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Not my favourite time of year. Last time I posted we were enjoying the end of a warm Autumnal November. Now we’re at the end of a drenched December and January that seems an impossibly long time ago and everything is just so Wet!

It’s been unseasonably warm (I’m told we should learn to expect that as the climate changes) and that doesn’t help at all as all my carefully prepared stacks of firewood have been exposed to continually moist air.

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The must-have present this winter for the firewood hunter gatherer of the family is the book attractively entitled ‘Norwegian Wood’ a well written story of woodsmen, firewood and beautiful Norwegian piles of firewood stacked outside and covered in snow.

But here in the British Isles our firewood no matter how carefully split, stacked and dried during our relatively long summer is exposed to moisture laden gales – now replete with everyday names. Today we’re enjoying ‘Storm Henry’ at a relatively balmy 12 degrees above zero (C).

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The result – my carefully seasoned, split and stacked firewood is shockingly wet! Almost 30% on this piece of oak chosen at random from the stack outside my front door. That’s a lot more water in the log than I’d like to have – 300g of water in a 1kg log and all of that has to be ‘boiled’ off up the chimney. That’s all energy not available to heat the house, resulting in a cooler stove and potentially more tar blocking up the chimney as inefficient combustion at cooler temperatures mixes volatile chemicals and moisture.

So what went wrong? Nothing other than our British ‘maritime’ climate. We just can’t do Norwegian Wood over here. It’s too warm and too moist. Wood is hygroscopic – in other words – it will absorb moisture from it’s environment. If the atmosphere is above zero (C) and moist then dry wood will become damp. There is an equilibrium moisture content, and at a few degrees (C) with the relative moisture content of air up to between  90 and 100% (the air is saturated with moisture) as it has been for months now. Then my air dried logs will be returning to somewhere over 20% and perhaps as high as 30% depending upon how quickly the moisture is absorbed and how long it stays moist.

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What can I do about it? Not much outside. With so much rain and overcast days there is little hope of using the sun to dry the wood. Even expensively (environmentally as well as financially) kiln dried firewood will become damp in this weather. The same applies to the net bags of logs left standing outside filling stations or garden centres. If they weren’t damp when they were delivered they will be by now.

All I can do is ensure that I take my logs into the house and give them a day or two beside the fire (but not too close of course) before I burn them.

By chopping my firewood into smaller sizes and letting the warmth run through them I can reduce the moisture content to below 20% which enables a more efficient combustion in the stove as well as reducing the moisture released up the chimney.

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So don’t forget to bring your logs inside at least a day or two before you need to burn them, chop them up good and small (you’ll get warm all over again) and run your stove hot enough for efficient burning.  But most of all I hope your logs are nice and dry wherever you are burning them this winter!

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Scythes don’t come out much in the Winter months. So it was a pleasure to combine our winter Scythe Association meeting with reed cutting at Heacham Saltings on the North Norfolk coast.

DSCF1633Traditionally the reed is cut and gathered for thatching. For the Scythe to lay the reed where it can easily be gathered into bundles we attach a simple cradle made from a suitable rod of flexible fresh (green) wood like Willow or Hazel which helps to lay the reed all in the same direction in the windrow.

DSCF1642Saturday morning was bright but bitterly cold and getting down into the reed bed provided almost the only prospect of shelter as well as warmth through plenty of exercise. Our host Richard Brown led the way in and explained the work needed (the Saltings is managed under an environmental stewardship grant and mowing of blocks in the reed bed is a part of the conservation management).

DSCF1655It wasn’t long before we were all getting to grips with mowing the 6ft reeds.

DSCF1679The reed bed had already been drained down to allow us to mow the reeds but ditches, channels and pools of water remain and for those wearing long wellingtons or short waders it afforded the chance to experience some underwater mowing.

DSCF1657John Letts took the opportunity to bundle some of the mown reed.

DSCF1684But as the reed was being cut for conservation management rather than thatching most could be forked into piles at the edges of the bed.

DSCF1659Before too long our enthusiastic team of mowers had made good inroads into the bed and cleared enough reed to complete the task.

DSCF1660I’ve been making some traditional English steam bent shafts over the last year and this was my first change to try out one of my new snathes (on the right). I’d hurriedly fitted it out with a random assortment of ironwork and handgrips (nibs) on Thursday before travelling to Norfolk and was a little worried that it might not survive the encounter. In the event the scythe proved to be more equal to the task, as it’s little on the large and heavy side for reed mowing, though it’s not finished yet and needs plenty of tweaking to get it optimised.

DSCF1710Suitably warmed and exercised we retired to Richard’s beach house to take in the views over the Wash and for our formal Scythe Association winter meeting, a short affair followed by evening of long conversations fuelled by Simon’s excellent blue cheese, plenty of beer and I seem to remember that a bottle of my ‘Sloe Vodkin’ was involved as well.

DSCF1749On Sunday Richard has another block of reed for us to mow, this time at the other end of the saltings. An opportunity to blow away the cobwebs and finish the job.

DSCF1784All too soon the job was done and it was time to take my leave. Back to the real world. I love the work that I do, but I will carry with me the memory of the places I’ve been, things I’ve done and the people I’ve seen over the last three days. Thank you  – It’s been like a breath of fresh air to recharge my batteries in the middle of winter.

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      P1030471Two little pigs went to market……except the pigs weren’t so little any longer! In case you weren’t aware we’ve been keeping a couple of pigs. We were lucky to be offered the use of a small piece of ground, scrub woodland really, a short walk around the corner in Lynchmere where we live.

After 16 short weeks our two Oxford Sandy and Black’s aren’t piglets any more, they’re porkers. Porker is the name for a pig that’s reached a size big enough to eat as the joints make good pork. A bit larger and they are called baconers as there is enough meat and fat for good cuts of bacon. We’re hoping for a bit of bacon.

On Monday our first time keeping stock came to an end, except it’s as much the beginning as it is the end, we always planned it this way but it’s somehow different from the planning when you actually come to do it.

DSCF9859It’s hard to remember just how small  they were when they first arrived!  You wouldn’t want to be picking one up now – Alison estimated that they were 70 plus kg last week – and immensely strong.

DSCF9893-001and they were very cute as well !

DSCF9899There was  grass in the pen in those days! Digging is natural behaviour for pigs and they had ample scope digging some big holes in their pen – this was their first digging experience just a few seconds after arriving.

P1030290By the beginning of  this week it more resembled the Somme than a woodland glade both for the amount of mud and the depth of some of the craters they dug.

P1030425Even the pig ark was starting to take some damage. Not sure it would have taken much more abuse and we plan some reinforcements for the next inhabitants. Yes, I made the ark from some local larch and logs after advice from Graham (of Wildcroft rare breed farm in Puttenham where we got the pigs) that wooden arks are expensive to buy and they quickly get chewed and damaged so we thought we might as well make our own.

P1030455The Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB) is a traditional rare breed which is known for being placid and easy to keep. Good for first time keepers like us. It’s also  renowned for the quality of the meat making good pork and bacon as well – and let’s face it – this is all about the meat in the end no matter how cute they might be. This one was known as crackle (short for crackling) has the lop ears.

P1030454His brother Scratch (yes it’s short for Scratchings) had lop ears when he arrived but somewhere along the line developed a habit of waving his ears out horizontally – and acquired the optional name of Yoda because he did that thing with his ears.

P1030472We enjoyed their company and took a lot of pleasure from their inquisitive, gentle and always funloving natures but they are big boys now and it’s time to take them to market or in our case to Southern Traditional Meats near Henfield in West Sussex.

P1030476We wanted the final journey to be as stress free for the pigs – if not us – as we could make it. It’s a 30 mile journey and we needed to be sure that they would be comfortable in the trailer – and that we could get them into the trailer having little or no experience of this and having heard many horror stories of spending hours trying to get pigs into trailers. So we fed them in the trailer a couple of times before kitting it out with bedding and a water bucket for their journey.

This was always going to be the hardest part of the job. Alison has done all the hard work of the stock-keeping and has been the closest to the pigs so that makes it all the harder. But as we both realised – if you can’t bear to grow your own meat how can you buy meat from a supermarket shelf when you have little or no idea how the animals were treated.

In the event the final journey went with no complaints (I think that’s got to be the best you can say really) and we were very pleased with the quiet and calm in the pens at the abbattoir which were all occupied by rare breed pigs. I think we gave them the most contented short life that they could have wished for. I like to think that this will show in the quality of the meat.

We’re just about to find out and I’m going to get to make some bacon………

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DSCF9276The competition mowing season reaches its climax with the Eastern Counties Championships at Wimpole Hall. Simon Damant, Jim McVittie and the estate team at Wimpole Hall put a lot of effort into setting up a great event and despite the unruly weather – you can see the fuzzy spots made by raindrops on the lens – we mowed off the heavy grass in front of the Hall in fine style.

DSCF9273Wimpole has a lot of grass so it’s possible to lay out a range of mowing events – the Quarter Acre, Eighth Acre, Team mowing, 10×10 and the main event – at least for the spectators – the 5x5m sprints. The results of the competitions can be found on Simon Damants Wimpole Blog here:

Wimpole Championship results blog .

Though the bigger plots reveal more about your mowing ability the 5×5 m plots are the main competition for the overall winner. It is always a closely fought competition and I find the wiry grass of Wimpole’s main avenue a hard challenge to mow quickly with good quality using my traditional English Scythe.

DSCF9253It doesn’t take much to lose your rhythm and a few seconds does count in the sprint. Last years winner Ded snapped his scythe snathe clean in two during the team mowing competition – that doesn’t help!

With heavier grass than last year and the rain flattening the grass as we watched – the plot you are allocated can make a lot of difference to time and quality. The heavy grass and the rain opened up the field (if you’ll pardon the pun) and placed  a few mowers in contention to win the 5×5. Who would it be?

DSCF9276-001The overall Winner was Phil Batten, an accomplished master of the scythe, who mowed his plot in a time of 2.42 with an excellent quality of 7.5. But Phil wasn’t the fastest.

Richard Brown mowed his plot in 2.41 a second faster than Phil though his 6.5 quality put him in third place. But Richard wasn’t the fastest either!

Gemma Suggitt mowed a superb race with a time of 3.02 and a quality of 7 putting her in Fourth place overall and winning the Ladies Cup.  Well done Gemma – an excellent mow! But Gemma wasn’t the fastest either!

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I expect you can guess where this is heading!  Yes, I mowed my plot in 2:17, the fastest time, and taking into account my not quite so excellent, but not quite crap either, quality I managed to come in second overall (just) as well as winning the English Scythe Cup.

DSCF9232OK so what’s the big deal?  I mowed the fastest time and came second overall and won the English Scythe Cup at the same time. Well generally the English scythe has been regarded as a big handicap in comparison with it’s lightweight, agile and high performance Austrian cousin.

Somehow that doesn’t seem quite right to me, we used the tool for centuries and I can’t believe we’d have continued to use it if it was really that bad. So perhaps it’s us that can’t make the best of the tool rather than the tool being to blame? I’ve spent the last few years relearning my ability to use a scythe and apply it to the traditional English Scythe. One of the most fascinating things to me is that we have actually forgotten how to use the tool well and rediscovering it is a research project with a hefty dose of experimental archaeology.

Whatever! I’m not trying to imply that the traditional English Scythe is the equal of the modern 21st century Austrian Scythe. It isn’t.  It’s like comparing a modern Audi (vorsprung durch ‘Scythe’) with Inspector Morse’s  MKII jag. One is high performance for the money, does exactly what it says on the tin and works straight out of the box. The other is heavy, shakes and rattles a lot, great when it goes though it spends most of the time in the garage being tinkered with – but you know what – It’s got Soul!

I’m hoping that the work I’ve been doing  will help raise the profile of the English scythe and more people will learn to enjoy using them well on the odd occasion if not all the time. On the down side I’m already noticing that the price of rusty old wormeaten English scythes is rising but I won’t be unhappy if they get put to good use rather than on the wall of a pub.

An enormous thank you to Simon, Jim, Paul, Neil, Dan, Peter, Albert and all the team at Wimpole who made it such a great occasion! Well done.

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Image0044Roundabout is a traditional hay meadow which hasn’t been ploughed for well over 20 years (though it’s the youngster amongst our fields as most haven’t been ploughed up since WWII). Without any chemicals or fertilisers the wildflowers are getting better each year. As the fertility of the field slowly reduces the wildflowers can compete better with the grasses and the right time to make hay is a tricky judgement – too early and you cut the annual flowers before they seed, too late and the grass becomes old and rank. So with an unusually good spell of weather in late July it means we can go ahead and make hay whilst the sun shines.

Well I did start cutting the field by hand. But let’s face it I’m not going to get a 10acre field mown with my scythe before the weather breaks. So after he’d had a quick go with my English Scythe Nigel went home and came back early in the morning with one of his mowers.

DSCF9964It’s a bit faster than I am – but then it’s got a lot more horses under the bonnet and they all need to be fed – but not with hay or cider.

DSCF9983Nigel went off to do some more mowing leaving me to turn the mown field which I managed to do with ‘Peter’ my little  Massey Ferguson 135 and the old Acrobat rake/turner. It’s a little short at 6ft to turn the rows from Nigel’s modern 8ft mower but I managed it with some careful concentration and the great thing about the Acrobat is that it’s not powered so I can potter up and down the field on tickover.

P1020017After a few days in the good weather the hay is ready and with Thunderstorms forecast for the evening Nigel came back to help me with the rowing up. In the 30+ degree heat it was great to be able to work the tractor at tickover and even if a little slower than Nigel’s tedder I managed to row up most of the field while Nigel went to fetch the baler.

DSCF0071-003A quick rest while Nigel starts the baling . We’re baling with small traditional square bales rather than the modern round and wrapped monsters.  But there is still a good market for these small bales as you can handle them without needing a loader and we’ll be selling them to local stables, graziers and small holders.

Slowly it dawns on us that that there are a lot more bales coming of this field than we’d expected. By the time Nigel finishes we have 830 bales spread over about 9 acres of the field. Oooops. We’re going to need some help to shift them before the thunderstorms arrive!

P1020045Luckily everyone seemed keen to join in with the haymaking – even with just a couple of hours of notice. And it rapidly turns into a giant game of It’s a Knock Out with Hay Bales!

P1020046Almost a full trailer load – but it’s tricky lifting the last bales while people are still standing on them!

P1020035That’s a very fine looking trailer I see there. Is it new? No – it’s got an old wooden frame but it does look like it’s freshly painted! Landrover Masai Red and Bronze Green if I’m not mistaken – goes very nicely with the tractor and ready just in time for the hay making. I like it when a plan comes together.

P1020036The team building the stacks are working at full speed as the bales come off the field on the trailers.

P1020039We somehow manage to fit in the odd delivery to local barns – in fact just about anywhere we can stash some more bales. These horses carried out some quality control while we unload into the barn – looks like they’re quite happy with the hay!

P1020041One last load off the field and we’ve managed to move 830 bales in just a few hours and it just started to rain gently as we shifted the last of the bales.

edontrailerWhat no bales?

P1020055Must be time for a party then.

P1020058Hard work – but there is something very satisfying about shifting and stacking hay bales – there is very little doubt about what you’ve achieved, you can see it, feel it, lift it, climb it, smell it and you can even try chewing it. It’s certainly very tangible. I think  everyone did a great job – well done all!  The cider certainly tasted good after all the work.

I think it’s great to be able to involve people in hay-making, after all it was very much a community event for centuries. But modern farming practices and machinery don’t allow people to join in very often. In fact they are designed to minimise the involvement of people, but as this field is being managed as a traditional hay meadow it seems appropriate to make it more of a traditional event.   I hope everyone will be back to do some more before long!

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DSCF9226Where have all the wildflowers gone? For some reason hay meadows, or rather the lack of them and the consequent lack of  variety in our wildflowers have been hitting the news in the last few weeks. So last weekend it was a pleasure to be teaching mowing by scythe and grassland management in one of the traditional wildflower meadows on top of the North Downs near Guildford.

DSCF9220-001The part of the meadow we use for the course is managed by Transition Guildford with support from Surrey Wildlife Trust and used to grow local produce. Over the last year they’ve been busy extending the orchard as well as managing the polytunnel and vegetable beds but that still leaves a lot of grassland to be managed. Somehow I could sense that everyone on the course was keen for me to get the health & safety and the scythe setup out of the way so they could get to grips with the grass.

DSCF9212This is the third year we’ve been running the course, cutting on the site and the sward ( the mat of grasses and flowers making up the turf) is responding to the management by getting less dense and easier to mow.

You may be wondering why we’re cutting the grass in late June whilst the wildflowers are still at their height and some of the annuals have yet to set seed?  Unlike a modern industrial farming operation we can’t cut all of the meadow at one go, in fact we’re only cutting a small patch for the course. We’re starting early but we won’t finish the job until early September when we hold another course and we’ve left most of the meadow and all of the areas with annual flowers still to set seed – particularly the Yellow Rattle. Yellow Rattle is now rare but used to be widespread and as it’s parasitic it weakens the grass in the sward allowing the wildflowers to compete  more effectively.

Image0023Despite our keen scything team the most important part of the job is not the mowing, it’s the raking, forking and barrowing the mown grass away from the meadow. Removing it helps to reduce the  level of  nutrients in the soil and now more wildflowers will be able to take advantage of  bare patches and less aggressive grass to seed and thrive. Rachel supervised the growing mound of grass and slowly moulded it into an enormous sculpture. The mown grass will be used as a mulch for the vegetable beds and orchard trees so the nutrients are removed from one area and then used where they will be of more value in producing fruit and vegetables.

DSCF9233It can be hard on a course to finish a job but this group seemed to have no problem making a neat finish to the work and the rain even managed to hold off for us. Next stop is Wimpole Hall this weekend for the Eastern Counties Scything championships.

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It’s that time of year again. I’ve spent the last week helping to setup and then competing at the West Country Scythe Championships, held on a meadow near Muchelney deep on the Somerset Levels.

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When I arrived on Tuesday afternoon it was to a nearly empty field. But not for long. Just like the Bodgers Ball there is a lot of work that goes on in the background to prepare for the Green Fair and Scythe Championships on Sunday. But the West Country Championship is effectively the national event and it’s a long, long apprehensive wait through the week  for the finals of the Scything competition on the Sunday afternoon.

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Time to get to work, helping with Simon’s erection, a traditional pole and canvas marquee, very much in keeping with the ethos of the event.

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Unfortunately we can’t just wade in and enjoy mowing the meadow – much of the work is mowing neat 1metre (yes I do think they are 3foot 3inch) paths to mark out the competition plots. Mowing 1 metre paths is a strange practice discipline for the competition.

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As  more and more people arrive through the week the work goes faster and faster. With the good weather and an experienced crew, thanks mainly to Jim and Chris we got through the setting out of the plots in good time leaving plenty of time for chatting with friends and renewing old acquaintances.

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We produced plenty of mown grass for Pedro the Hay to barrow around to the Hay making competition arena. More of the hay making competition when I get hold of some photos – as someone placed a megaphone in my hands I ended up comparing on the day and unable to take photos.

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To my delight Mike Abbott turned up to demonstrate steam bending of some English Snathes (Scythe handles or poles).  As you may know I’ve been increasingly captivated by the Old English Scythe and promptly wound Mike and his demonstration into the talk on the English Scythe on Saturday Afternoon. I’ll put another post up on Mike’s snathe making demonstrations soon.

The English Snathe has a characteristic curvy shape very different from the more angular continental scythe snathes and to our knowledge English style snathes have not been made for a good few years, decades even as the last English Scythe blades were made in the 1970’s and most of those had American Snathes. So it’s particularly exciting to see Mike steam bending a snathe and I’m very keen to give it a go in the near future. But first I’ve got to prove that the English Scythe is every bit as good as it’s upstart cousin the Austrian Scythe.

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Talking of which, the last of the mowing around the competition plots allowed me some practice with my English Scythe (photo courtesy of Steve Tomlin). This year I’ve acquired an old Isaac Nash Crown blade on an American Ash snathe which I’ve spent the last few weeks restoring to working order from a rusty length of iron and delaminating dry splintered lump of wood. The blade has been straightened with help from my friend Martin Fox, a blacksmith at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum and it’s starting to cut much better now I’ve ground the edge back.  My aim is to continue to improve the performance of the English Scythe. But will the Scythe and I be up to competing on Sunday?

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As more Scythers are drawn in by the hot sunny (if a little windy) weather the number of scythes parked on the rack starts to swell rapidly.

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Good weather on Sunday and Green Fair and Scythe Championships draw in the crowds. Taking part in the Team Mowing, Heats, Hay Making competition and at the last the finals I don’t have much time to take photos but at least it keeps me busy and I don’t have too much time to fret with everything coming down to a couple of minutes and a single chance in the finals.

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Much of the remaining time is spent in nervous preparations for the final race. The Austrian Scythes are being carefully prepared by peening (hammering) the edge to a razor sharpness. Chris Riley shows how to peen with plenty of style.

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Sadly I don’t have any photos of the event so I’ll cut to the chase and reveal that the Scythe and I did alright. I beat the record for the English scythe at the competition by around 70seconds, from 3mins 20secs down to 2mins 06 seconds, in the process successfully defending my title as English Scythe Champion.

Can I do that acceptance speech now? I’d like to thank my mother…………..oh ok maybe not the full speech then. But it was great to work with such a great crew on the Setup, Jim, Chris, Gemma, Beth, Simon(the Guvna), Stewart, Al, Ed,Pedro the Hay and uncle tom cobbley and…… whoops there I go again. Then to compete alongside Mike, George (deservedly the new Scythe Champion), Simon, Ded, Andy and Andi (Women’s Champion) – well done folks it was a great contest.

I know the English Scythe is capable of going both faster and with higher quality (even if I’m not) and let’s face it, it’s high time that we showed that the English Scythe is not just a museum piece and capable of performing at the same level as the Austrian Scythe. This year is a good step in that direction and I’ll get another chance to show what it can do at the Eastern Counties Championship in a couple of weeks time.

Oh and did I mention that I won a medal?

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