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I’ve done it again. Last time I looked it was February, but it has been a busy time of year with a lot to get done on the Lynchmere commons  and despite my best of intentions posting on the blog just doesn’t seem to get a high enough priority. Time to make up for that now.

Our winter work gets busier as the season progresses. With a cutoff at the start of March for the bird nesting season it’s hard work through February and I spend a lot of time in the office looking out of the window.

Ok, so this office has wheels, big wheels and a crane – and a heater that functions sometimes – though it’s not a lot of use as not all of the windows have glass in them, but it is about the only time of year that I get to work in a heated environment and look out of the window. If you have to use big machinery then February is probably the best time of year to do it as it’s too cold to work on my polelathe!

DSCF2081Like many offices the view from the back window is a little bit more industrial! This office is rather less than ergonomically designed being a relatively old timber tractor. Definitely no disabled access, which I need after a couple of weeks ot twisting to operate the timber crane controls and jumping down from the (missing) steps. But its the only way to get the work done.

DSCF2090This timber has been cut to thin out woodland areas, improving the remaining timber, the wildlife habitat and the heathland areas of the commons. Most of it is Scots Pine, a native softwood, which has self seeded on the heath and has little commercial value. In this country we don’t rate softwood as firewood (unlike much of norther Europe) But this will be going to a nearby biomass boiler at a local school which means that as well as improving the commons habitat the felled timber will be travelling almost no distance (timber miles) and helping to reduce fossil fuel usage, which seems a Win-Win to me.

DSCF1844In February I don’t just have one office! Here’s the view from another office window and this office does have glass in all its windows – at the moment.  Not such a pleasant sight though, as this forest of evergreen is Western Hemlock which is selfseeding rapidly onto our carefully cleared heath areas from a Forestry Commission adjacent site. Western Hemlock is not a native species and is classed as an invasive alien which it certainly is!  We pull the small seedlings by hand but larger ones need a more industrial solution.

DSCF1845Cue the view from the back of the office – with a mower on steroids that keeps the Hemlock at bay!

DSCF1912It doesn’t always go according to plan with machinery and sometimes the weather, landscape and trees bite back and damage my office infrastructure. It would be a rare winter when I don’t suffer some form of breakage. The steering arms on this landrover have been modified for me. They should be straight not U-shaped and wrapped around the axle!

DSCF1856Now it’s March our struggle with heavy machinery on the commons is over for another year and I have the aches and bruises to remember it by. I’m looking forward to largely working by hand with billhook, axe, scythe and of course my polelathe over the coming spring and summer.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Scythes don’t come out much in the Winter months. So it was a pleasure to combine our winter Scythe Association meeting with reed cutting at Heacham Saltings on the North Norfolk coast.

DSCF1633Traditionally the reed is cut and gathered for thatching. For the Scythe to lay the reed where it can easily be gathered into bundles we attach a simple cradle made from a suitable rod of flexible fresh (green) wood like Willow or Hazel which helps to lay the reed all in the same direction in the windrow.

DSCF1642Saturday morning was bright but bitterly cold and getting down into the reed bed provided almost the only prospect of shelter as well as warmth through plenty of exercise. Our host Richard Brown led the way in and explained the work needed (the Saltings is managed under an environmental stewardship grant and mowing of blocks in the reed bed is a part of the conservation management).

DSCF1655It wasn’t long before we were all getting to grips with mowing the 6ft reeds.

DSCF1679The reed bed had already been drained down to allow us to mow the reeds but ditches, channels and pools of water remain and for those wearing long wellingtons or short waders it afforded the chance to experience some underwater mowing.

DSCF1657John Letts took the opportunity to bundle some of the mown reed.

DSCF1684But as the reed was being cut for conservation management rather than thatching most could be forked into piles at the edges of the bed.

DSCF1659Before too long our enthusiastic team of mowers had made good inroads into the bed and cleared enough reed to complete the task.

DSCF1660I’ve been making some traditional English steam bent shafts over the last year and this was my first change to try out one of my new snathes (on the right). I’d hurriedly fitted it out with a random assortment of ironwork and handgrips (nibs) on Thursday before travelling to Norfolk and was a little worried that it might not survive the encounter. In the event the scythe proved to be more equal to the task, as it’s little on the large and heavy side for reed mowing, though it’s not finished yet and needs plenty of tweaking to get it optimised.

DSCF1710Suitably warmed and exercised we retired to Richard’s beach house to take in the views over the Wash and for our formal Scythe Association winter meeting, a short affair followed by evening of long conversations fuelled by Simon’s excellent blue cheese, plenty of beer and I seem to remember that a bottle of my ‘Sloe Vodkin’ was involved as well.

DSCF1749On Sunday Richard has another block of reed for us to mow, this time at the other end of the saltings. An opportunity to blow away the cobwebs and finish the job.

DSCF1784All too soon the job was done and it was time to take my leave. Back to the real world. I love the work that I do, but I will carry with me the memory of the places I’ve been, things I’ve done and the people I’ve seen over the last three days. Thank you  – It’s been like a breath of fresh air to recharge my batteries in the middle of winter.

      P1030471Two little pigs went to market……except the pigs weren’t so little any longer! In case you weren’t aware we’ve been keeping a couple of pigs. We were lucky to be offered the use of a small piece of ground, scrub woodland really, a short walk around the corner in Lynchmere where we live.

After 16 short weeks our two Oxford Sandy and Black’s aren’t piglets any more, they’re porkers. Porker is the name for a pig that’s reached a size big enough to eat as the joints make good pork. A bit larger and they are called baconers as there is enough meat and fat for good cuts of bacon. We’re hoping for a bit of bacon.

On Monday our first time keeping stock came to an end, except it’s as much the beginning as it is the end, we always planned it this way but it’s somehow different from the planning when you actually come to do it.

DSCF9859It’s hard to remember just how small  they were when they first arrived!  You wouldn’t want to be picking one up now – Alison estimated that they were 70 plus kg last week – and immensely strong.

DSCF9893-001and they were very cute as well !

DSCF9899There was  grass in the pen in those days! Digging is natural behaviour for pigs and they had ample scope digging some big holes in their pen – this was their first digging experience just a few seconds after arriving.

P1030290By the beginning of  this week it more resembled the Somme than a woodland glade both for the amount of mud and the depth of some of the craters they dug.

P1030425Even the pig ark was starting to take some damage. Not sure it would have taken much more abuse and we plan some reinforcements for the next inhabitants. Yes, I made the ark from some local larch and logs after advice from Graham (of Wildcroft rare breed farm in Puttenham where we got the pigs) that wooden arks are expensive to buy and they quickly get chewed and damaged so we thought we might as well make our own.

P1030455The Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB) is a traditional rare breed which is known for being placid and easy to keep. Good for first time keepers like us. It’s also  renowned for the quality of the meat making good pork and bacon as well – and let’s face it – this is all about the meat in the end no matter how cute they might be. This one was known as crackle (short for crackling) has the lop ears.

P1030454His brother Scratch (yes it’s short for Scratchings) had lop ears when he arrived but somewhere along the line developed a habit of waving his ears out horizontally – and acquired the optional name of Yoda because he did that thing with his ears.

P1030472We enjoyed their company and took a lot of pleasure from their inquisitive, gentle and always funloving natures but they are big boys now and it’s time to take them to market or in our case to Southern Traditional Meats near Henfield in West Sussex.

P1030476We wanted the final journey to be as stress free for the pigs – if not us – as we could make it. It’s a 30 mile journey and we needed to be sure that they would be comfortable in the trailer – and that we could get them into the trailer having little or no experience of this and having heard many horror stories of spending hours trying to get pigs into trailers. So we fed them in the trailer a couple of times before kitting it out with bedding and a water bucket for their journey.

This was always going to be the hardest part of the job. Alison has done all the hard work of the stock-keeping and has been the closest to the pigs so that makes it all the harder. But as we both realised – if you can’t bear to grow your own meat how can you buy meat from a supermarket shelf when you have little or no idea how the animals were treated.

In the event the final journey went with no complaints (I think that’s got to be the best you can say really) and we were very pleased with the quiet and calm in the pens at the abbattoir which were all occupied by rare breed pigs. I think we gave them the most contented short life that they could have wished for. I like to think that this will show in the quality of the meat.

We’re just about to find out and I’m going to get to make some bacon………

Season’s Greetings!

DSCF1181How did you spend your Christmas Day? Normally I’d post a seasonal photo of  a roaring log burning stove. But this year something different as we are both working over the Christmas holidays. I had a quiet and restful Christmas Day planned. No chainsaws and some therapeutic firewood splitting. But the trees don’t know it’s Christmas.

DSCF1168I was just thinking that there had been very few trees down this season and then……..A large multi-stemmed Birch tree hung up in a massive Oak over a popular local path late on Christmas Eve changed the plan. Too late and too dark to get it down safely on Christmas Eve and with a storm moving in on Boxing Day the chainsaws weren’t neglected after all. Plenty of exercise and with a nasty hung up tree always a little bit of adrenalin as well just to work up a good appetite.

 

DSCF1185Still time to fit in a little therapeutic Christmas logging, though unless we get a very hard winter this lot might even stretch through to help making some charcoal in the summer.

 

DSCF1191All too soon, by about 3:30pm the sun is almost down and it’s time to leave the commons for another day with the golden light shining gently on the Birch.

 

DSCF1203Just time to feed the pigs (they get fed before I do) their Christmas lunch with extra chestnuts and then home to stoke up the log burner.

 

DSCF1194So wherever you are and whatever you are doing – Season’s Greetings – and I hope that you have a good one!

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.

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