage quite unpredictable. All the trees you expect to fall don’t whilst the next study tree is ripped in two by the gust. There have also been a lot of trees falling because of the saturated ground and either the whole root plate lifts or the roots just snap and the tree falls.

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These trees are a lot harder to deal with than those we fell intentionally as this snapped Birch shows very well. The violence of the force that snapped the tree causes a lot of shattering and tension in the branch wood all of which needs to be carefully released – it’s dangerous – and it’s still suspended in the air caught between more Birch trees. Not a simple job and it needs to be left until it can be completed safely but just to complicate matters it’s right across a Right of Way and next to a stream so access for machinery is complicated.

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With over 100 trees down across the commons we can’t get to them all immediately and we have to prioritise our work. Clearing the roads is the first priority – though it is the most unpleasant of tasks as the hazard of fallen trees is compounded by the hazard of bizarre behaviour by other drivers.

You put up signs, vehicles with flashing lights and work on the road with a chainsaw and as soon as one carriageway is clear – they drive by at 50mph and only slow down to swear at you for holding them up. On Christmas Eve I was stuck clearing a birch top that had only blocked one side of the road, still windy and raining and cars speeding past wondering why I was bothering  when I sensed a car stopping  and I heard a voice say – I do like a man with a chainsaw! No it wasn’t yet more strange behaviour by drivers but a Police Landrover who blocked the road and got out to help me clear the branches.  A rare treat indeed and thank you to those two West Sussex officers!

Unfortunately you don’t get to take photos in these circumstances – your mind is 100% engaged in dealing with the tree, the weather and the road conditions as safely as possible. I do wish that I had a photo of the situation that I found when I turned out at 7:45 on the morning after the Valentine Storm to clear the local main road. A two foot diameter oak tree had split at waist height and fallen totally blocking the road. But  it was crowned by a modified 4×4, you know the type with the air intake so high above the vehicle that driver will need scuba gear!  It was stuck on the trunk having tried to drive over it. It took three of us an hour to cut the 4×4 free and open one side of the road.

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Luckily there are few trees that fall across the roads. The next priority is the network of Rights of Way that cross the commons and any trees that have not completely fallen and remain in a dangerous state – or both. This bridlepath leading onto the commons was completely blocked by several fallen trees some of which had fallen into other trees knocking them down like dominos and a couple more that were still suspended over the path. Another tricky job to clear – and one that needs to be completed safely both for us doing the job and for users of the path.

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You might get the impression that all the trees on the commons have fallen over – but there are still tens of thousands more to go. The Birch in the picture look very pretty – but if you notice the spray (end of the branches) are all bending to the left you get a feel for the strength of the winds to which they are exposed.

All trees will fall over unless we cut them down first. It’s a natural process, the soil on the heathland is very poor and acidic, only a few inches in depth before you reach the natural bedrock sandstone so many trees are literally clinging on. As they reach old age they are stressed and succumb to disease and the next storm may bring them down. The fallen trees do represent an opportunity – we can use the wood as a zero carbon source of fuel and timber (for my polelathe), the trees will regenerate and before we know it there will another young crop of trees across the commons.

I’m off to work on a few more trees now – at least the firewood for next year is getting sorted early!

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