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Frost on the Landrover window this morning.

Season’s Greetings! Last time I looked it was summer. 2016 has certainly been busy with plenty to post about but despite my good intentions it hasn’t happened. Where does the time go? No rest for even the slightly naughty around here?

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Silver Birch in Midwinter Sun on Lynchmere Common

With the busy summer season of craft demonstrations, shows and teaching over its back to the woods cutting trees, scrub and clearing up. It’s just as hard to keep up as there are a lot less hours in the day. It’s dark by 4pm in midwinter but the light from the low sun angle is glorious and helps to make up for the frozen fingers and toes a little.

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Where ever you are I hope you have a good break (if you get one) and best wishes for the New Year. See you there! Meanwhilst put another log on the fire and enjoy the fruits of all that labour.

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DSCF0989…..but the sky is blue. I’ve been out to work – on an Autumn day.

As the song didn’t quite say but perhaps it should have? Just an excuse for me to post a photo of the Lynchmere commons looking at their best in recent Autumn sun.

These open woodland views don’t make themselves and behind the scenes there is a lot of woodland management that needs to happen. The leaves falling is our signal for the winter season of work on the commons to begin.

DSCF0948The major part of our winter work is in maintaining the areas of restored lowland heath. Lowland heath occurs where the soil is very poor and acidic and once widespread is now a rare habitat in the south of Britain.

I define lowland heath as woodland with the trees temporarily absent. The young scrub woodland is always threatening to engulf the heath and we have a winter work team on the commons known as ‘Roy’s Gang’, this year led by Lowell and Ed to help with the work.

DSCF0942Before. A typical scene on Marley Common with  some open spaces, but it’s hard to see the extent of the heath for the trees.

DSCF0970and afterwards. The scene is opened up and there is a sense of the expanse of the heathland as well as the woodland edges. But don’t worry, the trees have not gone away, it won’t be long before the scrub grows again and we’re needing to cut it – the commons are not static. It’s not a case of they were woodland and now are heath. This cycle has been going on for centuries and in that sense we are keeping up a very old tradition.

DSCF0981These areas of ancient ‘commonland’ were too poor to be enclosed and turned into fields. The definition of commonland in English law is complicated. Although actually private land and often owned by the lord of the manor the commons were always unfenced. They were habitually used by subsistance farmers as rough grazing and harvested by villagers as a source of firewood and other produce with or in many cases without the permission of the local lord.

Although today we are managing the commons to improve the wildlife and biodiversity I think it is this cycle of using and harvesting the woodlands and heath which is a key to understanding how to sustain them indefinitely into the future as a part of our local community. So that landrover load of logs that’s snuck into the photo is entirely in the best traditions of managing the commons!

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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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The Winter Season is when we do most of the conservation work on the Lynchmere Commons. The volunteer gang has worked hard this season and despite the near continual rain and snow we’ve been very busy. Now the nesting season is suddenly in full swing (as it’s not snowing this week) we can stand back and admire all of the cutting, felling, burning, thinning, scraping, digging,filming, laying, fencing and mending we’ve been doing but before we do there is just time to fit in a little mowing.

We planted a community orchard a couple of years ago in a sheltered corner of one of the Ridgecap fields that adjoin the commons. These fields are traditional hay meadows and pastures, once the mainstay of every small farm but now very rare and endangered. This is mainly because without being ploughed up and reseeded with modern varieties of grass, and with no fertilisers and pesticides being applied the yield (in terms of grass) is far too low to pay for the monster machinery that now populates our farms and countryside. Likewise we’ve planted up the orchard with traditional apple varieties from Sussex and surrounding counties, all on large and traditional half-standard sized rootstocks  rather than the higher yielding and smaller bush varieties.

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The orchard is not grazed so we need to cut the grass by hand. Having been a rough corner of the meadow it’s a serious challenge and the first aim is to reduce the tussocks and remove the old thatch of dead plants ready for the new season.

With a little sunshine a tiny bit of coaching in technique with a scythe and a lot of enthusiasm it didn’t take long to get through the orchard – keeping the rakers busy. Andy is using one of my oversized hay rakes – it has a 32inch head,nearly 3 foot, and a 6ft handle which makes it harder to use but once you get used to it you cover a lot of ground. Both Andy and the rake seem to have survived the experience.

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With a good turnout (a promise of free food and drink is always a good thing) we had upto 9 scythes out mowing, enough for a team, with several Austrian Scythes a couple of English Scythes and Nick joined us with his original ‘Turk Scythe’. These were first imported from Europe around the 1970’s when manufacture of English scythes stopped. Very light in comparison to the English Scythe. This one has a classic Austrian style blade that we often use today but the handle or snathe is very interesting with it’s straight shaft and fixed handgrips. Very light but only suited to one size of user.

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I’m not sure that the scything and raking was the main attraction here, I rather think it was mainly just to work up an appetite for lunch! It was the last task of our winter work programme and so a bit of an end of term party as well as the nature of the work now changes through the summer season.

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A good job done. A little bit of exercise, good company and a lunch in the orchard, a nice way to get some fresh air. Of course the job could have been done with a strimmer – but it’s really not so much fun to stand and watch a strimmer, you can’t rake the grass off afterwards and with 9 mowers on the task  it was a really quick (if not completely proficient) job.

I find it thought provoking to reflect upon which is really the most efficient way of working, one mower with a petrol strimmer for a dayor two, and Allen Scythe for a few hours or several mowers with scythes and a few rakers and forkers for a couple of hours? This blog isn’t really the best place for discussing this so I’m in the process of opening up a new site ‘The Scythe Grinders Arms‘ to host a wider discussion of environmental issues and my pet rants.

If you live in the Haslemere area and like the idea of working on the Lynchmere Commons and the meadows now and then why not join in with the Volunteer working tasks – you can get more information via the Lynchmerecommons blogsite.

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I’ve been a little distracted of late and you will have noticed I’ve not been posting as much. Sadly my mother died suddenly just before Christmas and I’ve not had much time for posting on the blog as a result. Normal service will be resumed eventually and I will shortly post something appropriate, as if you ever received one of her hand crafted cards, you will know she was quite a talented caligrapher. Meanwhilst the seasons don’t wait and if I don’t get the birch cut soon it will be too late, particularly with the warm weather we’ve had.

On sunday we had a good sized group of Volunteers working on the commons and managed to clear through a patch of birch which yielded plenty of peasticks and few good beanpoles. I even managed to persuade our more enthusiastic burners not to burn them all.

We joined up with some of the Allotmenteers from the nearby Shottermill Ponds allotments so plenty of beanpoles and pea-sticks were taken away but there were still some left for me as well.

I particularly like this way of working on the heathland as it is a living landscape and this is the way it was created and has been managed as commonland for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Completely sustainable, it provides exercise and a sense of connection and continuity with the environment – and it might just have avoided the import of the odd bundle of bamboo or even worse, plastic poles. Not saved a shipload, or even a container load yet – but every little counts as they say!

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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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It is hard to remember just how cold it got during the depths of winter during the warm spell of spring weather we’ve been having for the last few days. Tractors are all very well, but I do end up with one or more in the wrong place and walking across the commons to fetch it – but the sunset last night was a suitable recompense.

 

I notice the warm sunny weather improves my spirits and I am getting more done during the daylight. Besides walking is good for me and I don’t get to do as much of it for pleasure now I work in the woods as when I worked in an office (but I also don’t have to walk along pavements much either). I’m sure that we will return to the cold and the wet soon enough, we could do with a drop of it now, but I will make the most of the weather whilst I can.

 

The first show of the season went well and thanks to an unusual bout of preparation I had a suitably mothers day friendly range of turned and coppice products – though I can’t say I approve entirely of making products to suit a marketing fad.

In a fit of Spring Cleaning on this site I’ve updated the list of shows, events and courses for this season you can find it on the Show tab above this page or click here if you want.

I hope you are enjoying the weather, wet or dry, cold or warm, wherever you are and enjoy the coming season!

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