Archive for April, 2009

I drove to Crawley on Friday to attend the Funeral of Barry Plant, a friend, fellow polelathe turner and green wood worker. Barry died suddenly and unexpectedly a few weeks after leaving work and just as he was launching himself into a host of craft projects he’d been looking forward to working on.

I drove by the back roads and took a break along the way to absorb the peace and quiet of a lovely bluebell wood.

I first met Barry at the Polelathe turners AGM 2005 (aka the bodgers ball) at Kingston Lacy in Dorset. It was my first time and Barry went out of his way to welcome me into the fold and to the Sussex group of polelathe turners with his boundless enthusiasm, generousity and curiousity.

Barry was a competent turner but at shows was always happiest at the back of the stand, carving or whittling away in his chair whilst encouraging others to use his lathe and to steal the limelight (such as there may be). Whatever the task, Barry probably had a tool that would help, or a book about it. In a typically generous act at one show Barry introduced me to Herbert Edlin’s eponymous book ‘Woodland Crafts in Britain’ by donating me a spare copy.

Barry’s sense of humour was always present with a quip and a smile for all occasions. At last years Bodgers Ball in Oxfordshire he mucked in as a part of the Sussex group’s cobbled together team of would be chair makers.

The chair we almost made in the 5 hour challenge was more of a throne and testament to our lack of experience. It famously converted itself into a flatpack shortly after the judging finished.

Typically Barry took on the task of completing the chair after the event and had almost done it by the time he died. For me, Barry will still be there at the back of the shelter at shows in his rightful place.

On the way home I stopped again at the bluebell wood for a few minutes quiet contemplation.


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I spent the weekend demonstrating at Merrist Wood College near Guildford. These days its called the ‘Merrist Wood Campus’ and specialises in ‘land management courses’. But it has an estate which extends over 400acres, a part of which dates back to the 14th Century, which predates the recent marketing makeover by a bit.

Somehow, despite all the points scoring systems, the college just about manages to operate a farm, for which it should be congratulated, and the show revolves around the lambing as you’d probably guess from the Fleecy Frolics name.

The show is set up and staffed by the students on the land management courses, mainly the countryside courses, some of whom are also up all night with the lambs. So for once they have an excuse for wandering around like zombies.

It’s a low key affair, and not at all commercial. I like to support it because it’s a great opportunity for people to get a taste of the farm, the rural crafts and to see the college at work. Hopefully it will help the local community to value the college as highly as they should do.

The weather started off dull but it gradually improved to blazing sunshine on Sunday and my pitch in the orchard was quite a sun trap by the end. The visitors were very interested, keeping me busy throughout the weekend and I spoke to several people interested in building their own lathes. In my view the more the merrier, few will be mad enough to try to earn a living from it, but by building and using their own lathes they will be spreading an awareness of the craft and local sustainable products. Building the market for those of us that are that mad enough to try to earn something vaguely resembling a living from it.

I took some beanpoles and pea-sticks since we are now in National Bean Pole week and my stocks are now running quite low.

I also got to catch up with those that were involved with the pole-lathe session I took on the countryside course back in January. ( Link to that post here ). John has already built a pole-lathe and brought along a few items he has made for us to chat over and Claire is hoping to build one over the summer – so I look forward to seeing that.

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I don’t mean this site to be a personal diary and I intend to keep away from the minutiae of my everyday life. But in the last week a few things have conspired and broken on me. My broadband connection converted itself into a very thin straw instead of a gushing hose of a connection. This has caused me a bit of a difficulty in editing and posting on this site – hence the last post finally popped out a few days after I started to write it.

It’s taken me a few days of frustration to carry out all the tests that my provider (virgin) insisted upon, until the final test which turned out to be do – to do nothing for a few days, whilst they tried (allegedly) to decide whether there is a problem or not.

In the meantime though, our Tom Putt and Howgate Wonder apple trees in the front garden have responded to the good weather with a great display of blossom, and in the calm evenings even I could smell it clearly.

Magically somehow, last night, the connection restored itself to its normal babbling brook if not quite the gushing hose. Perhaps it was the scent of the blossom that did it? Predictably I’ve not heard anything from my ISP.

At the same time I’ve managed to fix the starter motor (with thanks to my friend Richard who magically produced a replacement) and replaced the angle grinder which fell apart in my hands, in time to attend a coppice group meeting, then a funeral for a friend and pole lathe turner and demonstrated at a 2 day show over the weekend. So hopefully normal service can now be resumed both technically and mentally.

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Last year was a bit of a fiasco on the MOT test front for the1960 longwheel base Series II landrover I use for carrying just about everything around between demonstrations and for moving logs, planks and firewood.

Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. This year I was determined not to suffer the same embarassment, and at 49 years old this year, I think the old boy deserves a bit more care and attention than he normally gets.

Fortunately most of the jobs had made themselves known in plenty of time, so I was only caught out by a couple that were in hiding.

The usual run of the mill items, like the blown exhaust manifold, Leaking brake cylinder, a broken brake return spring, delaminating windscreen, faulty indicator lamp, headlamp dip switch, handbrake adjustment and so on.

Yes, this is the closest to the speed limit this landrover will ever get. An annoying intermittant fault in the speedo led to a cable test using a power drill!

In checking the vehicle I found a loose swivel bearing on a front wheel which had to be reshimed and a couple of chassis welding jobs (always close to the fuel the tank).

After a couple of days work, I put him in for the test and despite some trepidation on my part in the end he passed with flying colours. Indeed the tester told me he had difficulty finding something to put down as an advisory warning. In the end he went with ‘engine oil leak’ but in my book, on a 49 year old landrover that’s actually a chassis protection system, a feature in the design, now used by many enthusiasts to extend the lives of their vehicles.

But now its time to move onto the next job, as the shortwheel base 1965 landrover I use for lots of jobs in the woods has just gone on strike with a broken starter motor. I had to use the starting handle in Sainsbury’s car park. Much to the bemusement of the other customers, who appeared totally ignorant of how to hand crank a car. And probably why you would want to as well, when you could call a ‘man who can’ or get £2000 pounds for it by scrapping it instead? Somehow I find it hard to call it progress, but then I think I’m having a bit of a grumpy old man attack at the moment.

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This week we’ve been putting in the fence posts around this year’s planting of hazel trees on the Lynchmere Commons, thanks to Mark Busby’s hard work and Robin Barnes for finding us the trees, stakes and guards.

One of the more noticeable features of woodland management and is the cutting down of trees. Many people find it hard to understand that woodlands need to be managed and that cutting trees is an integral part of this process. The best (that is healthies and most diverse) woodlands in this country are a product of continuous management over centuries.

Planting new trees doesn’t seem to get noticed as much as cutting older ones. For the last 4 years we’ve actually been planting trees on the Lynchmere commons at a faster rate than we’ve been cutting them down. Not bad for a heathland site. The trees we’re cutting have mainly been birch and scots pine whereas the trees we’re planting are hazel and this year we’ve planted 300 bringing the total to 1350 over the last 4 years.

The areas of hazel planting are around the edges of the common and will be managed as coppice woodland, each area being known as a coup. A coppice is woodland that is cut regularly and then regrows from the stumps naturally. All native hardwoods will do this, provided that the attentions of deer, rabbit and cattle can be diverted. This process does not damage the stump, called a stool, provided that its done properly. Indeed coppice stools tend to be much longer lived than the maiden trees.

Coppicing was once the major form of woodland management in the British Isles and has much to recommend it still. The regular clearing of each area provides a cycle which is highly beneficial to the woodland flowers and plants, for example blue-bells, which are under threat in many woodlands, and which thrive in coppices. Consequently many species of insects and animals also benefit from the coppicing. Coppicing is an inherently sustainable form of woodland management, since the product is harvested regularly and the trees regrow without needing replanting or artificial nutrients.

Once the hazel trees have grown sufficiently we will start cutting them, one coup a year, bringing the coppice into rotation. Typically Hazel is cut on a six or seven year rotation, so we will be planting for at least another 2 or 3 years before we can cut each area and only at the second cut will the stools start to deliver quanties of hazel rods that can be used for hurdles, walking sticks, thathing spars and other greenwood crafts. The sweet chestnut fence posts that we’ve just put in are coppice products and have just been cut from the coppice on Stanley farm right next to our hazel area.

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After the drenching on Friday the weather improved steadily through the long Easter weekend until on Monday it was hard to believe that it all started out so badly.

I used the quiet time to prepare my second display table, and learnt a little from the first prototype.

The splay on the legs is better this time and I’ve accentuated it by looking for some bent and attractive silver birch that I hope complements the table.

I’d also spent a little time to prepare a display for bean-poles and pea-sticks. Not knowing what to expect I treated it as an experiment and an opportunity to promote the cause.

But in the event they proved popular enough that I had to bundle a few more poles up to replenish the display.

I often get asked to make some fairly unusual things, and I enjoy trying something different.

This time it was a new ball, to replace a lost one on one of the museums medieval cup-and-ball games.

The better weather kept me at the lathe throughout Saturday, Sunday and Monday. So it was just as well I’d taken the opportunity to walk around on Friday.

My turned items were popular with the visitors. I don’t keep much stock, normally a couple of each item at most. But this weekend I struggled to keep up, making dibbers, door wedges, spurtles, rounders bats and the like. By the end of Monday I was losing the battle and had quite a pile of lathe shavings to show for my endeavours.

Except for the busiest days the buildings and landscape at the museum seem to absorb the visitors and retain a sense of calm and serenity that always makes it an enjoyable experience whatever the weather.

From my pitch by the forge I can look across and see Poplar cottage at the top of the field. I’d not be honest though if I didn’t admit that my favourite time is a still evening as the shadows lengthen and quiet descends once again.

By the end of Monday I was quite tired and feeling the effects of the long hours. But then it was time to pack up. It takes just under two hours of steady work to pack up and I was about the last to leave the museum – just as the gates were locked. But it’s always a good show when you get to pack up in the dry.

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The weather today lived up to expectations at the Weald & Downland Museum. I spent a good couple of hours this morning setting up to demonstrate in the rain. Fine weather for the ducks, and in fact my first visitor was a duck.

As it was quiet at the museum today I took the opportunity to go up to the woodyard and look at the good progress they’ve been making there recently.

I got to disturb Ben from the work he’d just started on a beam of oak with his very nice new draw-knife. The answer to the obvious question ‘What’s it going to be?’ was ‘A wagon’. Right, of course, my fault for asking.

And to prove the point here’s the wagon it’s aiming to become. I know from watching some of Ben’s previous restorations that it’s going to be a very interesting project. It’s great to have seen this just as the work starts, so I’ll be back to look at progress.

I went over to see Julian who was busy hewing a log into a beam. Having just learnt my lesson, I refrained from asking why? The shed he is using has just been re-sited to the woodyard and restored so it provides a good workshop space and a great place for demonstrations. As well as the hewing Guy was making a batch of Sussex style chestnut gate hurdles in the next bay along. The museum has an almost insatiable appetite for gate hurdles which are often used as folds for the Southdown sheep before being retired to a host of other uses.

One of the good things about the woodyard is that the kettle is always on, but unfortunately I had to go back to my demonstrating at this point. I hope to back up in the woodyard in a few weeks to take part in one of the ‘woodyard weeks’ that Julian is organising.

On my way back through the museum I spotted the recently finished continous hazel hurdle fencing around one of the small fields by Bayleaf the farmhouse, and contrasts with the newly laid hedge in the background and the gate hurdles I’d just been looking at.

I got back to my shelter to discover that even the ducks had given up. ‘A Dandy Day’ was what Duane the tree-cutter on the TV documentary Ax-men would have pronounced it. Such a contrast from a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t get a break all day as throngs of interested visitors kept me at the lathe. Still at least I got time to get around which is rare, and some useful work done. I’m ready for a glorious sunny day tomorrow with hordes of visitors (I can hope).

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Omubazi Mike

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