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Woodsman’s Holiday

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I like to think that there is a short gap between the end of the my winter season working in the woods and the start of my summer season of shows, demonstrating and teaching woodland crafts.The cutting and felling of trees does stop at the beginning of March to avoid the onset of the growing and nesting seasons. Though I rarely, if ever, manage to finish all the extracting, clearing, bundling and preparing of the wood before the bookings for my craft products and demonstrations are upon me.

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I do sneak a few days off at the start of March to blow away the cobwebs and try to prepare myself for the coming season. So a  few weeks ago at the beginning of March I snuk away for my beachcombing break with wet and windy walks along the Gower cliffs facing South towards Somerset across the Bristol Channel where I grew up.

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But thanks to an invitation for a ‘a cuppa’ in the woods with Paul Thornton – and I should have known better – it turned into something of a Woodsman’s holiday.  A Woodsmans holiday is like a Busman’s Holiday but muddier and wetter to make the Woodsman feel at home! Still a change is as good as a rest and I welcomed the opportunity to experience a completely different woodland as well as being able to just do some work without having to worry about it.

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Paul and his crew are responsible for the Welsh Wildlife reserves on and around Gower which includes some of the cliffs that I enjoy walking. I rarely venture into deepest Gower’s ancient woodlands and Paul’s crew were working in Gelli-Hir woods part of which is an ancient mixed woodland full of moss and lichen laden gnarly Oak trees.

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Unlike our open sandy wooded heaths and woodland pastures in the Western Weald of Sussex and Hampshire the Gower woods are smaller and folded into the deep valleys. The clay soil keeps them wet so a quad bike is a sensible way to extract cut wood without damaging the woodland floor.

Paul is a master of all trades and the wood being piled up will be used to feed the charcoal kiln hidden away behind the quad bike once the weather allows. ‘Gower Charcoal‘ is available all over Gower and is a great local product.

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Once I’d dried out and warmed up there was still time left to walk the enchanting Gower coastline looking for treasure. I don’t mean gold – to me treasure is anything that I find along the way including the view.

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I’ve done it again. Last time I looked it was February, but it has been a busy time of year with a lot to get done on the Lynchmere commons  and despite my best of intentions posting on the blog just doesn’t seem to get a high enough priority. Time to make up for that now.

Our winter work gets busier as the season progresses. With a cutoff at the start of March for the bird nesting season it’s hard work through February and I spend a lot of time in the office looking out of the window.

Ok, so this office has wheels, big wheels and a crane – and a heater that functions sometimes – though it’s not a lot of use as not all of the windows have glass in them, but it is about the only time of year that I get to work in a heated environment and look out of the window. If you have to use big machinery then February is probably the best time of year to do it as it’s too cold to work on my polelathe!

DSCF2081Like many offices the view from the back window is a little bit more industrial! This office is rather less than ergonomically designed being a relatively old timber tractor. Definitely no disabled access, which I need after a couple of weeks ot twisting to operate the timber crane controls and jumping down from the (missing) steps. But its the only way to get the work done.

DSCF2090This timber has been cut to thin out woodland areas, improving the remaining timber, the wildlife habitat and the heathland areas of the commons. Most of it is Scots Pine, a native softwood, which has self seeded on the heath and has little commercial value. In this country we don’t rate softwood as firewood (unlike much of norther Europe) But this will be going to a nearby biomass boiler at a local school which means that as well as improving the commons habitat the felled timber will be travelling almost no distance (timber miles) and helping to reduce fossil fuel usage, which seems a Win-Win to me.

DSCF1844In February I don’t just have one office! Here’s the view from another office window and this office does have glass in all its windows – at the moment.  Not such a pleasant sight though, as this forest of evergreen is Western Hemlock which is selfseeding rapidly onto our carefully cleared heath areas from a Forestry Commission adjacent site. Western Hemlock is not a native species and is classed as an invasive alien which it certainly is!  We pull the small seedlings by hand but larger ones need a more industrial solution.

DSCF1845Cue the view from the back of the office – with a mower on steroids that keeps the Hemlock at bay!

DSCF1912It doesn’t always go according to plan with machinery and sometimes the weather, landscape and trees bite back and damage my office infrastructure. It would be a rare winter when I don’t suffer some form of breakage. The steering arms on this landrover have been modified for me. They should be straight not U-shaped and wrapped around the axle!

DSCF1856Now it’s March our struggle with heavy machinery on the commons is over for another year and I have the aches and bruises to remember it by. I’m looking forward to largely working by hand with billhook, axe, scythe and of course my polelathe over the coming spring and summer.

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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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(Warning – Excessive Landrover content – you may want to look away now!)

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Anyway this is an update on the trials and tribulations of one of my old Series II Landrovers in this case Puff, my 1961 Long Wheel Base pickup. When last seen, and after an engine rebuild Puff was working hard on the commons. Just possibly a little bit toooo hard?

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But what’s this? Well I call it – Landrover Sad Face  😦

Called Puff the magic landrover because of the registration plate PFF 623 and because one day it’s there and the next day it’s in parts again. Right at the moment is no exception to the rule.

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Just when it was all going so well. What went wrong?  Checking under the Landrover in late spring I found major problems with the chassis. No time to fix it during the summer so Puff sat waiting for attention and some TLC through the summer until the autumn. When I thought it would be a quick job. Should have known better. Should have known a lot better.

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Working on a rusted chassis is never fun – and even less so once the rain is continuous. So time to take the rear body off and throw some light and lots of rain on the subject. As soon as I remove one area I found the damage had spread along the chassis to the next. Before I knew if the rear spring hanger was off – and it’s still raining.

Most of the damage was likely caused by working on the commons through the winter. Probably an unexpected stump in the chassis area! The impact peeled back the bottom of the a cross member and tore along the bottom rail of the chassis – also cracking up the side of the chassis – which shows just how thin and vulnerable the steel had become.

Fixing it is possible – but with the likelihood of more work need each year and with the rain still coming down – I had a sense of humour failure! What I need is a Silver Machine………..

DSCF7759What’s this ? Four silver machines – maybe I’ve over ordered? Luckily for my wallet, everything is fine – mine was on the top – and the nice man from Richard’s chassis near Sheffield is on a whistlestop tour of the South of England delivering the ultimate Landrover chassis repair kits. AKA my Silver Machine. In the words of the song……

It flies

Out of a dream

Antisceptically clean

It turns everything green

Do you wanna ride see yourself going by

the other side of the sky

I mean a Silver Machine

I’ve got a Silver Machine………

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Finally I’ve worked out what Hawkwind were singing about after all this years – clear a landrover galvanised chassis – from those nice people at Richards Chassis (have I plugged them enough yet). OK  I am getting a little bit carried away and very nerdy. But I am so looking forward to working with Puff again on the commons and not having to weld him up for at least 20 years. But it seems there is just a little bit of work to do first. Meanwhilst back to the woods…..and it’s still raining!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trees Down

DSCF7308I’ve always said that wood is best stored vertically. But during the winter you don’t get a lot of choice and trees do fall down. Not all of them even fall down – as the crown of this oak tree demonstrated by splitting up the trunk and toppling over to plant itself upside down. There’s quite a weight in those boughs and it will be a delicate job to saw it up safely.

With the relentless wind and rain that we’ve been having for the last couple of months the number of trees down across the commons is mounting – and probably numbers well over a hundred trees by now. Plenty to keep me and our dedicated band of volunteers busy right through to the spring then.

So here is a little tour of a part of the commons and a look at some of the trees that have come down in the last few weeks.

DSCF7315When the gales come through the wind gusts to very high speeds and tests the trees. Any weakness in the tree and it snaps instantly. The brown wood in this Birch shows that it was starting to rot and the wind caught it.  These splits are known as ‘barber’s chairs’ or ‘widow’s seats’ because they can be very dangerous if they happen as you are felling the tree with a saw, as the tree splits it can lever upwards and cause a fatal accident if you are still working by the tree.  Still I suppose it saves having to fell it!

DSCF7427Not all of the trees manage to come down. Some of them lift their root plates and lean over to end up caught in other trees – technically known as a windblown hungup. It can take a lot of time to clear a tree caught like this – the weight of the crown hanging in the trees and the weight of the root plate on the butt are both dangerous. It’ll need a winch and/or a tractor but the ground is too wet for the heavy equipment right now – in the meantime it’s not going anywhere in a hurry as it’s firmly held at both ends!

DSCF7405More common are  the mature Birch trees that have just come to the end of their lives and had enough. This one is probably around 65 years to 70 years old. A fairly simple job to clear and plenty of firewood for the next season to boot – it’s blocking a couple of paths and is down on the stock fence so it will get priority.

DSCF7404Another mature Birch tree – this one managed to fall right across the Hazel Coppice we’ve recently planted, but very considerately managed to avoid crushing all of the young hazel’s apart from one. We cleared some Birch to make room for the Coppice and that probably left other trees more vulnerable which is why this one fell. Extracting it from around all the Hazel plants will be just that bit more of a pain – dealing with trees pushed over by the wind is often more complicated than felling the trees yourself.

DSCF7311Holly grows to be a large mature tree. This one fell right across the timber extraction track on the edge of the commons and I had to clear some of it just to get through with a load of firewood.But there’s only so much clearing of Holly that you can do at one go – so the rest will have to wait.

As the Holly came down it managed to fell an old Hawthorn tree – now it’s getting a bit like a game of nine pin skittles as the wind knocks one tree into the next.

We have had a few trees down across the roads as well – but clearing those is much more stressful – mainly because of the behaviour of other drivers. Nobody seems to have any patience any longer – it’s not unusual to be sworn at by drivers impatient for me to clear a tree – and ironically it’s not even my job to clear the road. So no time to take photos when working on the road.

DSCF7310Job done – time to get the wood home and put the fire on so that I can dry out a bit. And  yes I do drive this landrover around all year without the sides on it before you ask.

DSCF7370Odd thing spotted in the sky recently. A bit like the moon but brighter – don’t see it very often these days, I’d be lying if I said we don’t see the sun at all but at this time of year it’s always very low in the sky and doesn’t hang around for long.

The rain is hammering down as I write this and no doubt we’ll have more trees down tomorrow, at least I shan’t be short of jobs to do for the foreseeable future.

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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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Well it rained for what seemed just about forever. The wettest English year on record – not bad considering that is started with a dry spell which continued until the day that the government declared a drought. But the wind and rain eventually gave way to the cold and cue –  The winter wonderland – but with a few less trees than we started the week – aka the extreme chainsaw training course!

Just occasionally I teach basic chainsaw and tree felling for a local land management college. I did wonder why I was asked to run a chainsaw and tree felling course in January at relatively short notice. All became clear once I saw the weather forecast for the week. We started off with the basic quagmire, moved onwards to the big freeze and then finished off with extreme chainsaw training in heavy snowfall. (Thanks to Peter Underwood for the photo)

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I started the week with a full complement of six students but by the heavy snow fall on Friday I’d managed to whittle it down to the hardcore of Ian, Peter and Jules who were game enough to come out with me for some final felling practice in the snow.

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Working in the woods was fine – it can be quite surreal working during snowfall as you tend to be in your own little universe – the trees block the wind and everything looks and sounds quite peaceful. It’s something of a shock to emerge back into the world and to discover that as usual the traffic in Southern England can’t cope and has ground to a halt.  Luckily we’d prepared for that and with a couple of 4×4’a were soon back at the college – only to discover that whilst we’d been out in the woods felling trees those in the warm heated classrooms had been sent home! It’s a strange world out there isn’t it? Good luck with the assessments guys!

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