Warning – a long post, mainly concerned with scything. So if it’s not your thing, you might want to just flick through the photos instead.
I first used a scythe as a teenager on holiday on a Welsh hill farm to clear bracken from steep fields. Some decades later I started to use a scythe again for clearing bracken, this time on lowland heath. I’ve been using it now for 2 or 3 years and it’s a key part of our changing from spraying to managing bracken without chemicals.
So once again it was time to go scything on holiday, this time to find out just how I should be doing it.
On Saturday 13th June a motley crew of almost 50 would-be scythers assembled on the festival field at Thorney Lakes near Muchelney on the Somerset Levels. After some desultory attempts at organisation we grouped into beginners, improvers, don’t knows and ‘don’t know if we don’t knows’ to start a day of demonstrations, tuition, talks and plenty of mowing. England’s largest ever scythe course was underway.
Before long we were tucking into the grass, this area needed to be cut as it would be a part of the craft area on Sunday. In the foreground Roy demonstrates his sharpening skill whilst in the background an assortment of beginners, improvers and don’t knows mow the grass.
George was a fellow ‘don’t know’, but his height and mowing style soon set him apart from the rest of us. George understands the meaning of a close shave. George’s snathe (handle) is specially made by Andy from English ash, steam bent – possibly the largest snathe in England.
In between boughts of mowing and repair the scythes rested on the rack. The majority of these snathes are Swiss made adjustable handles in ash which makes them very light and comfortable to work with. Increasingly English snathes are starting to be made and as demand grows I think they will become popular.
Meanwhilst by the big tent housing the scythe shop an area for sharpening and remedial work on scythe blades was soon established.
I started using a blade which had seen better days. Although reasonably sharp in places, jagged rents in the blade recorded its encounters with recalcitrant birch saplings and stones on the Lynchmere commons whilst scything bracken.
Here Roy demonstrates how the edge of the scythe blade is peened, or cold hammered, to create a wafer thin, razor sharp edge. The Austrian blades we are using are forged from a single piece of Sheffield steel. Unlike the traditional English blades, which are generally high carbon steel blades riveted on to a much thicker mild steel backing, the Austrian blades are much thinner. This gives two huge advantages, they are much lighter (and easier to use all day) and much thinner, so they can be sharpened to a razor edge more easily. But they are susceptible to damage, hence the emphasis on sharpening and repair.
Those who remember scything as very hard work are probably right. It seems to me that English scythes are heavy, ungainly and harder to use and sharpen by comparison. It may be that this is one place where the Industrial Revolution did us no favours as I suspect that the design of the old English Scythe is more concerned with ease of manufacture than ease of use.
After some remedial help from one of the tutors my blade was on its way back to life. As the repair, peening and sharpening of the blades was a key reason for attending the day I spent a lot of time working out the rents on it. The remedial work went very well, but unfortunately I over peened the blade pushing out too much metal to the edge leaving it slightly less than razor sharp, but still a massive improvement.
The good weather on Sunday brought out the visitors and soon the field was crowded with stalls, displays. demonstratoins, curious visitors and a strange assortment of scythers.
Amongst the greenwood activities was Steve Tomlin, bowl turner, spoon carver and greenwood worker extraordinaire from Devon. Here Steve is helping Kristiana our Austrian Scything tutor (from the Austrian ‘Sensenverein‘ scything organisation) to make a spatula.
In the morning Kristiana taught us the ‘tai chi’ movement in scything, apparently a part of ‘the cloud’. Although George didn’t take to it to say the least, I have found it quite useful and it’s now a part of my Zen and the art of scythe maintenance repetoir.
Amongst the competitions on the day was the strimmer versus scythe race. One would probably be correct to deduce the one in the evil black outfit with the mask would be the loser, whilst the scyther is Simon Damant, English champion, from Wimpole in Cambridgeshire.
Soon it was onnto the finals. Under the blazing sun, 24 5x5m squares awaited the lucky finalists in the women’s, bus-pass and men’s finals. Here Mike Abbott wields one of his hay-rakes to clear the plots after mowing so the quality can be judged.
To my amazement I found myself in the finals. Knowing that George would be putting in a very close shave I decided to go for speed and use my normal bracken cutting rhythm, even though the effect upon the quality of the mowing would be dubious to say the least. In the event George excelled himself, moving from ‘don’t know’ to second overall, although his blade took some damage in the course of it. Well done George!
Apparently I managed to create a new class, the ‘extremely fast but crap finish’ style of mowing. as I managed a time of 2 minutes 20 seconds. Plenty of room for improvement next year. I plan yet another class, the ‘amazingly fast but not so crap finish’ by then. And of course, I won a medal. What can I say, except a big thank you to Simon Fairlie (the organiser and proprietor of the scythe shop), Simon Damant (for the last minute coaching), all of the tutors for their help, George, Sean and the rest for all the encouragement.
One thing I don’t like about many shows is the indecent speed with which the exhibitors start tearing down the stands and fleeing the field, often whilst visitors are still there. It always leaves me with a feeling of anticlimax. But by Sunday evening the festival was still going strong as visitors, competitors and exhibitors danced to the music of local bands. Come the thunderstorms of Monday there seemed to be no great hurry and instead the show faded gracefully from the field.