Normally my charcoal making site on Lynchmere Common is a quiet and solitary place with only the odd visitor to counter the sound of axe splitting wood (And my chainsaw of course). But last week I had the pleasure of a visit from the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service to learn Besom (Birch) broom making. The first task of the day was to make a couple of shave horses so as we worked out how best to start everyone off Dan plays the ancient game of ‘pass the beetle’ (a beetle is a simple heavy wooden mallet) to see who gets to cleeve the first log.
Making Besom (Birch) brooms is an old tradition on the Lynchmere Commons where birch scrub grows so fast on the poor heathland soil that if you blink it will turn to woodland whilst your eyes are shut.
The making of besoms helped to keep areas of the heath free, a process which today in many places is largely replaced by mechanisation and spraying chemicals – but I am very keen to see the birch as a useful crop in the local economy rather than a nuisance and weed, so making besom brooms is a way for people to learn how best to use all parts of the tree.
While making the shave horses and besoms is of course important, the day has to start with putting the kettle on and as you might notice there are not many photos without a mug of tea lurking somewhere – just like the landrover. The washing machine drum has been joined by my recently rebuilt barrow, an old builders barrow rescued from a skip and very simply rebuilt for a new lease of life carrying brushwood to fuel the kettle.
A hive of industry as the two new shave horses take shape accompanied by the inevitable cups of tea.
With the new shave horses ready for use we switched to making besoms, first learning to select the material to build up the heads of the brooms as I demonstrate by making one from bales of birch gathered on the commons in the last winter season and stored in the dry and dark to keep the material from becoming brittle and going rotten.
Jean and Arthur put the new skill touse building their own heads and in the background are the birch poles selected to make the tails 0r handles of the besoms.
While Stephen takes the more comfort oriented route to finishing the head, once complete I use a leather belt to holt the bundle of birch tight enough while the wire bonds are placed around the head.
The last job is to bang the shaved and pointed tail into the bound head. These besoms should be good for a few years of use provided that the birch has been selected, cut at the right time of year and then stored well.
I have been told that for the first year the fresh broom with its long lead would be used to sweep the dew from the lawns (preventing the lord and lady getting their feet and long dresses wet I suppose), the next year for sweeping up leaves, the third in the yard, by the fourth it would be short enough for sweeping out the parlours and the fifth year with just the stubs left would be ideal for sweeping snow from the paths. Then it’s perfect fire lighting material and so the cycle would start again.
Before putting the besoms to good use, which seems to involve beating off the encroaching photographers more than it does sweeping the dew from the lawn. A nice collection of besoms resulted from the day – which I think says more about the aptitude of those taking part than it does my ability to transfer the skills.
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