Archive for November, 2010




You may have heard of Stir-up Sunday, it’s apparently when you’re supposed to mix the christmas cake mixture in penty of time for it to bake and mature. Much more important (well to me) is Mash up Friday,  which is when I have to brew the beer in order for it to be ready in time for the festive Season.

One of the good things about making my own beer is that I get to choose all the ingredients. The base ingredient in all beers is malted barley – unless of course it’s a wheat beer in which case it’s malted wheat. In this case it’s organic malted Barley, Maris Otter a Pale Malt, from the Warminster Maltings – which is still a traditional floor malting.

By choosing organic I don’t expect the beer to taste better (though it might well and it certainly won’t be worse) but it does say a lot about how the crop was grown and the fields and environment it was grown in. I’m not as concerned about the hops as English hop gardens are rare enough as it is but I don’t particularly want my grain to come from a sterile industrial substrate of a field with no margin and no hedges.  Since I was taught to make beer I’ve been amazed at how consist the process is and that a very few ingredients, water, malted grains and hops (and sugar if you use it) can be balanced to produce a range of beers. In this respect it’s very like cooking. You don’t expect to produce a great result from a recipe unless you are satisfied with the quality of each ingredient, and paying for quality ingredients doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune. I expect the overall cost of the beer to be less than 50p  a pint and I’m regularly told that it compares well with commercial real ales.


In addition to the pale malt a small amount of crystal malt goes in, which is a darker more complex malt and is used to give body to the beer.

In the case of my winter brew recipe I also add a very small amount of wheat malt and all the ingredients are mashed or cooked in the tun at 66degrees C for around 90 minutes to extract the starches and sugars from the grains. I use a simple and fairly cheap polyplastic bucket fitted with a thermostatic heater element and a tap to drain off the resulting wort (or malt extract).

A lot of the sugary wort is still on the grains and I sparge (spray with almost boiling water) to wash off the rest of the malt extract.


Then the hops are added and the wort is boiled up for a further 90 minutes together with any sugars that might be added. For the winter brew I want a richer, sweeter beer with a darker reddish glow to the colour so I add dark brown soft sugar (and a bit of dark brown muscovado) together with some molasses. For anyone who knows it, this beer is designed to be quite like Gales HSB as it used to be (before Fullers bought the Brewery) though for christmas I make it a little darker and sweeter with a hint of spice coming from the muscovado and molasses.

After boiling up the brew is drained off the hops and into the fermenting vessel (bucket) and once cool enough the yeast is added (Safale S-04) which is specially designed for English real ales and bitters. It will take another 5 days to ferment and then be racked into a conditioning vessel with  a small amount more hops added (top hopping) just to give it the smell and taste of the hops when poured – East Kent Goldings and Brambling Cross are the varieties in this brew.

Finally I will bottle it adding a half teaspoon more brown sugar for it to condition in the bottle for a couple of weeks before its ready to drink – though the longer you can leave it the better. The original gravity of this brew is 1050 which should give it upto 6% alcohol if it ferments out completely so it will be a very traditional strong, dark slightly sweet and spicy winter beer, best served in front of a blazing log fire.



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Firewood – Logs to Burn


Brrrr. It was cold in the shed today, didn’t get above zero (C) according to my max/min thermometer. One of the best ways to get my circulation going is to split a bit of firewood and then I can bear the cold for a while. Of course I should have had the firewood all split and stacked early in the year to get the benefit of drying through the summer – but I find life tends to get in the way.

So I am becoming a bit more careful in trying to choose firewood that will burn well without needing too much drying. I avoid logs which have been lying on the ground, they’ll be too wet and look for recently fallen dead branches particularly from Oak and Beech which have been pre-seasoned in the air and burn well with only a short period of further drying.

There are a few old rhymes which contain firewood lore and as usual there is no smoke without a fire as they say.  I was discussing this recently with a friend and he gave me a copy of another poem called ‘Logs to Burn’ which goes like this

Logs to burn; logs to burn;

Logs to save the coal a turn.


Here’s a word to make you wise

When you hear the woodsman’s cries;

Never heed his usual tale

That he’s splendid logs for sale

But read these lines & really learn

The proper kind of logs to burn.


Oak logs will warm you well,

If they’re old and dry.

Larch logs of pinewood smell

But the sparks will fly.

Beech logs for Christmas time;

Yew logs heat well;

‘Scotch’ logs it is a crime

For anyone to sell.

Birch logs will burn too fast

Chestnut scarce at all;

Hawthorn logs are good to last

If cut in the fall,

Holly logs will burn like wax,

You should burn them green;

Elm logs like smouldering flax,

No flame to be seen,

Pear logs and Apple logs,

They will scent your room;

Cherry logs across the dogs

Smell like flowers in bloom,

But Ash logs all smooth and gray

Burn them green or old,

Buy up all that come your way

They’re worth their weight in gold.

The choice of wood in the poem is a little selective and perhaps represents the experience and local availability of the author. Hornbeam is well regarded as is Hazel. Field Maple is very good (but rare and I’d turn it in preference to burning it) and I find Rowan is a good firewood – though it’s really only recently become common in the South of England.

It’s not always possible to find enough Ash even for turning, let alone as firewood and so I do burn a lot of Birch. Like Ash it does burn well even when quite green but it needs to be burnt hot to avoid tarring the chimney. I find its best when not completely seasoned or else it burns to hot and quickly and I mix it with beech and oak  once the fire is burning well and which provides some body for the fire. Not mentioned in the poem Hazel burns well as firewood and I’m surprised to hear that chestnut doesn’t burn well – it does, but you do have to leave it for some years to season.  Must go and through another log on the stove now.




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Whoops!  This was supposed to be a bridlepath running in a sunken track. Why is it that trees unerringly seem to know where the paths are and fall on them, except where there is a fence to fall on of course?  It’s not like I have plenty of time to spare either but at least a  couple of  tonnes of oak to cut up before the bridlepath can be reoopened has kept me warm during some cold days.

It’s always a shame when an old, twisted tree, especially an oak is windblown. It has so much more character than a straight pole of a tree and it takes a lot more time to saw up as well.

Although it’s two foot across at the butt it’s probably not that old and judging by the condition of the break it was not in good shape, though there are no obvious fruiting bodies of fungus on the tree.

With a big canopy and the butt suspended in the air above the sunken track the bridlepath runs along I’ve had to dismember the tree bit by bit just to reopen the path. You do need to be very careful working on large windblown trees with all sorts of stress in each and every branch waiting to trap the saw, flip and pivot the branches as you cut them or even see-saw the trunk.

As I finished cutting off the largest branches the balance changed and the butt gracefully sank back down to earth.  A days or two’s worth of exercise and the bridlepath is now open and the trunk is safely wedged on its remaining branch stubs until I can complete the extraction in the next few weeks.

All trees have some fungi in them. Many are necessary for the tree to flourish but as the tree gets older they can also become the mechanism by which the tree dies and as the wood decays it will eventually fall. I could spend all my time trying to keep up with the fungi on the commons and still fail. It’s quite common to see brackets on our birch, particularly the birch polypore (razor strop fungus) but this one has something else growing on it.

From the shape colour and the white gills underneath it looks to me as if it might be oyster mushroom. Any fungi experts out there to help? By and large brackets are inedible and oyster is an exception to this but these are a bit far gone to be edible even if I was certain of their identity.


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Maarten ‘Max’ Meerman, my friend in Vancouver has been very busy in his miniature nano- world. As long as I’ve known him (and that’s too long to remember now) he’s been a very talented and imaginative model-maker and now he’s putting that talent to work with his woodwork. Here is his miniature Windsor. Luckily he’s a bit too busy to try sitting in it.

I’m not sure about the nice clean fingers Max, not greenwood then I presume? I hesitate to ask about the size of the froe or it will feature in his next post on his blog. There are more of his creations on his blog. You can find it by scrolling down to the blogroll on the right side of this page, via the links page of this site or by clicking on this link.


Though he normally turns on a powered lathe Max did recently make this working polelathe. It’s a bit on the small side for me!




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I’m turning the clock back a couple of months, so don’t be disturbed by all the birch trees suddenly springing into leaf and the heather flowering in the photos. In mid September we hosted a short visit to the  Lynchmere Commons by members of the Sussex Heathland Forum (a loose collection of individuals and organisations with an interest in lowland heaths from Sussex and surrounding counties).

If you are not from around here – then very briefly,  the Sussex lowland heaths are an increasingly rare landscape, 80% has disappeared during the last 100 years and one of Northern Europe’s rarest habitats. This makes conserving them important for maintaining biodiversity (lots of different species) in the environment. When I refer to the Lynchmere commons – I am referring to the status of the area as ‘common land’ a legal description which puts some limits upon how the owner can manage the land. Traditionally such common land was always unfenced and used by the local community even if privately owned.

We don’t often get experts descending on us en-masse and so we took the opportunity to do a little housekeeping before the visit to help us show off the commons on a short walk and talk. One of the biggest headaches in managing a lowland heath site is the invasive scrub. You can clear a patch and just a couple of years later it looks like this again in the photo above with Birch and Pine springing up everywhere.  If you don’t keep on top of it after a few more years it will become scrub woodland and suppress the heathland plants. As a woodsman I like more trees, but scrub woodland doesn’t provide good trees and is a poorer habitat than well managed woodland.

Over the summer we are normally working on the bracken but this part of Stanley common is one of our best heather areas and so we took the opportunity to do a little housekeeping and remove some of the Birch and Pine scrub before the visit by the Forum.

As well as removing the scrub the work restores the views across the commons. That doesn’t just help people enjoy the landscape but also helps the wildlife use the area and for them it’s a giant larder (unless of course you are at the bottom of the food chain in which case you are on the menu). To prevent the nutrients enriching the soil we remove the cut scrub, but it’s not wasted, we move it to dead hedges erected to protect coppice areas where it’s forming a bank rich in its own plants and animals.

On the day we had about 40 or 50 visitors. The aim of the walk was two-fold. Firstly to introduce people to the 350 acre site of mixed heathland and woodland (and some pasture) which is the Lynchmere commons – we’re a little off the beaten track and quite easy to miss with more prominent sites like The Devil’s Punchbowl, Blackdown , Frensham and Bramshott Chase so close.

The other aim was to show some of how we manage the site. Unlike our neighbours we are a small, local, community organisation and run the reserve using our own resources, partly volunteer and partly paid volunteers. When we took over the management a few years ago we decided to stop using chemicals on the commons and somewhat to our surprise discovered that we are a bit on our own, at least around here, in working organically.

The combination of limited machinery and no chemical use means that we are evolving a very different approach to the management of our site from most, if not all of the other sites around us. We are looking to the original craft uses and skills which created the site and maintained it over hundreds of years to play a primary role in continuing the management of the commons.

Time for a swift rant. I have to admit to being biased. This approach is something that I am pushing very hard. But just about everything on the commons was harvested by the local community until only a few decades ago and if we can find a way to use these crops again then a large part of the management of the site will happen on a sustainable basis in the future.

It seems that it’s unfashionable to think in this way these days. Always we are pushed to become more ‘efficient’ and more intensive  – which I take as meaning capital and machinery intensive – using fewer people to work with more specialist equipment. Because of the increasing specialisation of society around us sometimes I think that we become blind to the opportunities to distribute the work so that more people do things little and often because they find it’s in their interest to do so. I see no reason why everything needs to be centralised and organised on an industrial scale and a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea to try other more traditional ways so it turns out that we’re involved in something of an experiment in our management methods on the commons.

I’m not suggesting we should all be partaking of the Fly Agaric, the one in the photo is a particularly fine specimen (photo courtesy of Laura Ponsonby on the walk) and there are some very strange rumours of how best to sample it’s narcotic effects, but we did have a great crop of fungi this year and there were many varieties on display as we walked the commons.

Rant over. I hope the Forum found our experiences with low tech local management and maximising the use of traditional craft skills of interest. I’m sure it’s harder work than buying a bigger tractor and a bigger sprayer but I think we are showing its possible and it can lead to a greater involvement and benefit for the local community and maybe a gain for the environment as well?

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Well, I don’t think there is much danger of me becoming a candlestick maker. But a year ago I acquired one of George Lailey’s candleholders and I’ve been meaning to try making a copy and not got around to it so recently I decided to have a quick go.

This is a first attempt so it’s not pretty.  I roughed out the blank from a cleft billet of birch using saw and axe and then started turning on the polelathe.

I only turned the dish of the holder and shaped the back of the dish on the lathe with the intention of finishing the rest by hand with a crook knife.

But comparing it with the original – I have come to the conclusion that Lailey did the carving of the handle and around the edge first and then finished off with the turning. I’m in two minds whether to finish this one off or to try another one carving it first and then turning. I doubt there’s much of a market so it’s just for interest – and Birch is probably not as good a wood to use as the Lailey Elm one – less of a fire hazard I should think.

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We’ve been staying in a cabin in the Forest of Dean for a short break and being in the middle of the woods above Symonds Yat the internet and mobile phone coverage was almost non-existant.  So I’ve had a break from the blog for a few days.

For those  not familiar with the area Symonds Yat is a rocky outcrop right at the northern end of the Forest of Dean where it forces the river Wye to bend right around it in a big loop. The Yat rock is right on the English-Welsh border with a good view of the river valley and surrounding hills from Ross-on-Wye upstream down until the river enters a steep valley as it flows onwards to Monmouth. It’s a popular area for walking, cycling, canoeing, climbing, pot-holing and bird watching and whatever takes your fancy. Somewhere that I’ve been to since I was very young.

This week it’s been a challenging opportunity for me to practice my photography – and to inflict it upon you in this post –  and we were lucky enough to have a couple of good walking days, one with great sunshine which captured the golden needles still on the larches in the woods – most of which seemed to be falling on us during the day. I have to admit that before this walk I’d never seen beauty in Larch trees before, but it’s hard to describe and even harder to photograph the colour.

A  buzzard flew low over us as we walked down one of the forest routes.

The low sun angle dappled the beech woods bringing out the autumn textures with leaves carpeting the ground while the last of the leaves cling to the trees.

We came across an Oak graveyard. At least 150 substantial Oak trunks felled and extracted to the sides of the track.

I’m schizophrenic about trees, I love them standing  but when I see a tree with great wood I can’t help thinking about planking and turning it, though 150 trunks would be a little too much for me to handle on my own.

Time for a short rant. I’ve got nothing against sustainable harvesting of the woods, it’s what I try to do on our local common land, but it does annoy me enormously when I see the woods trashed by big equipment to extract the valuable poles whilst leaving all of the rest of tree. Hundreds of tonnes of valuable cordwood just left  in a mess all over the woodland floor.

It seems to me that the Forestry Commission should be leading by setting a good example but all too often it is distracted by it’s attempts to industrialise forestry into a money making venture quickly  forgetting the principles of woodland management which have been honed over millenia.

Half a mile further on we found another example of the Forestry Commission’s sensitive approach to woodland management. Clear felling on a steep valley slope, ripe for erosion, and piles of brash left around to help prevent the woodland flora from benefitting from the sunlight. Not much chance for a carpet of bluebell here then. If I applied for a felling licence to do this I can imagine how it would be treated!

Not so long ago the FC used to sell licences to collect lop and top for firewood to private individuals – but the politically correct health and safety culture put paid to it. A team of firewood ‘volunteers’ would soon sort this out or the ‘firewood fairies’ as friends of mine describe them but I’m sure that it’s ‘more than my jobs worth‘ for someone to lead this in the FC – actually I have a feeling that just about anything is about to become more than their job is worth. Welcome to my world!

What is going to happen if the government gets it’s way and starts to sell off these woods? Can we expect private owners to manage the woods more sensitively than the Forestry Commission (and I have to admit that I’ve seen estates locally doing a much better job)? Or to improve the access to our woodlands? I’m sure I don’t want woodlands that are currently in public ownership to be sold into private hands but all to often I’m not very happy with how they are managed at the moment either. I don’t understand why we can’t do as other European countries seem to do very successfully and keep the woods in public ownership whilst licencing local groups and individuals to manage them sustainably.

Down in the river valley the woods change character around every corner and we stumbled upon this grove of Yew trees in amongst the beech alongside the old dismantled railway line (another example of a desparate government dismantling it’s assets)

Some of these yews have been around for a long, long time and the root system on this one was so sinuous that it almost seemed to be flowing over the rocks and into the small cracks in the earth that it’s hanging onto.

Autumn colours reflect in the river.

We found the old railway tunnel still open under the hillside

Loads of birds flitting through the trees. Most weren’t willing to stay and be photographed but this chaffinch allowed me to practice for a while, most unusual.

Being out of range of Internet and phone (well almost) has been good for me, and we had a great time just walking and looking in the Forest of Dean – hard though it was to resist doing a little bit of coppicing along the way. On the way back to our cabin the setting sun set the leaves of the beech  on fire with colours of liquid gold – bringing out the graceful shape of the trees.

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showcasing designs by Maarten Meerman (Max)