Archive for the ‘Weald & Downland’ Category


DSCF8703Last weekend we had storm force winds and driving rain – a shame because I was at the Bodgers Ball near Herstmonceux in East Sussex. More of that later. All change this weekend as bright blue sky with a strange yellow orb in it appeared just in time for my first ‘learn to mow with a scythe’ course of the year at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum. No I don’t know why the cart is in the field either – bit of a corny photo but there you go.


DSCF8712Over the last few years we’ve been introducing the scythe as an effective mowing tool at the museum. Each year we are able to take on a little bit more with the scythe as we train more people up to use them and they gain in experience. I’ve been running the courses in the orchard. With eight people on the course I was kept busy and didn’t get to take any photos until after the clearing up.


DSCF8692Fine though they were it wasn’t really the people or the quality of their new found mowing skills that caught my attention – but this old scythe snathe brought along by Kevin Tillett who was on the course. Next to it for comparison on the right is a more wiggly snathe , also not an American snathe, but an English branch snathe .

The blade is forged and relatively short- around 20 inches. The snathe is of an old English style much straighter than those commonly seen nowadays – many of which are American imports – and similar to those sometimes known as Yorkshire Snathes or Yorkshire Scythe Poles. Apparently he found the old scythe in the cellar of their cottage at Forest Row (which is in the middle of Ashdown Forest) when they moved in some years ago.

Despite the prevalence of the American snathes in collections and junkshops it is beginning to become apparent that there remained a wide diversity of English Scythe styles which I find fascinating and I’m keen to learn more despite the lack of recorded information.

I’d speculate that this scythe was used on the heaths of Ashdown Forest, most likely for the cutting of bracken (the fern) as bedding and/or heather as winter fodder.


DSCF8695As well as being a straighter pole the snathe is fitted quite heavy, rather brutal, ironwork and a short crank on the bottom handle. The tang passes right through the wooden grip and is simply beaten over in much the same way as a billhook tang. This style of pole and ironwork is similar to one in the museum collection – the only two that I have seen so far. The ironwork on the bottom of the pole is present but the scythe ring is missing which prevents the blade being fitted. Shame as it would have been great to try it out.


DSCF8708I think I’ll stop going on about the fascinating scythe snathe before I lose the plot entirely.  The warm weather is bringing on the wildflowers and the small meadow that we will be cutting by hand for hay later in the summer is a mass of colour at the moment.


The cottage gardens at the museum are also looking colourful in the spring sunshine. I find it hard work teaching all day, but the weather helped and it seemed only too short a time before the day and the course were over with everyone keen to go home and try out their newfound mowing skills.




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I know I thought I’d be posting an article on greenwood this week – but once again grass has distracted me. For a couple of years I’ve been working with a small group to promote traditional grassland management at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum.

This year we made hay by hand on a small area of grassland but it was hard work as the grass was rank. We faced many years of work to get it to the standard of a wildflower meadow, a once common but now very rare and endangered habitat. It’s not just the wildflowers that are endangered, but it’s now becoming clear that the many species which rely on the flowers, including our honey bees, are also suffering as modern intensive and industrial farming techniques have relegated wildflowers to the status of weeds (I think I’ll stop that rant before I get really going).

Here’s where the Olympics comes in. If you saw the opening ceremony of the  London games this year you will have seen the opening scene of England’s green and pleasant land in the form of wildflower meadows. I’m not a fan of the Olympics – but I was very impressed by the opening ceremony and particularly the opening scenes. It turns out that the turf for the scene was grown at  Wild Flower Turf’s farm near Basingstoke www.wildflowerturf.co.uk using their soil-less system which allows a high proportion of wildflowers to be established in the turf.

Having produced more turf than was needed the company was looking for somewhere to put down the spare rolls of turf that came back from London and it would have been rude to refuse after all?

So on Wednesday I went down to the museum to talk to James from Wildflower Turf and Keith Datchler from the Beech Estate, Battle, East Sussex about the management of the new wildflower meadow and promptly  found myself enrolled into the select band of volunteers with David, John and Allan laying the turf.

Great stuff this soil less turf, just like rolling out the green carpet. The process was a lot quicker than it would have been with traditional turf as the rolls are based upon a form of matting, a lot larger than a normal turf roll and it enables a higher proportion of wildflowers to be established in the sward as a bonus. There are dozens of  varieties in the mix and I’m delighted that it  includes self-heal and red clover which were already present in the area.  Instant flower meadow!

Just another couple of barrow loads and the meadow will be done. Richard Pailthorpe, museum director helps us get the job finished.  Just add plenty of rain and a little frost then wait for more rain, sunshine and some warmth for the flowers to do their thing. Oh and don’t forget to cut it in August before repeating the process. Simples!

All done. The new meadow looks a little threadbare and the small patch of wildflowers in the middle are certainly feeling the cold.

I’m looking forward to seeing how our instant flower meadow performs next year, here’s how the site looked just a couple of months ago in August after I’d cut the grass, tedded it and then cocked up the hay.

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National Besom making competition? Well why not? This year at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum’s Autumn Show we held the first Besom Broom making competition for many years (if indeed there has ever been one before). Certainly the other competitors and I are unaware of another one.

The idea sprang from a discussion with Jo Waters at the previous year’s show and the Weald & Downland Museum kindly agreed to sponsor the prizes for the event. As always it seemed a good idea at the time but as the show loomed I began to wonder if I’d taken on a little bit more than I could handle. Would anyone turn up? Would it work?

On the day we had a good collection of broom makers, or Broom-Squires as they are known in this neck of the woods, from Sussex and Hampshire and Terry Heard joined us from Dorset with his living van and great  setup for making besoms and tent pegs.

As you’d expect the world of Besom making has it’s own ways and we do like our tools, the roundshave being a rare tool that’s very much sought after for shaving the handles or tails of the brooms. On this occasion a visitor brought in an interesting roundshave for us to examine.

The Roundshave is a form of extreme curved drawknife and all the ones I’ve seen have been homemade using an old file or perhaps by the local blacksmith to suit each broomsquire.  The one on the left I was given some years ago by a friend who had it from his grandfather whereas the tool on the right, brought in by our visitor, is stamped A.Moss (a well known local firm of edge tool makers and blacksmiths) and as well being a fine example is the first Moss made roundshave that Alan, Dave or I had seen. Despite being offered a reasonable sum our visitor declined to sell!

Chris Letchford puts the finishing touches to his besom in the competition-almost ready for the flight testing. Chris took on the competition having only learnt to make besoms 6 weeks earlier on my besom making course, and demonstrated all weekend – well done Chris, but we’ll expect a more traditional shelter for next year!

After some discussions we decided to run the competition purely on quality and gave everyone 30 minutes to make their broom. Justin Owen and Karen Barrett kindly offered to judge the brooms which were delivered to them anonymously by Julia. Which just leaves me to reveal the results…..

    Terry Heard                                           1st Winner

Chris Letchford                                    2nd place

                                      Alan Waters                                           3rd place (and fastest by far)

John Wescott                                        3rd Equal

Peter Jameson                                      3rd Equal

Mark Allery                                            3rd Equal

Confused? Well we decided to only award first and second places, but in the event the Judges decided that Alan’s broom was a more than equal 3rd as well as being the fastest.

Thank you to all who took part in what, with hindsight, we are calling the First National Besom Broom making competition, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum for sponsoring our competition and particularly to the judges Justin, Karen and Julia who made it all work. Don’t miss next years 2nd national besom broom making competition – and I look forward to seeing you there!

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I like being busy but it doesn’t half make the time fly by. The last thing I remember I was expecting the Summer to start and suddenly here we are at the Weald & D0wnland Open Air Museum’s  Autumn Countryside Show, the last of my long season which stretches from March to October. Where did the summer go?

Another consequence of being too busy is that I don’t seem to find the time to post so it’s time to get back in the habit with a quick write up of the show last weekend, heavy on pictures and light on prose.

Jon Warwicker,sitting on the shave horse and wielding a small Adze, discusses the finer points of his bowl carving with Besom Broom maker Arthur Hafendon.

We managed to put on a good show in the horticultural tent where for the first year a woodcraft category was included. Congratulations to everyone who entered as the standard of the work was very high – giving the judge (yours truly) a very hard time indeed. I wanted to award at least 6 winners but well done Wayne – the spoon master – Bachelor who won with, yes you guessed it, his spoon. To Jon Warwicker who came second with his oak bowl and Sarah Ridley who came third with her sculpture.

Yes it’s a show, but the autumn is a busy time and it’s built around a lot of things that do happen on traditional farms at this time of year. The steam powered threshing drum works all weekend, weather allowing, as it threshes the museum’s crop of traditional  longstraw thatching wheat which will be used on the museums thatched buildings in the coming year.

Well almost all weekend, as even the threshing has to stop for a cup of tea now and then.

Barbara came by with one of her donkeys giving me the opportunity to admire the replacement pins I made for the pannier harness last year.

Up in the farmyard behind Bayleaf  Guy was masterminding the scratting (shredding) of the apples and pressing to make the juice that will be fermented into cider at the museum. While this seasons apples are being pressed, on the Saturday night we were sampling the cider made two years ago – which was voted an excellent vintage by the experienced team of greenwood working cider tasters.

The Sunday morning was a cold one as the thick ice on one of my display tables shows. I don’t care what the weather forecast said – this much ice means a temperature well below zero degrees C in my book. Chilly.

But with lots of sun we soon warmed up and Alan’s plum tart was delicious  – thank you Alan.

There is plenty going on at the Museum as well these days, with a new cottage ‘Tindalls’ being erected on site. I say new, but it’s hundreds of years old and has actually been in store for about 30 years since it was taken down by the museum awaiting an opportunity to reconstruct it. To me the frame at this stage of construction looks really spectacular and has a beauty all of it’s own.

In the blacksmith’s forge Martin Fox is fast becoming a devotee of the English Scythe and has taken on the restoration of a really long old English blade which he found in the scrap metal pile and has been busy straightening out. I reckon a lot of old English blades have been scrapped partly because people don’t know how to use them and also because they don’t know where to find a blacksmith that can repair them – so it’s very good to see a blacksmith working on repairing scythe blades again.

If  you’ve visited the museum you will know that the gardens around the buildings are busy and productive places as well, especially in the autumn as harvesting the last of the summer crops and protecting the winter crops from the birds is key to preventing a hungry wintertime.

As if there wasn’t enough already going at the show we decided to run a besom broom making competition – and I’ve run out of space here so I’ll post on the brooms at the show next.

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This little corner of grass at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum is not going to win any ‘perfect meadow’ awards – at least not yet. This is only the second year that we’ve cut the grass by hand for hay in this corner and with the weather this year the wind and rain has pushed it over until it’s lodged in a big tangle. Definitely something of a challenge especially when you are doing it as a demonstration.

The intention is to cut this area for hay late in the summer so that we encourage traditional meadow wildflowers to gradually develop. By cutting and removing the grass the soil fertility should fall allowing the wildflowers to compete better with the grasses and by cutting later, after the annual flowers have seeded we should encourage the flowers to germinate and spread. How long this will take depends upon the state of the soil and the species already present – it could take many years.

But back to the present and the  window of good weather is only scheduled to last a couple of days so there is no time to waste, tangled or not, I have to get the grass cut and laid out in the sun to dry.

Along the way I managed to avoid field mice and a grass snake and even managed to mow around what I think is the wildflower ‘self heal’ though I am far from an expert and happy to be corrected. If so, it’s a good find, typical of a traditional pasture and encouragement to keep up the management.

By late afternoon I’ve cut around 1/6 of an acre. Not a lot, but with the temperature close to 30C, tangled rough grass and plenty of interested visitors to chat with it feels like a lot more!

There is an old tradition of Scythesman’s wages – which includes unlimited cider, it’s a tradition of which I thoroughly approve – and I plan to make sure its a tradition that doesn’t die out if I can help it. We’ve yet to discover whether the museum’s barrel will give out before I do, but having been born and brought up in Somerset I do have a head start.  And before you mention it, yes I do realise that the plastic bottles are not traditional – but they are recycled, several times,  and I’m not against all progress.

The eagled eyes scythe spotters amongst you will notice that the scythe in the picture is an old English scythe, it’s a Nash Crown blade and a snathe which is not as adjustable as I’d like but I’ve been using a lot this year and grown to like it, though I cut most of this grass with an Austrian scythe as lodged grass and heat favoured it.

Thanks to the brief spell of hot weather the grass dried quickly and after turning all Saturday and Sunday the hay is dry and ready just in time before the weather breaks.

Dealing with loose hay can be a problem – both to move and to store – as everyone is used to working with bales. It’s really not worth using a mechanised baler for such small areas – but it’s a problem to move it without baling it. So for next year I plan on making a wooden hand baler.  But for this year with no time to bring it in I am left with only one option – to cock it up – that is to build it into 5 large haycocks which should allow the water to run off for a few days until the weather improves, the haycocks dry off and it can be moved inside.

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Just for once it didn’t rain on Thursday when I spent a day  in the woodyard at the Weald & Downland museum.  It’s a working woodyard and forms a base for many woody activities as well as supporting other projects within the museum.

There is always a lot of work going on but as this can be anywhere across the museum site and its surrounding woodland  it’s not unusual for the woodyard to seem deserted. But this week has been a ‘Woodyard week’ with plenty of work planned and I got to join in for a day polelathe turning and also lending a hand in the yard – irressistible to a congenital ‘woody’ like me.

Ben is building a number of wheels to replace old ones that can’t be fixed up any more on wagons that are part of the museum collection and that get used by the museum. These new hubs are turned from Elm, a wood with grain so twisty that it is renowned for resisting splitting when the spokes are knocked in. The red wheel is one from the museums timber wagon and the new hubs will be used to build replacements and get the timber wagon back on the road.

Oak beams are sawn and hewn in the woodyard to provide replacements for buildings and projects around the museum. We used the  woodyard hand operated timbercrane to extract some beams from the pile for a project which Guy is working on.

This  butt is in the process of being hewn into an Oak beam and will eventually be used in one of the museum’s projects. The process of hewing the round timber into a squared off beam is a great demonstration for visitors   – not least because of the sense of danger in watching someone stand on a log and swing an axe at their feet!

As you’d expect there is a kettle in the yard.  A proper one.  Somehow a cup of tea always tastes fresher when it’s brewed over an open fire, especially one thats powered by the shavings from the hewing and turning of the mornings work.

As you may have noticed the denizens of the yard are not that keen on appearing on camera, not on mine at least and despite plying them with a whole box of broken biscuits they still managed to elude me, but I should thank Julian, Ben, John and Guy for letting me join in for the day and also the visitors brave enough to make it to the woodyard who certainly enjoyed the experience.

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This is a long post so feel free to browse through the picture – or perhaps you’ll want to go and get a cup of coffee (or cider if it’s the right time of day) and soak up some of the atmosphere of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at its best with a tale of threshing, woodland crafts, some turning (but not much) and plenty of apples. The Autumn Countryside Show is one of my favourite events, a celebration of many of the things that mark out the rapid change in pace of the seasons and preparations for the long winter to come.

Some weeks ago the wheat on the museum fields was harvested, stooked and then stacked in a traditional rick ready for threshing.  With the weather looking changeable the threshing team started early, working hard through Friday and both days of the show to get all of the wheat threshed.

The wheat grown at the museum is a traditional long straw variety (triticale) with a much longer stem than a modern wheat variety which makes it useful for thatching straw. The threshing machine has an extra unit to sort and bundle the long straw so that the thatchers can store it whilst the shorter straws are discarded and baled.

I think it’s very unusual to see a threshing machine working all weekend and really rare to have two working at the same time. I particularly liked the way that Ben used one of the museum waggons as a part of the threshing display.

Normally I demonstrate on my own as I find two polelathes can be a bit of a crowd, but the Autumn show has always had wood at its heart and this year we decided to put on a bit of a show. No longer ‘Billy-no-mates’ I was joined by friends from the Sussex & Surrey Coppice, Hampshire  Coppice and the Polelathe turners and Greenwood Workers groups.  Thanks to everyone who turned up – it was a pleasure to work with you.

If you read the posts on this blog occasionally you’ll be no stranger to most of the talented greenwood workers who came to demonstrate at the show, so I won’t go through everyone even though they do deserve it for putting on such a great display. Thank you!

The traditional Chestnut lathes that Justin, Tony and Freddie make for many building projects were particularly appropriate to the museum and it was great to have them with us at this show.

First time at the show, Martin, Chris and Catherine aka ‘The Special Branch’ added some willow weaving activities for children.

Wot no pegs? The recipe section of the Horticultural Marquee needed pegs, so thanks to ‘the special branch’ we soon had it pegged with some simple but very effective twig pegs. Hardly a big issue, but it’s simple skills like this that are so rarely used today. It’s not that we can’t do it, virtually anyone can make pegs with a twig, a  knife and some wire, but we don’t respect these skills anylonger.

Melvyn made an impromptu appearance to make liggers for the day. And yes I did include this just so I could use the word ‘liggers’ which are the long thatching spars used at the top of the roof to bind the thatch together.

Alan Waters spoilt us all with an excellent freshly baked apple tart on Sunday morning. Thank you Alan! There will be more on the subject of apples at the show, but first…

The Hurdle Making Competition. A great event, which is fast becoming a fixture at the show, takes place on Sunday together with the (thatching) Spar making contest. Luckily the weather held up, though it was extremely windy on the Sunday during the competition.

This year somehow Rosie (Alan’s apprentice and responsible for keeping Alan in line) was persuaded to take part – not an easy thing to do, I remember the sheer terror of the first time I took part in a polelathe turning log-to-leg competition. Rosie managed to find a quiet spot at the back of the area and as she’s none to keen on cameras I had to pretend to be taking a photo of the tractors in the ring (OK so not much pretence needed  – a fine example of a field marshal by the way).

I am often asked if I make hurdles, somehow it’s seen as the epitomy of a rural craft, but as a woodturner I am well aware that it’s just one step too far for me, though stepping on it is something that Rosie demonstrates here with fine style.

At the other end of the competation area Robert (from Wiltshire) is getting there with his hurdle. He claims to be an amateur and amongst his many amateur skills Robert also makes fine cider and country wines, which we sampled over the weekend. A good opportunity to compare notes on apple milling and pressing.

All done. To my inexpert eye a fine example of a wattle hurdle. But the judging is tight and points are lost for using loppers and not having enough twists. Still as Rosie said, it didn’t come last!

Meanwhile back at the farm, up in the courtyard the apple mill and press are busy pressing something like a tonne of apples over the weekend.

We got to taste some of the product around the campfire in the evening, the two year old cider seemed to go down very well together with plenty of music and singing.

Most of the apples are from the West Dean estate adjacent to the museum though the apples from the museums own orchard are great traditional varieties.

Julian tells me that they managed to press about 80gallons of apple juice, and quite a lot of it was given away as samples but perhaps 70 gallons will be fermented on to make cider, which will be ready for drinking in a couple of years.

The show is very much an end of season marker for me, so as we packed up it was auspicious to have such a fine sunset, marking a great show with great friends, to say goodbye for a while and look forward to the coming season as we all return to the woods.

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