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DSCF0989…..but the sky is blue. I’ve been out to work – on an Autumn day.

As the song didn’t quite say but perhaps it should have? Just an excuse for me to post a photo of the Lynchmere commons looking at their best in recent Autumn sun.

These open woodland views don’t make themselves and behind the scenes there is a lot of woodland management that needs to happen. The leaves falling is our signal for the winter season of work on the commons to begin.

DSCF0948The major part of our winter work is in maintaining the areas of restored lowland heath. Lowland heath occurs where the soil is very poor and acidic and once widespread is now a rare habitat in the south of Britain.

I define lowland heath as woodland with the trees temporarily absent. The young scrub woodland is always threatening to engulf the heath and we have a winter work team on the commons known as ‘Roy’s Gang’, this year led by Lowell and Ed to help with the work.

DSCF0942Before. A typical scene on Marley Common with  some open spaces, but it’s hard to see the extent of the heath for the trees.

DSCF0970and afterwards. The scene is opened up and there is a sense of the expanse of the heathland as well as the woodland edges. But don’t worry, the trees have not gone away, it won’t be long before the scrub grows again and we’re needing to cut it – the commons are not static. It’s not a case of they were woodland and now are heath. This cycle has been going on for centuries and in that sense we are keeping up a very old tradition.

DSCF0981These areas of ancient ‘commonland’ were too poor to be enclosed and turned into fields. The definition of commonland in English law is complicated. Although actually private land and often owned by the lord of the manor the commons were always unfenced. They were habitually used by subsistance farmers as rough grazing and harvested by villagers as a source of firewood and other produce with or in many cases without the permission of the local lord.

Although today we are managing the commons to improve the wildlife and biodiversity I think it is this cycle of using and harvesting the woodlands and heath which is a key to understanding how to sustain them indefinitely into the future as a part of our local community. So that landrover load of logs that’s snuck into the photo is entirely in the best traditions of managing the commons!

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Yes, the polelathe has been out and about. I know there is a lot of catching up to do since I last posted. It’s been a busy summer seasons of shows, demonstrations, courses and competitions and with plenty of work on the commons to fit in.

As if that wasn’t enough there have been additional projects, some planned and some unplanned. I won’t bore you with the details (not right now anyway) but I’ve also been emptying my parents old house in Somerset as my Dad has Alzheimer’s and we recently managed to get him into to a specialist nursing home near Taunton.

Verging on too much information I know, but it’s not left a lot of mental effort for posting articles and I am still finding more forms to fill in and letters to write  – never my strong point! But here is a flavour of some of the antics this summer that I need to catch on……

DSCF9522Unplanned project no1 – my trusty old 1960 brown landrover – aka ‘The Beast’ – started making unfamiliar noises, as opposed to the cacphony of familiar noises so comforting to old landrover owners. To cut a long story short ’twas the 54year old water pump and with this old engine sourcing the parts and repairing the old pump took the best part of a couple of weeks right in the middle of the season. Just when you don’t have a couple of weeks!

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I do like a Green Man. I’d almost forgotten passing some green Birch rounds onto Tony but when he came up to Lynchmere for a Scythe (Oh, oh the S-word is creeping in again already) training course he brought up one of his carvings and I really like it.

DSCF9586One of the big projects I set myself this year has been to learn to make and steam bend traditional English Scythe handles 0r Snathes as they are called around here. First get yourself a nice long straight Ash log and then cleave it.

DSCF9551I’ve been planning to rebuild the garden shed for some years now – I’m embarrassed to work out just how long it’s been waiting – but this is not the garden shed. It’s a shed for a new project – Project Pig Palace.  We could have gone and bought a conventional ark – but no! I knew of some convenient larch logs and it seemed a shame to waste them!

DSCF9893-001All you need for a new Pig Palace is …….Pigs. These two young Oxford Sandy and Blacks flew in from Wildcroft Rare Breeds  just south of the aptly named Hog’s Back  on the North Downs about 10miles north of us.

DSCF9718I seem to be running more courses each year and they are proving very popular, though I do find teaching is hard work and quite stressful. At this year’s polelathe improvers course Dave came with the objective of turning a bowl – and after plenty of hard work he succeeded in making a lovely little bowl.

DSCF9112Back on the commons the bracken just would not stop growing. I drafted in help from Lowell and Christopher (my nephew) here towing the bracken roller with Peter my old Massey Ferguson 135.

DSCF8193All of a sudden the season is marching onwards and it’s never too early to start splitting and stacking the firewood. This year I started around May so the firewood is better than ever – and this winter I shall be splitting and stacking for next winter, which is the way it should be. Famous last words!

DSCF9910We did make hay whilst the sun shone. This photo might surprise those of you who expected to see a team of mowers with scythes but we did the 10acre meadow with modern tractors. Besides I’ve posted on not much but scythes this year so on this post I’m trying to redress the balance a bit.

We had a lot of sunny days in July and August this year – but also lots of rainy ones and never enough sun so we made hay in September. A very different experience to be sitting in a modern tractor and rowing up the whole field in a couple of hours – I felt very lazy!

DSCF9986And then the apples arrived! Early this year, with one of my trees, the Tom Putt, almost bare by the end of August. In September I only managed to press a few gallons of juice from my apples and friends contributions – just as well as time was severely limited. But I have a cunning plan for a late pressing in the next couple of weeks.

DSCF9509Last time I posted on Puff the magic landrover it was just a chassis even if a very shiny one. Living up to his ‘now you see it – now you don’t reputation’.  This falls into the category of Project forced by necessity.  With no space and no time having a landrover in pieces to jam up the yard is not healthy and after a frantic burst of activity Puff was back on the road.  Puff passed the MOT with flying colours and was promptly put to work clearing more of the fallen trees.

DSCF0838Turned out to be Just in Time. As one landrover leaves intensive care the next one enters. Having been put to work on the commons whilst Puff was being ‘Puffed-Up’,  Georgina the green landrover (surely all your cars have names don’t they? I find it so much more satisfactory swearing at and occasionally kicking a car with a name rather than ‘it’) suffered a badly cracked chassis – probably caused by a tree stump hidden in the mud. With Puff back on the road and little time to spare Georgina has taken a bit of a back seat this summer, but she is recovering slowly but surely.

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A few weeks ago I visited my parents house in Wells, Somerset for the last time. Over the summer we’ve been emptying the house and finding new homes for the stuff accumulated over 35 years – on a rainy day we took out the very last loads leaving the house empty. It felt strange to be leaving the keys in the house and locking myself out, not just from the house, but from the last tangible link with a county thats been a part of my life since I was born. As if to say ‘Au Revoir’ the clouds parted to give one last typical sunset across the Somerset levels to Glastonbury Tor.

Thats just a small taste of things to catch up on – there will be plenty of work over the winter to post articles  and I will catch up in more detail soon.

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.

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