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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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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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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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DSCF9010Last Sunday Thorney Lakes near Muchelney in Somerset hosted the 10th Scythe Fair and Championships. I spent most of the week on the site helping with the organisation and preparing for the championships.

The Radio 4 daily programme Farming Today broadcast a short article on the Scythe Fair and the podcast is still on the site for another a few hours in case you are inclined to hear what they made of it.

Here is a link to the Podcast webpage for Farming Today – Scroll down to the Tuesday 17th June programme for the scythe fair article.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/farming

How did I do in the Championships? You’ll have a wait a little to find out!

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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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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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