Archive for September, 2011

Odd title if you’re too young (or old) to remember the Stranglers song “Peaches”, but the walk from Oxwich to Port Eynon along the Gower coastline is great for “Strolling along, minding your own business” and of course it’s a beachcombers paradise. But on this walk it’s low tide and there is little if any ‘wreck’ for the beachcomber to salvage so come with me, if you care, on a tour of the natural flotsam.

At high tide it’s a mass of jagged rocks which makes it a rock hopping adventure from one end to the other and you never quite know what will be around the next corner.

As the tide recedes it uncovers a host of rock pools. Other than the high tideline, always the most fascinating part of a beach for me.

Then there are the wide expanses of sandy beach which appear at low tide. This is Slade beach, normally a favourite with surfers, and of which there is no sign at high tide.

Today’s tide is 10 metres, thats around 33 feet from high to low. The Bristol Channel has one of the highest tidal ranges and as it’s around the autumn equinox it’s one of the highest spring tides to boot. Though why the low tide is still 3.7m above mean sea level according to the tide table is something I can’t quite work out?Perhaps someone can explain this quirk to me?

The good news is that the beach is extremely clean, bereft of the usual host of bottles, broken containers and odds and sods, much of which has actually been carelessly thrown away by rivers, estuaries and beaches rather than being actual flotsam or jetsam lost overboard from ships. The bad news is of course, that the beach is extremely clean so on this occasion there was little for me to scavange  though there is still plenty of natural flotsam and jetsam to examine. Even seaweed has its uses, particularly as a fertiliser, as finings in your beer (yes really!) and even in your icecream.

With the help of the Shell Book of Beachcombing (every good wrecker should have a copy, available on a forgotten shelf of your local secondhand book emporium) by Tony Soper (remember him ? You will need to remember back as far as the Stranglers for this) you should be able to find plenty to keep you distracted even without the rubbish on the tideline.

The picture on the cover of the book was probably taken in the Scilly Isles in the 1970’s and staged as well. Noticeable how the wooden crates, metal and glass containers have all been replaced with plastic today which unfortunately lasts much longer without being naturally recycled. A low tide line is always much sparser and Todays walk across the beach at Port Eynon yielded almost no plastic for a rare change with fresh cuttlefish bones alongside tiny sea shells on a perfect backdrop of golden sand. Just right to take off your boots and have a natural foot massage as you stroll along.

But watch out for the jellyfish. They can range in size from a large coin, this one was only a few inches across, upto giants a couple of feet in diameter.

This one is a little weird, and I’m not sure that we recognised it. Perhaps someone can help us out with a name?

And there is always the odd crab to nip your feet if you’re not looking where you are going.

I have a feeling, which may prove to be entirely unfounded, that there is more erosion on this beach than there used to be a couple of decades ago. Sand has gone uncovering rocks, and recently a petrified forest which in turn has been quickly eroded and vanished. Perhaps this is an entirely natural cycle, but you can’t help thinking that the massive sand dredging operations taking millions of tonnes from the banks just offshore are something to do with it. Ironic that I am told much of it ends up in concrete on the Dutch coast helping to keep the sea at bay, whilst nearer to home the sand is vanishing from the beaches.

All to quickly the sea returns and covers the sand with a fresh tide so the return trip is made along the coastpath rather than along the rockpools and sand of the beach. But Who knows what the new tide will bring? It’s this addiction to looking that has made me a beachcomber from a very early age. Maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will bring more Treasure!


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‘Tis the season to be pressing; apples that is. Before we left for Gower I managed to press most of the apples that I’d gathered from our garden and scrumped from various friends and neighbours. These are quite early apples, Early Worcester, Bramley, Tom Putt and a fair few unknowns that all go into the cider. But most apples, especially those used for cider are ready later in the season and the main cider pressing season is only just about to start.

I pressed about 300kg of apples this year – good exercise – but if you only have a sack or so of apples and no mill(to tear up the apples) or press then the good news is that there is still a way for you to make cider. Community Pressings are becoming popular and they are a great recreation of the travelling presses and cider rings which used to operate in communities throughout Southern England where cider making has a history at least as long as that of beer.

The local (Blackdown – that’s the West Sussex Blackdown) National Trust team is holding a Community Pressing at their Swan Barn Farm headquarters behind Haslemere High Street (access from Collards Lane ) this Saturday 1st October  10:30 to 3pm so take along your unwanted sacks of apples and turn them into juice or ferment the juice on into cider!

The press used by the Trust is a vintage Sussex press from Gospel Green, at least 100 years old and superbly restored as is the scratter (or mill) you can see here in the foreground . I can claim to have had a hand in the restoration of the mill as it features two handles turned on my lathe. Photo courtesy of the Speckled Wood blog where you can find more details of the community pressing or contact the Trust at Swan Barn Farm.

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For those who are unacquainted with it, the Gower Peninsula is a little world of its own jutting out into the Bristol Channel from the South Wales coastline. With it’s sun (and rain) drenched sandy beaches and it’s rocky headlands it’s a perfect place for beachcombing and birdwatching. Unfortunately I was a little late for combing this wreck on the beach at Whiteford Burrows. The sands are shifting every year as I don’t remember seeing this even earlier this spring.


At the end of the point the wind pushes the dunes into eerie shapes which could be a world away from South Wales, expecially with the old iron lighthouse in the channel…..


…..and then there are the waders. Great flocks of Oyster Catchers on the beach today with their unearthly whistles and shrieks.

But all was not lost, on the beach towards Three Cliffs Bay I spotted a fish crate in good condition and I have use for it already – more of this later.  We will be in the Gower for a few more days, so posts will be a little sporadic depending upon the links from this world to the real one – or is that the other way around – and the time I spend on the shore beachcombing?

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If you like some old slag then last weekend was your thing, at the annual Fernhurst Furnace Open Weekend. With a forecast for bad weather as the remnants of hurricane Katia lashed the country I wasn’t expecting much, but in the event, apart from the odd shower, we escaped the worst of it and the show went on. Sheltered in the woods on the track down to the site of the old Wealden Furnace I hardly noticed the wind.

Unlike many of the shows and events that I do, this one is not commercial, being primarily a small community based event and has another purpose, to raise awareness of the remains of the North Park Iron Works which operated  on the site for over 200 years.  One of dozens of Iron Furnaces in the Wealds of Sussex, they were eventually put out of business by the successful use of coke for smelting in the Ironbridge gorge, releasing the ironmasters from their dependance upon charcoal as a fuel source and allowing iron working to be concentrated on massive sites.

It’s hard to get a sense of the size, noise and activities of the iron workings from the remains on the site you can see today. Almost all of the Wealden Furnaces have disappeared leaving little trace which makes this site something special. The most obvious feature is the size of the furnace pond and it’s retaining bank, availability of water being one of the biggest restrictions on the Wealden sites. Below the sluice it is possible to make out the remains of the wheel pits, the casting floor, furnace base and the charging ramp. You can even just make out the remains of the casting pit for the naval cannon that were made on the site.

This model gives a better feel for the scale of the buildings in the photo you can see the actual wheel pits and stream just to the right of the one in the model. You can learn more of the history of the site at the furnace website.

The iron industry in the Weald existed from Roman times (and probably well before that) but as the industry in the north of England scaled up in the 18th Century the Wealden Ironmasters were forced to rely upon their iron making and casting skills to compete. As well as making ‘pig’ or lump iron for the hammer forge at Pophole on the nearby Wey the furnace cast cannon for the Navy.  This cannon is a good example of the type that would have produced by the Wealden furnaces (though this one is not from this furnace).

The two sites, furnace and forge needed to be separate because of the restricted supply of water (power) and charcoal (fuel). This cannon ball was found in the grounds of a cottage close to the hammer forge at Pophole on the Wey and was most likely cast from pig iron smelted at the furnace 2 miles away.

Making iron from the ore requires a lot of heat, fuel and plenty of power on hand so we weren’t able to demonstrate it over the Weekend. But Fergus and Penny from nearby Butser Ancient Farm did take us right back to the start of the technology by demonstrating how to smelt copper from ore, very much the same principles which were refined (pun entirely intended) to smelt iron.

Fergus used Malachite which is a very rich copper ore, copper carbonate, the oxide of copper giving the mineral it’s characteristic green colour.

To turn the green malachite into copper the temperature in the clay furnace needs to reach almost 1400 degrees centigrade which is achieved using good quality lumpwood charcoal and plenty of air blown through the fire from the hand powered leather bellows.

The green tinge of the flame indicates that the furnace is reaching the right temperature and the copper in the malachite is being released. This happens as the charcoal creates a reducing action by burning and producing carbon monoxide that then steals oxygen from the copper oxide to make copper.

At the end of the process the crucible containing the molten copper and remains of the malachite mixed with some charcoal is removed from the furnace to pour into moulds.

Though in this case the copper pulled a disappearing stunt and flowed to the base of the crucible where it stuck fast until cooled and released by Fergus – though it does look more spectacular in this shape and contrasts with the original green of the malachite.

I was impressed that you can produce your own metal with some clay, charcoal, a pair of bellows and some ore. You really could try this at home. Though it might be better to try it with Butser ancient farm first and you can find out more about their courses including Fergus’ metal making on their Butser Ancient Farm website .

The title of this post is a shameful attempt to attract hits and maybe even readers via the search engines, though whether they will be impressed with my old slag is doubtful. Given the centuries of iron working at the site, and at nearby Pophole hammer forge, slag tends to turn up all over the place and would have been used to fill in the notoriously poor Sussex roads, but I found my old slag in the end and a fine example it is too. I shall have to leave the rest of the weekend to another post.

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Rowanberry Vodkin

Now my Rowan berries have been frosted, I think the term might be ‘bletted’, is that right? As the fruit are unusually early and the autumn starting very mild the fruit have been in the freezer for a while rather than waiting on the trees for the first frosts.  It’s time to turn to the next stage in the recipe.  I’m impressed at how soft and juicy the fruit have become, and the flavour is still very tart but no longer inedible.

Not complicated here. Just put the rowan berries (you can do this with just about any fruit) into a bottle, I fill the bottle to somewhere between a 1/3rd and a 1/2 with fruit and then fill up with cheap vodka or gin or both. I tend to forget which one I’ve used and hence the term ‘vodkin’. In my view the only difference is that the gin is already flavoured with juniper berries so in some cases vodka might be better and it’s often a little cheaper.

I got the idea for using Rowan berries from Patrick Ropers excellent Rowan, Whitebeam and Wild Service Tree blog. No idea how it will turn out. Wait a few years and ask me then!


The important thing to do now is forget all about them. Preferably for some years. Unlike many recipes we don’t add sugar at the start and we leave the fruit in until we want to sample the product – even then we may just draw the liquid off and leave the fruit. When we bottle it we add sugar to taste, and it’s often a lot less than some of the ‘granny recipes’ I see.

I’ve taken to using light brown soft sugar as it gives a warmer flavour and softens the edge of the fruit bite but without being too syrupy- or even light brown muscovado for a slighty more spicy and treacly tang to the flavour.  As a guide, last night I used about 8 heaped teaspoons of light brown soft sugar for a bottle of sloe vodkin.

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‘Transition Town’ and ‘Guildford’ are not concepts that I would normally link together. So I was intrigued to be invited to teach mowing with a scythe in a meadow on the North Downs above Guildford by Transition Town Guildford and Surrey Wildlife Trust.

If you’ve not heard of it before the term ‘Transition Town’ is applied to community based organisations which aim to lead the move towards a lower carbon economy in the local area. The words sustainability and permaculture are often associated with this approach. I hope I’m making sense?

The meadow on the top of the North Downs is an absolute delight as you can see from the photograhs, a riot of wildflowers even at the end of August. The owner of the field, Mark, is keen to keep the field managed traditionally and sustainably and he joined us on the course for the day.

The area is too large to manage with scythe alone so Malcolm was turning the hay with his Massey Ferguson 135 which in its own way is a traditional tool – it was certainly good hay and by cutting at the beginning of September there is maximum benefit to the biodiversity on the site. Eagle eyes will spot Guildford Cathedral in the distance just above the tractor.

We had plenty left to mow by hand and after an introduction and some initial coaching the team soon got stuck into mowing the meadow. Quite hard work as it’s not been mown recently so the sward is varied and quite tussocky in places.

There is often a variety of styles and skills on a course like this, some having mown before – which is not necessarily a good thing, whilst others are unsure of the tool for a while. The boys, of all ages, do tend to use brute force and ignorance at least to start with (and I should know!) but can tire quickly, whilst those who spend some time to develop their technique can benefit through mowing more effectively – as Kate showed us.

By the end of the day we’d made good inroads into the remaining grass with plenty for Malcolm to turn and bale.  I’m very impressed with the start that Transition Town Guildford and Mark Brown have made up on the North Downs – there is a polytunnel producing veg and a small orchard planted as well – and I wish them well with their work. Thanks to John Bannister for the hard work in setting up the course and also to Frances Halstead and Surrey Wildlife Trust for supporting the day.

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The aim in running a ‘workshop’ course is to provide a day for ‘Improvers’, loosely described as those with some experience, who want to further their skills or perhaps are planning to make a lathe but haven’t quite got there yet.

The idea seemed to work well and we’ll be running the workshop again next year. Two of those on the course, Adrian and Jerry had already built their lathes and were keen to acquire additional skills.

For improving skills I had assumed, rightly as it turned out, that sharpening, quality of finish and the skew chisel would be key topics.  Making the free rings on a traditional baby rattle encapsulates most of these skills, especially when you use the skew chisel for the rings and after I had demonstrated the process I was pleased to see some being ‘rattled off’ if you will excuse the horrible pun!

I also set up two of my own lathes alongside the more traditional museum lathes to show the merits and abilities of the differing styles. My original lathe was based upon Mike Abbott’s polelathe2000 style, though made entirely from builders softwood sourced from a skip, and at a cost of around £5. Seven years later it’s still going strong as Adrian demonstrates.

Next to it is my current lathe, christened the ‘bolelathe’ as it’s designed to allow me to switch between spindle and bowl turning very easily. Reflecting my current access to work it’s sourced entirely from the firewood pile rather than the skip having a single oak bed and 4 birch legs. A big bonus is that it’s heavy enough and stable enough to hold my coffee mug and breakfast bowl at the same time!

I was not surprised that turning bowls generated so much interest and enthusiasm. I’ll be putting some more thought into a course, perhaps turning a simple small bowl, eggcup or goblet? Amazing how things change. This time last season I was still pretty cautious over teaching courses and I haven’t completely got over that yet.

I hope the participants were as pleased as I was with the their progress on the day, Jerry seemed to have a production line going by the end.

It’s not just about the training and the course, but also spending time with others who are at a similar level but perhaps have different skills and challenges. I’ve found the local groups run by the APT&GW (Association of Polelathe Turners and Greenwood workers) are a great way to top up these skills and keep on improving. Joining (it’s only £15 a year) will get you an invitation to join your local group, as well as the issues of the eponymous (I just wanted to write that word) Bodgers Gazette and of course the annual Bodgers Ball!

The next event at the Weald & Downland Museum is the Autumn Countryside show – October 8th and 9th – there should be plenty of polelathes on hand amongst other greenwood crafts and I’m hoping to see some of the participants of the recent courses there over the weekend.

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Omubazi Mike

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