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The Grass is Ris!  and the mowing season is suddenly upon us.

When I am not attacking the bracken on the commons I am working around the edges of the meadows to control the invading bracken, nettles and thistles. Hard work but very satisfying in the spring sunshine.

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The beginning of the new mowing season is always a time for preparing the blade for the coming season. How straight is your blade?

I am always hunting for good blades and I have to go through a lot of nearly dead ones to find a blade which can be restored. One of the many challenges of working with the English Scythe is the age and the state of the blades. When they come to me they are inevitably in quite a bad state, though often not terminal as this motley bunch shows.

It’s not hard to put an edge on the blade and that’s about all you’ll need to start whacking weeds but restoring it’s grass cutting ability needs more detailed attention.

On their own the blades can look quite reasonable but when you put a bunch together on a flat metal surface things can look a little different. OK so I selected most of these blades because they need work but even so some of them look like they’ve been run over by a tractor, or even a steam roller rather than stored carefully in the barn.

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  The flat surface belongs to John’s Old Kiln Forge at the Tilford Rural Life Centre. I took the blades to show John and discuss the best methods for restoring them. We tried out a few methods on an old and very pitted blade.

DSCF3031Most of the work is with the blade cold to avoid losing it’s temper – or softening the hard steel in the blade edge.

DSCF3047It wouldn’t be a visit to a forge without a little heat though. Unlike the blade edge the tang is adjusted hot to prevent tiny cracks being formed which then turn into metal fatigue and failure of the tang under constant heavy useage. The blade is kept cool by dripping water onto it whilst the tang is heating.

DSCF3061As well as practicing on the old blade we also improved the shape of the blade edge on one of my workin blades. Time to put the blade to the test. The improvement in performance is noticeable – but still more work to be done.

I have a moribund blog called The Scythe Grinders Arms and I’ll be resurrecting this in the coming weeks as I work on my scythes to provide a place for devotees of the English blade and snead.

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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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Do you have those conversations sometimes? Where you think ‘Why did they say that?’  We had one of those on the walk back from our allotment on Sunday afternoon. Having been working on the raised beds and pathways I thought I’d mention what I planned to spend the rest of the afternoon doing.  To which Alison said ‘Peenicide! You’re going to do what?’  No, Peen a Scythe is What I said! We laughed all the way back to the house.

So ‘Peenicide’ is when you sit with a sharp scythe blade balanced between your legs and procede to hit it hard with a hammer. For the uninitiated the ancient art of peening is cold flowing or shaping of metal by beating it with a hammer.

Often still known as cross pein or ball pein hammers the original use of them is rarely required now and mine are normally known as Landrover Special Tool No1, if in doubt hit it with a hammer and see if it works again. Well maybe.

English (and US) scythe blades produced in the last 200 or 300 years cannot generally be peened as the edge steel is too hard and will crack so they must be ground. But scythe blades made in the rest of the world tend to be more malleable, though still hard and thin enough that the very edge of the blade can be cold flowed to form a very thin, razor like, bevelled edge.

The blade I am peening here is a short Austrian blade suitable for cutting around the edge of a small lawn the size of a postage stamp like ours.

Taking a hammer to a fine sharp edge is not entirely obvious and feels strange the first times you do it – and like many sharpening experiences the first efforts can often make things worse rather than better.

Usually the blade can be sharped effectively by using coarser and coarser stones. But as the edge is worn back the bevel becomes steeper develops a ‘bull nose’ shape rather than a razor and though still sharp has the wrong form to cut fine grass such as a lawn effectively. Peening returns the shape of the edge to a razor and when sharpened with a fine stone will cut even a bowling green (So I am told!).

Despite the sad state of this blade and my literally ‘rusty’ attempts to peen it I managed to achieve enough of an improvement to tame the grass of our tiny lawn. Sharpening and peening have always been a weak point for me but I have plenty more blades to peen yet so practice should make perfect by the time of the scythe festival in June.

There is a lot more to using and sharpening scythes than I can cover here – don’t worry I shall be returning to this topic. Thanks to Steve Tomlin for suggesting Sunday 1st April as ‘International Peening Day’ and you can find out a lot more about these activities on his Scytherspace Blog here 1st International Peening Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Working with a scythe is an enjoyable experience in its own right, but there are fringe benefits as well. One of these is that you tend to end in special places with a scythe, whereas with a strimmer you’ll be stuck on a verge somewhere.

The recent scything course I gave to the South Downs National Park Volunteer Ranger Service (bit of a mouthful that) was no exception. We started off in the workshop but soon adjourned to practice on some thistles in a nearby meadow, part of the Woolbeding estate.

The meadow is right by the river Rother near Midhurst. Looks more like a peaceful stream at this time of year, though the 10 foot drop from the meadow to the water level gives some idea of how it can flow during the winter.

I should have been taking lots of photos of the mowing, but on this improvers course the team had got the hang of it quite well in the main and I was captivated by the ancient parkland oak trees in the meadows. Large trees with the fabulous gnarly shapes and wide spreading canopies that come with growing out in the open.

Back to the mowing. With this many thistles the job should really be more topping than mowing as cutting the thistles is more important than cutting the grass. That’s normally the case with using scythes in conservation work. I started using a scythe on bracken (when I was 16) and I get to use them on bracken, brambles and weeds far more often than I get to mow a meadow for haymaking so it’s useful to look at different ways of working.

Oooh, now this will be the gratuitous Landrover photo then, dressed up to look like a serious comment on scything technique. Now how does that song go? After me…

….One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow, one man and his Land Rover went to mow a meadow.  Two men went to mow, went to mow a meadow, two men, one man, and his Land Rover, and his other Land Rover…went to mow a meadow…..got the picture yet?


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Not a  nice flat luscious part of a hay meadow, my quarter acre was an unloved rough old patch of grass tucked away in a corner of the Weald & Downland Museum. Complete with anthills, molehills, rabbit holes and plenty of woody shrubs moving out from the hedges. But still, there’s nothing better than a challenge!

Getting stuck into the job the farmyard chickens certainly appreciated my work – and the less said about the toad the better – it was a very close shave!  All the visitors to the museum were also impressed and the mowing took a lot longer due to the amount of time I spent leaning on my scythe and talking about the tools and the grass. Try doing that with a strimmer!

The fearless chickens clearly had no concept of a scythe – any closer and I’d have been wearing a lucky chicken foot!

Finally cut the grass! Sadly not even a quarter acre by my estimate, probably closer to an eighth but it made up for it in toughness.  Just time for a quick walk around the museum to catch up with people and have a quick look around.

For some reason I picked a great day for the work and the museum was quiet before the weekend with a big rare breed show on the Sunday and a forecast filled with rain.

The old toll house stands at the original entrance to the museum. It’s a lovely building in the afternoon sunshine but quite bare in photographs, so very helpfully someone had left a red and blue cart in just the right place.

The cottage gardens are a riot of colour at this time of year. This one is besides Poplar cottage, the timber framed thatched cottage just beyond my patch of grass.

Time for the gratuitous Landrover photo. The aim of cutting the grass is to make hay (though on a rough patch like this the hay would be none too good) so you normally do it whilst the sun shines – and hopefully whilst the sun will stay shining for a few days. But you can’t always get it right and when the rain threatens the hay can be piled into haycocks temporarily to prevent it all getting soaked. My last job of the day was to cock it all up – and then the rains came!

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Warning this is a long and rambling tale of grass, spoons, eggs and shameful mowing! I went to mow, went to mow a meadow at Wimpole Hall, near Cambridge over the Weekend. But somewhere along the line things got a little more complicated and I found myself teaching a spoon carving course on the Saturday.  In my defence I’d like to point out that I thought I’d managed to say no – but to no avail as it turned out. In the event I’m very glad that Simon Damant (our host at Wimpole) talked me into it as it made for a great weekend.

The mowing started early on Saturday morning with the 1/4 acre endurance mowing. Simon and Richard Brown mowed a 1/4 acre and an 1/8 acre respectively. No mean feat and luckily the weather was still cool, particularly at 6am though I’ll have to take their word for that! George finished faster than Simon but with the complex negotiations on quality of cut Simon won the day (though there might still be some dispute over this).

I’d like to have participated but I had six novices for the spoon carving course and I’m pleased to say that everyone went home with at least one spoon – and all of their fingers at the end of the day. My inadvertant demonstration of paring with my thumb in a poor location and drawing first blood worked very well in minimising the number of cuts throughout the day! I think I might have converted at least a couple of people to the world of greenwood working and quite possibly to Ben Orford’s excellent crook knives as well.

I was far too busy to demonstrate polelathe turning as well (it was a weekend off after all) and after some discussions a local lathe appeared complete with its personal transportation system – words fail me – almost – I’m clearly going to have to give this some serious thought!

The food was great if you like lamb and luckily even the vegetarian amongst us approved of Simon’s hogget ( a hogget is a sheep between one and two years of age, larger and with more flavour than a lamb).

The success of the spoon carving course seemed contagious and before long plenty of people were spooning away to enter the spoon making competition by noon on Sunday. By Saturday evening a good dozen spoons were being made and we continued whittling late into the evening – the competition had turned serious.

Now if you thought this post would be mainly about mowing and scythes – I’m going to disappoint you a little for a while  as eggs now enter the proceedings.

At some point in the evening I thought it would be a good idea to make use of all these spoons and with talk of the rural Olympics the idea of racing with the spoon we’d just made was born. I’d vaguely imagined next year but Simon is not one to hang around and had just collected a bucket of duck eggs – and one goose egg – now I wonder who he’s going to give that one to? I began to smell a rotten egg if not a rat!

A great line up of spoons in the competition – especially as several were from first time spooners!  Unfortunately in blissful ignorance that I’d soon be racing with it I’d made a small spoon from a cleft of wild cherry (thanks to some overly enthusiastic axe work slicing off half the bowl).  Pretty much a no hoper with the duck eggs let along the goose egg I suspected would come my way.

Time for a cunning plan, a very cunning plan! Clearly the first rule of the spoon race will be bending the rules, so at the last minute I fashioned a simple spoon, aka the Giant Goose Egg Holder, and slipped it into the competition – it’s at about 2 o’clock in the photo.

Chaos ensued as Simon issued rough directions for the course and handed out eggs – the Goose Egg fitting neatly into its holder- and plenty of choice language to match as my subterfuge emerged! My plan was nearly thwarted by the substitution of a ringer as a runner (from HM Forces) but amidst the carnage of collision and not so subtle trips on the return journey the ringer wobbled and the Giant Goose Egg Holder won the day!

I’d come up to Wimpole aspiring to a medal position in the mowing finals but with all of the spooning I had little time to prepare for mowing. As in Somerset a relatively good performance in the team mowing lulled me into a false sense of security and when it came to the individual mowing I went to pieces.  Do you want to hear the bad news or the good news? The bad news is that I managed a shameful performance in the finals. Descending from the realms of fast but crap to TRUELY SHAMBOLIC! The good news? Well at least I made my peformance in Somerset look reasonable!

But then I wasn’t the only one whose plan was blown off course. On the day a real live Dead Ringer appeared – or Ded Ringer in this case, as Ded from Albania showed up to show us his scything talents. Ded walked off with the title and the Quality cup to boot just pushing Richard Brown (great mowing Richard) into second place and George Montague into third(Ed – I think I have that right now-apologies for inadvertantly promoting Andy Coleman) with George winning the ‘fast but crap’ cup.

George wasn’t too happy with the ‘fast but crap’ cup as he mowed well – apart from the badger hole.  But it’s strange to see someone else walking off with the cup in a class that I created while I am struggling to finish!

Really not my year for Mowing competitions but by next year I’m going to know a lot more about preparing my blade and the less said about my fitness (or lack of it) the better. I’m also not going to try peening my blade 10 minutes before the competition starts with no time left for honing.

Andy and Ded went head to head in the Scythe versus Strimmer race. This time in two rounds with Andy first on the scythe, winning comprehensively and later in round two Ded took the scythe and won – which goes to prove that the scythe really does beat a strimmer hands down!

All over, it’s time to relax in the cut grass and consider that its the taking part that counts not the winning – and on this occasion that’s entirely true except of course in the Egg and Spoon race where anything goes in order to win and cheating is mandatory.

I almost forgot the cider drinking competition. Ooops, sorry I meant the Cider Making competition and these are the judges( faces mostly obsured by glasses to protect their identities) not the participants. I’ve never entered so many competitions before . It was really good to see so many home made ciders taking part- and even though I didn’t get placed I’m very glad I wasn’t a judge!

To round off a great weekend we had a guided tour of the estate including the vast length hedges laid in recent years – here a section laid in South of England style if I remember rightly.

Just time to fit in a quick Landrover repair before heading home. Luckily not to my landrover but to Simon’s which had mysteriously run out of clutch fluid over the weekend. We managed to stop Simon trying to fit a cable, topped up with fluid and a few minutes of frantic pumping something like a clutch returned.

Many thanks to Simon, Jim, Andy M, Catherine, Graham and Olga for making us so welcome and putting on such a great show. There are loads of photos I could not put up here – so I will shortly be posting at least one gallery and I’ll link to it as soon as its up.

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