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Archive for October, 2010

I do like an excuse to use my bar augers occasionally. Over the last few years I’ve accumulated a goodly collection of bits in fairly good shape and using them is the best way to keep them in good shape. The excuse on this occasion was a fairly ordinary, if large, tool handle which Matt, at the Blackdown National Trust team had asked me to make except it’s for a cider scratter (yes apples again) and it needed a hole though its length to take an iron bar.

What’s a scratter I hear you say? It’s a cider mill for tearing, shredding or crushing (but not cutting) the apples into the pea sized lumps known as Pomace ready for the press. The scratter in question has been a local garden feature for some decades and planted up with flowers. The substantial metalwork has survived but all of the wooden parts needed to be completely rebuilt – undeterred Matt and Spike have rebuilt it totally just in time for this seasons cider making and it’s good for another few decades.

One of the last parts they needed was the handle for the large Iron wheel.  For me turning the handle was no problem but I was a little concerned about accurately drilling the hole down the centre of the handle without going off centre. One of the good things about using a substantial bar auger is that its a lot easier to see any errors in alignment. Unlike a brace and bit which needs to be supported whilst you use it the bar auger will stand on it’s own so you can keep checking it’s alignment.  A good auger will pull itself through the wood on it’s lead screw so only turning force is needed. Just to be on the safe side it’s wise to drill from both ends so the remaining error is halved and any misalignment occurs in the middle of the handle.

In the event it went very well thanks to my fine auger and when Dave popped in with the handle (nicely cleaned up and finished with Linseed oil) it fitted very snuggly over the bar. Last year the team restored a 100 year old Sussex cider press (From Gospel Green just outside Haslemere). This year the scratter joined it and has since been used for 3 pressings, one for the Swan Barn Farm orchard and two community pressings. I’m particularly pleased to see the community pressing taking place, this restores a very old tradition of community cider making and enables people to use otherwise unwanted apples, make a gallon or two of cider and have a lot of fun.

Matt, Spike and Dave work out of Swan Barn Farm, just a few hundred yards behind Haslemere high Street and manage a wide range of National Trust local areas from Blackdown (Hill) across to Marley Common and you can find out more about their activities at the Speckled Wood blog or using the link I’ve just put on the blogroll.  I’m always amazed and inspired by the work they do and I look forward to seeing more of it on their blog including the orchards, bees, allotments, grazing commons, hedge laying , making shingles, coppicing and hopefully soon the building of a new cruck framed house for long term volunteers at the farm. The house will be built using local, sustainable materials and Ben Law has been helping with the design.

Among the many reasons I started a blog was to be able to post on great work locally when I am aware of it, so I hope to be able to post on developments at Speckled wood, particularly if they get the go ahead for the new build.

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Time to catch up with some recent events. One of my favourite shows in the Calendar is the Weald & Downland Museum’s Autumn Countryside show. Always packed with activity this year’s show was no exception being even busier than usual, partly due to the superb weather and partly because it’s the last show of the season and we had a wider range of demonstrators working.

A highlight of the show is the belt driven threshing drum which threshes the longstraw harvested from the museum fields earlier in the year and stored in a rick. The steam powered threshing drum separates the wheat from the chaff and the long straw stalks are then baled for use as thatching straw, some of which will end up on roofs of the museum buildings. The grain will go to the watermill to be ground into flour.

OK, I’ve got plenty to cover so why the photo of a Donkey? Well the Donkey’s are always a good attraction but they can also do useful work around the Museum. They are very hard workers and perfectly sized for working in the Hazel coppice. During the show Norman was working them with John (the woodsman) Roberts to extract firewood from the coppice above the museum to stacks outside the houses ready for the winter.


Norman had asked me earlier in the year to replace some pins on one of the donkey pannier harnesses – the original containerised transport system which allow the donkeys to haul loads in containers hung from the harness. Norman had trouble with the originals snapping so I’ve made some more rugged ones which I hope will do the job, not being an expert in donkey harnesses, it is something of an exercise in trial and error. But I must have done ok as Norman has asked me to make pins to refurbish the other 2 sets of pannier harnesses.

I normally work on my own at the museum so it was great to be joined by half a dozen friends from the Sussex Group of the APT. Fionn ( Edit  – Spelling now corrected – Fionn points out that Ffion is a girl’s nake and it’s Welsh), James, Wayne and the unstoppable Mike Gordon put on a good show with an assortment of lathes from Wayne’s pint sized bow lathe to James’ bowl lathe.  I think we had 5 totally different lathes on the go with not one the same.

Merv and Kathryn (friends from the Sussex and Surrey Coppice Group) joined us to demonstrate their skills as Luthiers (makers of early wooden instruments) and as performers.

Merv showed us his unique accompaniment to Kathyn’s harp playing using his hammer and wedge technique. As well as a luthier Merv and Kathryn are talented greenwood furniture makers.

Being in the right place and time to take the best photos was out of the question with so much work to do over the weekend. I only had time to make a quick early morning visit to the vintage ploughing. Missed the heavy horses but caught this Allis Chalmers busy disc harrowing the strip.

At the same time I paid a swift visit to the Cider press. It wouldn’t be a great autumn show without apples. Or one of my recent blog posts come to think of it!

Julian (museum curator) and Guy were running the press and with help from their families were busy milling and pressing apples all weekend.

Supply of apples allowing, the team can normally press about 50 or 60 gallons of juice over the weekend. A fair proportion of that is drunk by visitors and the rest is fermented to become cider which is also available for the visitors to try. The two year old cider is a fine vintage, voted very acceptable by a random selection of bodgers, hurdlers and assorted greenwoodworkers staying over on the Saturday night. We also got to sample Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Sussex and Hampshire cider contributed by those staying alongside the museum’s cider. The Wiltshire cider was particularly fatal, aptly demonstrated by the provider who fell over trying trying to pick up an axe to chop kindling (just as well considering).

I should also record that Guy’s bottle of Birch Sap wine was also sampled and 5 out of 6 bodgers who tried it expressed a preference for his ‘Lady of the Woods’ recipe finding  it ‘quite acceptable’. Not bodgers of any great taste then.

The spar and hurdle making competitions were held on the Sunday afternoon and attracted some good competitors.

Mr Jameson made a dapper figure, commentating over the PA and as one of the judges in the competition.

Alan and Peter show us the height of fashion for spectators at a hurdle making competition.


The competitors had an hour and half to make their hurdles. Catching the competition to take photos in between boughts of working on the lathe kept me occupied throughout the afternoon.

Just as this show reminds me that the season is drawing to a close, so the evening drew in quickly and brought the weekends activities to a swift close.

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Time for a quick photo tour of Gower. If you haven’t been there it’s a small peninsula on the south coast of Wales to the west of Swansea. Known as Gower rather than ‘The Gower’ it was the first area to be awarded AONB status in the UK and supports a very wide range of bio-diversity and habitats, though it long sandy beaches and surf waves are amongst it’s biggest attractions.  Once known as Little England beyond Swansea, Gower remained isolated from tourist development and the industrial developments to the east in South Wales. It is still Wales though so it does rain, but with more sunshine as well so you see a lot of rainbows here.

In the summer season the beaches are packed and tiny roads very busy so we like to come down out of season. When I am here I spend a lot of time walking the cliff paths and blowing away the cobwebs – a great way to wind down from, or to prepare for a busy summer greenwood season. I never know what I will find around the next corner, a pile of driftwood or useful items of flotsam and jetsam. It’s been a bit sparse this year, not much to report with the exception of a fine bottle crate that will take a dozen cider bottles.

Looking from the cliffs the everychanging sea and sky present great views looking over towards the Devon coast and I am a great fan of the silver seas.

Lundy Island, in the middle of the Bristol Channel, is visible on a very good day and visibility has been excellent for most of the week – which means you can see the rain coming.

 

We watched a kestrel hovering over the cliffs at Rhossili for what seemed like ages before it pounced on it prey.

 


Worms Head, at the end of Rhossili is one of the best known landmarks, cut off by the tide for much of the day, it can be reached at low tide by a long clamber over the rocks and earns it’s name as it resembles a giant sea serpent snaking out to sea.

Rhossili also boasts a two mile sandy beach with plenty of surf.

Behind Oxwich bay, which has another fabulous two mile stretch of sandy beach, is a network of sand dunes and salt marshes which supports endless numbers of birds of all types from Buzzards to waders and tiny pippits and martins. Always something to watch, here looking along towards Three Cliffs Bay.

 


Nice to see plenty of birch scrub growing here as well. The contrast of the brown regrowth from the stools with the silver maiden stems behind was particularly marked – I thought it might be brown or downy birch (Betula Pubescens) rather than Silver birch (Betula Pendula),but could find no sign of downy hairs on the twigs though I’ve heard that there are hybrids of the two. Although the young stems are always brown to start off, in my experience they start to show signs of turning silver before getting above twelve feet or so – but there are always exceptions to proove the rule.


We have seen plenty of rainbows this week. Back to normal (whatever that may be) next week.

 

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I’m told that Wild Service Tree (Sorbus Terminalis) is England’s rarest native tree. I can believe it as until recently I’ve never come across it and many that I ask haven’t seen one either ( Ed –  I was told wrong. Though it might be rare, there are rarer trees in England – see comments below this post). Herbert Edlin’s ‘Woodland Trees of Britain’, the only reference I have to hand at the moment, doesn’t say much about it other than it’s very rare in the south of England, but then he says that about it’s relative the Rowan (Sorbus Acuparia) as well and I don’t think them rare at all.

So it was a surprise when I got an email inviting me to take a look at one that had fallen (due to disease) and needed clearing from a field.My policy in such circumstances is to say yes, as you never quite know what it will lead to. It was a couple of weeks  before I could get to look at the tree and by then the lop and top had been cleared away leaving the larger lumps of the trunk and major branches. Even so it seemed a lot of wood.

There is very little information on the uses of Wild Service perhaps because it is rare. I recall that it’s been used for small turnery – a bit of a catch all, but it indicates the wood is not thought to be useless for turning and probably reflects the fact that it’s not often available in size.

It often used to be  known by it’s common name the Chequer tree though the definitive reason for this seems lost in the mists of time, one possibility is that the mature bark bears a chequered pattern and another that the colours of the sprays of fruit to something similar when ripening. It’s fruit don’t often ripen fully in our summers but once bletted (over ripe) they are edible – and I suspect something of an acquired taste. The fruit used to be served with Ale in the days before hops – rather like we use pork scratchings today perhaps? It makes the beer taste better.  So the pub name Chequers may refer to the fruit rather than the game. The blossom smells or should I say Pongs! If you’ve smelt the Rowan you’ll know it smells something like rotting meat, and so I can believe the Chequer tree is worse – it may also explain why it never caught on as an ornamental tree if it smells so bad, and perhaps that might go someway to explaining why it is so rare these days?

This one seems an exception. I tried counting the rings and though its not easy it does appear to be over 100 years of age. You can clearly see the disease that killed the tree. I am hoping that the wood is not too far gone and that the disease will add character rather than ruin the wood. The saw in the picture has s 25inch bar so the diameter of the tree at the butt is approaching 2ft though not very round.

 

I took Angelo, the landowner, at his word and loaded up as much of the useable wood as I could. More than I can handle and so the wood has already been passed onto friends that can use it.

 

Some of the larger sections were too heavy to manhandle into the landrover without ripping them in half first, and when I have some time I will try planking these up to see what happens. Anyone with any experience of using Wild Service Tree please do let me know what you’ve used it for?

 

I’ve tried turning some bowls from the wood and it turns very nicely. The grain is not very pronounced but where the disease runs through it the effect is very good. It’s still a bit wet for bowls and seems quite likely to split, I’ll try to make myself wait a little longer before trying any more. Once it’s gone it’s gone!

 

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Just back from a great weekend show at Burley to round off the season with more apples (Kingston Black in this case), some presses,  lots of steam, a few old Landrovers and plenty of Wood.

This was the sunset from Picket Post above Burley on the way home. It really did look like this honest. There will be more from the Burley show and others soon, but at the moment we are on the Gower Peninsula in West Wales for a few days for my Autumn Driftwood tour of the coves and beaches and the internet connection is very slow – must be all the sea and sand getting into the system!

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A Pressing Matter – yes I’m talking about apples and cider making. For some reason cultivating and harvesting fruit trees aren’t regarded much as a woodland activity but I find working with fruit trees, especially full sized apple trees one of the most satisfying forms of tree work that there is. The harvest from our small trees in the garden has been bumper this year. Together with apples from friends John & Sal and some scrumped from wild trees on the commons I’ve had enough to press cider without resorting to buying in any apples.

Along with chopping firewood pressing cider is one of those things that marks the passing of the seasons for me. It’s become something of a ritual. Last year I was very busy and didn’t make much cider – I regretted it, and despite being at least as busy this year was determined not to miss the opportunity to make cider this year which has meant a couple of late nights in between shows, courses and events.

To make a passable cider you don’t need perfect supermarket grade apples. In fact  I have found it’s quite the reverse, the wider the mix, with old big apples and small unripened ones the better the cider. There is a good reason for this as yeast needs the right conditions to thrive and convert the sugers in the  juice to alcohol. A mix of crab, cooking and dessert apples will provide the right conditions with both acid and tannin for the yeast and the resulting flavours will be better as well. If you have any Russet apples then these will also be good in the cider, but just about anything will make something drinkable eventually.

 

Before pressing the apples they need to be milled or ‘scratted’  to make a pulp of pea sized pieces which is called the pomace. Rather than slice the scratter tears the apples apart – this helps release the juice from the fruit without destroying the cells completely and releasing the pectin which would create a sticky goo which is much harder to press.

 

In the air the apple pomace quickly oxidises and turns brown. It takes me just over just under an hour  to mill enough apples to fill the 3 layers on the press. Each layer is formed by hessian sacking in a frame, takes 2 bucket loads of pomace and is then wrapped up and slats laid on for the next frame – or ‘cheese’ to be loaded.

My press is an old steel paper baling press which I’ve rebuilt as an apple press. The original cog mechanism doesn’t deliver enough pressure even with scaffold bars and I’ve modified it to use two hydraulic jacks which give me about 8 tonnes of pressure, enough to squeeze the last drops of juice from the apples.

 

I normally get about 3 gallons of juice from each pressing and use about 25kg of fruit – that’s just a bit less than 500ml per kilo or 50% yield. There’s a lot of juice in each apple – but it’s best to leave the apples a while before pressing so that you maximise both the sugar and the juice. If you are short of apples as I sometimes am I will repress and ‘sweeten’ the pomace with water to maximise the amount of juice and sugar I can get.

Some people like the apple juice fresh, but I prefer it fermented. The juice goes into an amazing array of old plastic containers I’ve scrounged over the years – most of them beachcombed but some are old wine containers and one or two vegetable chainsaw oil. With a starter of yeast in the first batch (a starter is a warm glass of powered yeast, suger and lemon juice) they are soon off. I have normally used general purpose wine yeast but this year am trying out a cider yeast so we’ll see. The yeast is not a big issue – traditionalist cider makers will allow their juice to ferment naturally without adding yeast. The containers will sit outside the backdoor throughout the winter and the initial fermentation will slow down as the temperatures fall.

As the temperature rises again in the spring the cider will often start fermenting again. If you are lucky it will also undergo a malo-lactic fermentation and rough ‘scrumpy’ tasting cider will suddenly become more palateable as the malic acid is transformed into lactic acid which we find a more acceptable taste. In my experience cider will almost always clear though sometimes it can take years. These bottles are about 2 years old and probably just about right for drinking – though I won’t know until I try them!

Go on – give it a try, don’t leave those apples rotting on the ground, use them. Even if you just use a food blender and a bucket sized press (I’m told freezing the apples first is a great way to make them easy to press out) and only make enough for a demi-john or two, it’s a very satisfying thing to do and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to make a good cider.

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I consider myself to be a woodsman (when I’m not a woodturner) rather than a coppicer, though I do a bit of coppice now and then. I have friends locally who are full time coppice workers so I wasn’t entirely sure whether being a woodsman was sufficient entitlement to attend this year’s Coppice Conference held last week at Lodge Hill, near Pulborough in West Sussex. In practice around 100 participants gathered and very sensibly this represented a cross section of owners, users of coppice products and associates as well as cutters (as the people who cut the woods are called) from around the country. But as I was asked to organise the tool auction and demonstrate with my lathe at the start of the conference it was a little late for second thoughts.

A coppice conference is something of an oxymoron – coppice workers (and woodsmen) being somewhat solitary by nature and generally fairly outspoken in approach, so an opportunity to get together and discuss with fellow workers from around the country is both a rare opportunity and something to be viewed with a degree of sceptiscism.  Enroute to the next show I set up with the lathe, horse and the minimum of kit, just a tarp from the side of the landrover as weather proofing, though in the event the weather was kind and my oak bench seemed to be a popular seat at least with members of the Hampshire Coppice Craftsmens Group.

For those of you who are not involved in the wood or the coppice industry I should clarify a little. All native English hardwoods will coppice. That is, when cut off at the stump at a young age they don’t die and will grow again.  Because the root system is that of a relatively large tree the regrowth is vigorous with multiple shoots and if the coppice stools (the cut stump) are close enough then the shoots are forced to grow long and straight to reach the sun providing a rich harvest of straight poles.

Being cut regularly in this manner is termed a rotation, as each season a different section or ‘coup’ of the wood will be cut, coming back to the original area after several years. The life of the tree is extended enormously by coppicing and with regular cutting the highest quantity and quality of poles can be produced. Applications for the poles range from walking sticks, to hurdles, hop poles, turning wood, charcoal and firewood all of which mean that every part of the growth is used and it’s entirely sustainable.  Talking of turning wood I did actually do some turning, though not as much as I’d intended as the tool auction rather took over.

Pete ‘the voice’ Jameson had entered a number of lots in the auction, including gypsy pegs but had not got round to making any, so whipped a couple up just before the auction started.

The auction was well attended, it’s a great way to break the ice. In the end we had 65 lots ranging from the usual warmup assortment of lucky horseshoes and bags of charcoal through to bandsaw, besom clamp, a selection of nice bill-hooks and machetes and this years must have leatherwear for the fashion conscious coppice worker. Say no more. I consider it to have been a success as I went home with somewhat less junk than I had when I arrived.

On the Thursday we made visits to Hazel coppices in West Sussex. Coronation Coppice is near Halnaker and being restored by Alan and Jo Waters who have been working there for several years so this coup is now being cut for the second time. As I work a lot on Birch and am surrounded by Chestnut coppice I don’t know a lot about the challenges and opportunities in the Hazel industry – except for the deer and rabbits of course – which we already know about through the planting of about 2000 new hazel on the Lynchmere commons.

Unlike Chestnut which has uses for large fencing and as structural timber when its older and larger, Hazel needs to be cut on a relatively short rotation if its to be useful and if the quality of the product is to be maintained and improved. Quality of the rods – straight and knot free is key to making the coppicing valuable and worthwhile, otherwise it is just firewood, and difficult to extract firewood at that as the overstood stems tangle and lock in place. Perhaps that most demanding application of Hazel rods is in making the woven Hazel sheep hurdles so it should not be a surprise that hurdle makers are amongst the most vocal proponents of raising the standards in cutting and maintaining coppice.

Rosie is Alan’s apprentice and has the tough job of keeping him in order, something she is learning to do quite well. While we were there Rosie gave us a demonstration of using the side-adze for cleeving Hazel rods (no pressure Rosie!). The side-adze is a local tool variant in this part of West Sussex and called by some of my friends a ‘break-adze’ in the same way as a froe is termed a ‘break-axe’.  Many were made by local blacksmiths in Petworth, and by the Moss family near Chichester.

One market for coppice is making faggots for riverbank restoration. It’s a good market to have as it helps to use up the tops of the tree. Alan has devised a machine to assist in the bundling and binding of these long faggots. Unusually these are being made up with the leaves on.

An opportunity to practice my guitar during the evening around the campfire and to meet with some of the participants from around the country. Despite the reputation of coppicing being for old men (reputedly an average of around 90), it was great to have a wide range of young and not so young, male and female around the fire.

One subject that always comes up at these gatherings is the formation of a national group. If a conference is an oxymoron then the concept of a national group is a steep challenge indeed. But the regional groups in Hampshire and Sussex and Surrey are prospering so perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come. The idea has been tried before and failed so it does need to progress with the enthusiastic participation and representation of coppice workers and regional group (the lesson endeth here).  The conference managed to agree on two resolutions. The first being that meetings to form a national group should invite participation from all local groups as well as organisations and individuals where local groups don’t exist. The second was that the bar would remain open after the meal! Meeting around a campfire certainly seemed to be a most hospitable way of doing business, assisted by Cider and Song and perhaps it could be adopted as the format for an AGM in future!

The weather got better and better as the delayed Indian Summer set in and Friday dawned bright and sunny. On the way to visit Chestnut coppice around Haslemere we stopped off at the Lodsworth Larder, built using roundwood chestnut and one of local TV celebrity and coppice worker Ben Law’s creations. Built in the car park of the village pub the Larder has returned a shop to the village as well as being  a showcase for building with local sustainable resources.

The Chestnut coppice being worked is on Vann Common/Marley heights and less than a mile from the part of Marley common that I help to manage. Two professional coppice workers, Pete and Alex, were working the site for Steve Homewood and producing palings for the twisted wire fences that are a hallmark of Steve’s family firm in Haslemere.

We had a good tour of the steep hanger slopes on which the sweet chestnut thrives. The regrowth is vigorous and doesn’t seem as susceptible to browsing as the hazel coppice.

Alex is a master of the art of peeling and pointing on the old 4stroke Petter peeling machine (safety guards are of course only removed for the purposes of the photography….).

It’s not rational. Going just on value and reliability it ought to be a row of nearly new Hilux pickups, but something about the coppice industry seems to thrive on being unreasonable so a row of beaten up old landrovers is the norm.

As you might expect I have a lot more photos and I will put them up in a gallery before too long.

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