Archive for May, 2011

My last article on scything caused plenty of interest so I’ll post some more. Whilst at the Weald and Downland Museum over the weekend I took the opportunity to demonstrate scything – partly because I was allowed to cut some nice grass and partly because I’ve always found cutting the grass is very therapeutic and relaxing. With a scythe – even more so!

Yes, working barefoot is also a great experience, but of course you need grass that allows it – most of the areas I cut are thistle or nettle beds, so not such a great experience. Visitors are always amazed and assume it’s very dangerous to scythe barefoot. Most amusing. They inevitably shuffle further away once it dawns on them that actually they are more at risk from my blade than I am!

Just for once the weather broke and it was very windy. The grass was not long but quite tufty/tussocky and varied in nature. More used to being grazed by sheep than being cut with a blade, which made it quite challenging to cut well – for me anyway.

Hidden in the grass was the occasional South Downs flint – thrown no doubt by bored children in a rather ironic inversion of the centuries of clearing these fields by removing them. Just one stone caught by the blade will rub down it and dull almost the whole length, so frequent honing required to keep the blade performing well.


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After running around like a mad thing all week with a list of jobs that grows faster than I can get them done  it’s almost pleasant to be spending the day demonstrating polelathe turning at the museum. I say almost, as it takes a good couple of hours to get the shelter and stand up and together before I can even start work. But sunny weather and an interesting collection of visitors mean that I’m struggling to make turnery fast enough – which is a good thing I guess!

The usual crop of assorted treen and household items here a spurtle, pair of spalted door wedges, rolling pin and a pair of wooden pins for a garden line, one marked up to double as a dibber – though I might be in danger of doing myself out of dibber sales here – or am I just doubling them up? We’ll see.

I press ganged one visitor with a very large camera  into taking a photo of me with my camera as well – makes a change from the usual photos of an empty lathe.  So be warned, don’t visit me with a prominently displayed obviously large and expensive lens, I might asume that you know what you are doing on the photography front.

The rolling pins were flying off the stand, being ordered before I could get them off the lathe. Sometimes it just happens that way. I think it also helped that I was making extra long pins and the sycamore, having suffered from my regime of benign neglect, has just started to develop interesting grain with white, brown and a pale tinge of green in places.

Rolling pins, especially extra long ones, are not the easiest items to make and achieving a good level finish does need some careful attention – sometimes it just won’t work, and it’s all too easy to put in a dig at the very last moment. But the length and character of the wood make for a product you can’t easily find in the shops – and they prove to be very popular.

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I came back with some nice looking Ash from the Bodgers Ball. At 30 inches in length it should be just right for hay rake heads. Wrong! Too much wind and far too stringy. Almost impossible to control the split with the froe, though with a proper cleaving brake it might just work. But first I need a brake…..

Hey Presto! Thanks to my friend Richard my coppice mentor and some chestnut poles I had lying around suddenly a brand new mini cleaving brake – Sussex Style appears in my yard. If this just looks like a pile of poles to you then thats entirely my fault but Richard has already cleft any poles I left lying around so now it’s time to try some Ash for rake heads.

To start off with I’m using some dead straight Ash I found at the back of my log pile and couldn’t quite bear to put onto the firewood pile. When I cut off the ends with the chainsaw the wood turned pink – a clear sign with Ash that’s it’s not completely dried out, so still useable for rake heads.

The concept of the brake is to clamp the wood being cleft between two pieces of wood and apply pressure just in front of the split which stresses the fibres and helps to direct the split towards the stressed fibres. The diagonal on this brake is a lot wider than the one I originally built for myself (from a book I think) and takes a bit of getting used to

but the result is first class. Without the cleaving brake these clefts would inevitably split out (the split runs out and gets thinner rather than going straight). So despite the stringy Ash from the Ball, which might do better for axe handles, I now have some good rake head material,  and thanks to Richard a great cleaving brake – all I need is the time to shave the heads and drill them up, but tomorrow I’m back on the polelathe at the museum.

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I’ve been keen to get some serious scything going at the Weald & Downland Museum for some time but for one reason or another it’s been something of an uphill struggle until recently and on Friday I helped Simon Fairlie run a one day course.

All very well, but why the photo of a cottage? Well it turns out that the field that we’d planned to mow in had been enthusiastically cut by the heavy horses with their own mower only the day before. Hard to complain really as it’s great that the horses were doing the work. So the course had some more challenging areas to contend with…..

….such as the classic cottage garden behind Walderton. Not the easiest challenge for newcomers to the world of scything, and to make it worse the museum gardener, Carlotta was on the course as well – so it wasn’t going to be easy to hide any unfortunate accidents with the flower beds or worse still the leeks in the veg patch!

These patches of lawn are normally mown with a petrol powered mower just before the museum opens to the public. Despite the danger to the flowers in the end we managed to mow the lawn quite effectively though I admit that I did this bit when I got hold of one of Simon’s new style blades.

Although it was more constrained than mowing in an open field I think it was a very powerful demonstration of the versatility of the scythe and it’s ease of use in the garden rather than just an outdated and obsolete historical tool. I think we may have some converts and I’m just hoping that we will now start regular mowing at the museum and perhaps even get a team together – who knows we might be allowed to cut around the edges of the hay field this year?

If you are hoping for action photos of people wielding scythes then you will be disappointed as unfortunately I was so busy coaching that I managed not to take any photos of the action.

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Last week the Blackdown National Trust Team reached a significant milestone with their new build project at Swan Barn farm. The farm is the base for the NT team and although its only a few hundred yards, or a few minute walk, behind Haslemere high street it seems miles away.

The new building is not being built in the simplest or easiest way. Almost all of the materials will be sourced within the farm or locally. The design and construction of the house is being led by our local roundwood cruck framed timber expert Ben Law – who you may remember from the ever popular ‘Grand Designs’ TV programme which featured his original house in the woods.

The timbers for the Speckled Wood building have been cut in the woods surrounding the farm by the team, Dave, Spike, Matt and Catherine and transported to the site where the cruck frames have been prepared by Ben Law and his crew ready to be raised into position.

With a cruck framed building the transformation from a pile of timbers lying messily on the ground to a recognisable building is almost instantaneous. Here the first frame is winched up slowly with the end of the ridge pole sitting in the cruck.

One of the great things about these buildings is their individuality. Unlike a modern timber framed house designed to be built bit by bit from mass produced components the cruck frame is a complete skeleton upon which the house will be hung. Inevitably each building is different and has it’s own set of problems to be solved. I was lucky enough to arrive before the first frame was lifted and to appreciate how calmly the team solved each problem and moved onwards.

With the first frame almost in position I had to leave to prepare some scythe blades for a course at the Weald and Downland Museum the following day. But if you are interested you can follow the build at the National Trust’s Speckled Wood blog here.

As I left I looked back at the first frame in place next to the existing barn which is used as a base camp for volunteers on working holidays. The cruck frame looks entirely appropriate and this return to an ancient form of building structure also signals the start of a project at Swan Barn Farm which will hugely reduce the carbon footprint as well as increase the use of local materials. I’ll be looking in at the farm from time to time to see how things are going – when I have a moment spare that is!

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This post should have been titled ‘Going to the Ball’ but somehow time vanished and I am just back from a long weekend at the 21st Anniversary Bodgers Ball. I will be posting more photos once I have recovered from the setting up, the weekend and the long drive back today.

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