Archive for February, 2010

Despite the dismal forecast we decide to go ahead with today’s volunteer working party as it’s the first time we’ve able to work up at the barnyard. Not a very promising start, as  a flooded yard greeted us in the pouring rain.

Undeterred by the incessant rain we moved out the trailer and took shelter in one of the open bays. The floor of the bay was flooded so that made it much less of a fire risk and we got the fire going in a bin before carrying out to the fire site.

The rain slackened off later in the morning so at last we could get the work underway.  There is plenty that needs doing, like clearing this overgrown hazel hanging over the footpath and the barnyard. Though digging out the pond which serves as an overflow/soakaway for the yard will have to wait for next time as temporarily it’s become a lake.

The old fence line around the back of the yard needed to be cleared out so we can salvage the stocknetting and posts. This area now forms part of the extension we’ve made to the yard and which should allow us to make more use of it in the future so  we are dismantling the old fence.

You can’t expect volunteers to work on an empty stomach so we all tucked into hotdogs at lunchtime hot from the fire.

The hazel is quite overgrown and dislodging some of the branches turned into an interesting game as Robert and I teased it out from its tangles. In the future we hope to coppice or lay the hazel stools on the old bank but the task  today was to clear the worst of the overhanging branches.

By late afternoon we’d made very good progress in clearing the overhanging branches from the yard and the footpath and even manged to do it without knocking down the old post and rail fence in the process.

Time to leave the office for another day. Many thanks to all of the gang who turned out to work on such an unpromising day and slosh around in the mud, Richard, Judy, Robert, Seb, Lou & Peter, Nic, Judith, Alexandra, Sandy and to Dave and the girls (Robyn and Amy) for turning up to help tidy the fire.


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No2 – The Rowan

We have a good number of Rowan trees on the Lynchmere Commons (though I took this photo on the side of the Long Mynd a few years ago). I am pleased to see that the numbers are increasing now that  much of the scrub grown Birch and Pine has been removed as I like the Rowan tree a lot.

The Rowan is widely known as the Mountain Ash, partly because it’s leaves resemble those of the Ash tree and also because of it’s ability to grow at high altitudes often as a solitary shrub high on moor or mountainside.  Possibly because of this it is often considered a tree of Scotland and of the North and West of the UK and used to be considered scarce in the South of England.  It’s a pioneer rather than a woodland tree and does not compete well on heavy soils. But on the poor acid sandy soils of the lowland heaths it seems to do very well and  today I would not call it scarce on the Lynchmere commons where we have dozens, and possibly even hundreds of them.

The Rowan can grow to become a substantial tree as this photo of a Rowan in blossom on Stanley Common shows. An ancient tree, there is much folklore associated with the Rowan. It is the second tree in the Ogham Celtic tree calendar (which is thought to be a lunar calendar), the Birch being the first. For any Monty Python fans  no.1 is not  actually the Larch  as far as I know its the Birch. I posted on Beautiful Birch recently and last year Happy Birch-day on the old site with more details on its use. Rowan is more associated with the spiritual world than Birch and has a reputation for protecting those who live in its shadow.

It’s white blossom in the spring is  associated with good.  It is believed to provide protection against enchantment and evil spirits if you place a Rowan spring over your door and to avoid storms by having Rowan wood aboard ship. Possibly derived from this there is a wide spread belief (of which I am oft reminded with chainsaw in hand) that it is bad luck to fell a Rowan tree.

The Rowan is also associated with vision and the spirit realms. Not surprisingly then it’s the wood of choice for making magic wands, divining rods and apparently it makes a great walking stick – especially for walking in the dark – so you can throw away the night vision goggles then. But don’t forget to ask the tree nicely before you cut the rods!

Not related to the ash the Rowan (Sorbus Acuparia) is actually a member of the Sorbus family along with the Whitebeam and Service Tree and is related to the rose family.  Amongst it’s many common and local names are Quick-beam, Quicken, Witchen which relate to it’s protective and spiritual properties and the translation of its latin name is “fowler’ service tree” which refer to the crop of scarlet berries in the late summer and the ancient use of the trees for trapping birds.  Although not edible raw, the berries are widely used to make Rowan Jelly. Apparently they were also used to make an ale and even a cider – for which the recipes have been lost (*Ed – all is not lost, see comments below for links to Rowan drinks) – but that sounds rather like a challenge to me.  In writing this article it has just occurred to me that I ought to try using them to make a spirit in the same way as we make sloe gin. So it looks as if I shall be competing with the birds this season.

Though it’s thought to be bad luck to fell the tree the wood has very useful properties and I enjoy turning it to make a range of common items including rolling pins, door wedges, garden dibbers and tool handles. It’s dense wood is quite similar to apple in characteristics and can have a pretty grain. Should we have to fell a suitable size tree on the commons then I plan to find out how well it serves to make bowls, and possibly even chairs – though I suspect my wands and divining rods may not have any more success than my brooms do in flying. One thing you can be sure of it that out of respect for the tree  nothing will be wasted.

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My Log-Mate is a combination of an old work-mate rescued from a builder’s skip, four F clamps and a couple of strong bungee cords.  Along with my beer-barrel stove it’s revolutionised my ability to transform old wood lying around into warmth and heat this winter – and it clears up as it goes as well which is amazing for me.

As it’s been pouring with rain for the last few days and still trying to snow in betweem I’ve been mainly working in the shed and the stove is getting through the firewood.  Without it I would not have been able to work outside but I haven’t quite got the stage of burning my reject chair legs yet as the Log-Mate produced plenty of sticks whilst it was dry for a day.

I’ve refined the concept a bit now to improve the productivity futher and switched to a more powerful saw with a longer bar so the cuts are simpler and easier – very quick and straight into the waiting basket. I use an offcut plank to protect the top of the workmate . Sort of uprated now to a Log-Mate GTi.

Or even straight into the waiting wheelbarrow and over the log store by the house with no need for splitting. Just as well as with the cold and wet weather we are getting through the firewood this winter. The best bit is that it doesn’t clutter my small yard, once I’ve finished the clamps and bungees go back in the shed and the work-mate is used for a host of other things. But I do want a more permanent version down at my charcoal site so I’m building a wooden version to try down there. Maybe the Log-Mate Turbo?

We haven’t seen the sun around here for a while now and the forecast looks like it will be a while yet before we do. This was a rare and very colourfull view from the yard a few evenings ago.

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You may not be aware of it, but the marmalade making season is all but over.  Seville oranges are bitter and unpalatable on the whole but they do make a fantastic preserve. The Seville orange season opens in January and is almost over by the end of February and for those, like me, that enjoy making marmalade its one thing in winter we look forward to enormously.

Making marmalade is not quick, perhaps why its not so popular anymore, but I do find it immensely satisfying and therapeutic.

It is essentially very simple and there is very little waste – 1/3 oranges to 2/3 sugar by weight plus an unwaxed lemon or two. I prepare the fruit by hand. Cut into halves and juice to extract the juice and separate the peel from pips and flesh. But don’t discard the pips and flesh they have an important role in setting the marmalade. Slice the peel into thick or thin shreds to your choice.

The basis of my recipe is a traditional one. I add the sliced peel and the juice to some water (about half a pint of water to each pound of orange/sugar) in a big preserving pan (though any pan will do – I used a chip pan until we got a preserving pan) and simmer for a couple of hours or until the peel is soft and you can easily sever it with a spatula or fork.  Meanwhilst wrap the pips and flesh up into a small (muslin) bag and put into the mixture.

The flesh and pips will slowly provide the pectin needed to set the marmalade. To help ensure that I get all the pectin I often strain some of the boiling water into the mixture through the flesh and pips and there is always enough pectin for a set, no need to buy jam sugar or add extra pectin. As the fruit simmers the water boils off and it will reduce by almost a half – now it’s ready to stir inthe sugar and bring to the boil at setting temperature. Don’t forget to remove the bag with the pips and flesh and KEEP STIRRING .

You’ll need a jam thermometer to check the mixture reaches setting temperature. I tend to notice a change in the texture of the mixture and that it spits out more as the right temperature and consistency are reached. Boil it for 5 minutes whilst stirring to prevent the mixture burning.

Once the heat is off the mixture needs to cool a little before ladling into jars. I reuse old jars – these are traditional 1 lb jars from the days before screw lids (not so long ago actually) and I pop them in the oven to sterilise them.

I know it’s not to everyone’s taste but I like to add a little of the smokey flavour of whisky to the marmalade. For these jars I spoon in only a tea-spoon of whisky before I add the marmalade. It’s about the smokey flavour not the alcoholic content and so I use a good whisky. generally an Islay malt (Laphroaig is good for this or more delicately my favourite Caol Ila, but any will do I just can’t spell most of them).

The keeping will benefit from using wax discs while the marmalade is still hot but you can enjoy it as soon as you like. Goes well with clotted cream in my view!

The good news is that if you want to try it you are not limited to Seville oranges, you could start with pink gratefruit which makes a great marmalade and is much more widely available through the year.

Here is the basic recipe

3 lbs of seville oranges
6 lbs of granulated sugar
2 unwaxed lemons
5 pints of water

Enjoy! You’ll be amazed at the quality of the product – and the cost in comparison (less than 50p a jar all up) to buying premium marmalade and of course the recycling and lack of waste. Tell your friends and it won’t be long before you are deluged with empty jars to reuse in the hope of a full jar in return!

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Through the year and mainly over the winter period we are cutting dead, diseased and dangerous trees on the commons, particularly those which are along tracks, paths, boundaries and fence lines. By February we normally have a reasonably pile of firewood.  Last Sunday we held the annual log day for members of the Lynchmere Society (which owns the 307 acres of the Lynchmere Commons) to collect a car boot load of logs.

At £5 for annual membership it’s not a bad deal for a free boot full of firewood alone,  but a lot of our members are active on the commons, either walking it, riding it or helping us work on it through the volunteer working parties. If you live locally to Lynchmere (between Haslemere and Liphook) you can find out more about the society, it’s work and if you fancy some outdoor exercise  the volunteer days at it’s website here – OK that’s the advert over.

We opened the gates to firewood collectors at 10:00 and by then there was a queue of cars (and trailers) extending along the road in both directions with members eager to collect their bootload of logs.

We haven’t cut as many trees in the last year or two as we have in previous years as we have the mix of woodland and heathland about right (in my opinion) and are now concentrating upon maintaining and enhancing the trees on the commons. So most of the members turned up early just in case the supply of firewood logs ran out – and despite the queues everyone remained in good spirits and we had lots of help through the day.

With the cold winter it seems that members log piles are running low and it didn’t take very long for the pile of logs to be reduced to almost nothing.

We had some interesting visitors along the way, this very straight 1972 series III landrover turned up to collect logs for the mother-in-law, so we had a good look around it and a chat about restoring old landrovers (sorry I’ve forgotten your name but we’d like to see your landrover on the commons more regularly!).

By about 1pm the pile had virtually disappeared into the boots and trailers of member’s cars. A very big thank you to all the team who turned out to organise the day Lou and Seb (on traffic duty). Ed, the Richards, Chris and the others (sorry if I have forgotten your name) who helped load all the cars. Mark and Robert for doing the chain saw work and Judy for providing us with coffee just at the right time.

Frantic activity over, peace and quiet returned with just a little tidying up to do.

Meanwhilst dotted around in the woods in the woods you may notice the odd tree stump sculpture, this one is Robert’s on the stump of a leaning birch which had to be felled when the top tore out.  I haven’t done any of these for a while now – but maybe I will add a few as well.

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Wingin’ it

I’ve noticed since I started writing this blog that my already bad sense of humour has got much worse as I try to think up titles for posts – just my way of apologising for the bad pun in this title.

But the wings are back on my old SWB 1965 landrover ‘Georgina’,  with a first coat of paint to match them to the front panel, though painting at or below zero is not recommended for achieving any sort of finish.

The absence of posts this week has been caused by my catching a branch in the eye and then to add insult to injury a broken alternator belt led to spending 5 hours one evening sitting in a cold car when I could have been blogging in front of a warm stove.  As you can see I am feeling sorry for myself at the moment, so the refitting of the front bumper seemed a fitting occasion to remind myself that I am making some progress. Normal service will be resumed very shortly.

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Dreaming of scythes

Most people when they dream of scythes are having a nightmare featuring the Grim Reaper. But they don’t call me the Grinning Reaper for no reason.  I found myself dreaming of scythes and scything the other night after I looked at the old photos from last summers Green Scythe Fair in some local Somerset papers my mother passed on to me. I suspect that Spring being around the corner and my desire to see the end of  Winter had something to do with it as well.

In the press photo I was surprised to find myself awaiting  the final and standing next to the English National champion Simon Damant. Never having  mown competitivelybefore I asked him for a few hints and tips and he was good enough to give me some advice – it must have worked as I came out with the second fastest time, although I took twice as long as Simon, so I have some work to do on my technique (and physique!).

I’d only entered the heats on a spur of the moment decision and never expected to do well.

So it was a little unexpected and worrying to find myself mowing my own little patch in front of a crowd of 1500 and all the cameras. No pressure!

I really liked the way that the festival lingered on into the evening, with plenty of cider to wash down the day’s efforts to the music of some local bands.

We stayed on for a few more days to enjoy the landscape of the levels and I am looking forwards to do more of the same again this June.

You can find out more about the upcoming scythe festival from the website here http://www.thescytheshop.co.uk/festival.html

Meanwhilst I’ll throw another log onto the woodburner and then it’s back to dreaming of warm days and long evenings!

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