Posts Tagged ‘scything’


Warning: A long post – so you might want to just flick through the pictures! Otherwise put the kettle on, get yourself a mug full and settle down to read on

In case you are wondering I do still have a polelathe – several in fact – and I used one yesterday. But summer has finally arrived, the wildflower meadows are in full colour and on the commons the bracken is growing as if there’s no tomorrow –  you could be forgiven for thinking that I’d forgotten all about my lathe at this time of year.

So with my  Scythe over my shoulder grim reaper style I set off for Wimpole Hall again for the Eastern Counties Scything Championships and some spoon carving to boot.

DSCF9324I’d been asked to run a spoon carving course again for beginners. Spoon carving is great fun and it doesn’t need a lot more than an axe and a couple of knives and once again the polelathe was left behind. I am getting polelathe withdrawal symptoms – occasionally my leg starts quivering uncontrollably – but moving on swiftly.

The spoon course seemed to go well and as often happened turned itself into a freeform afternoon/evening of whittling wood for all comers. And I use the term whittling advisedly and specifically. Not everyone seemed to have got the idea of a spoon, especially our Albanian friend Ded who seemed more focused upon removing wood quickly rather than the form and shape of the wood thats left behind.

DSCF9331Making up for Ded’s savage assault on the wood was John, who had not carved a spoon before and came on the course. I think his precision metalworking background is more than a little revealed by the attention to detail of his first spoon. Well done John – a worthy winner of the Spoon category in the craft competition as well.

DSCF9395Somehow John also found time over the weekend to fix the backdoor of my landrover (thank you John), linish the axe that Magnus made me (thank you again John), compete in the mowing and also bring down his vintage Field Marshal tractor to demonstrate the finger bar towed mower.

DSCF9359Not before time we’re onto the mowing. Unlike the Somerset championships where the area of grass is strictly limited by the site, at Wimpole hall there is a 3 mile avenue leading to the hall which is all unfertilised flower meadow! Mower’s heaven – or it can be hell if you leave it too late in the day and it’s all going wrong.

Simon Damant has been pushing us to take advantage and mow 1/4 acre plots and not just the tiny 5x5m plots which we usually compete to mow. Chris Riley mowed 1/4 acre using his straight snathe – and if there was an award for sheer mowing style – Chris would have won in my opinion.  This year several of us stepped up to the 1/4 acre challenge – and I’m very glad that I took the opportunity – I learnt a lot about my scythe and myself mowing out mowing for hours in the gentle rain on the Friday evening. Three hours and three minutes to be precise.

DSCF9416Plenty of other challenges at the weekend. How about trying your hand at shearing a sheep – the traditional way with a pair of clippers or sheep shears. Not satisfied with his assault with a knife on a lump of wood Ded had a go and Simon showed him how to do it.

DSCF9418The weekend allowed me to catch up with Magnus the sword smith. Basically if it has a sharp edge – Magnus will have made it and if by some chance he hasn’t – it won’t be long before he has. You may have seen a lot of his blades alreadywithout knowing it as Magnus does a lot of work for film and TV programmes making reproduction or original designs. As a result Magnus has an approach to tool design which I find fascinating and which allows his creative bent a fairly free reign. It’s always interesting to see what Magnus is upto and this time was no exception – he’s been making some lovely little carving axes.

DSCF9430Here’s one with a traditional ‘Kentish’ style to the head but with some tomahawk influence in the weight, shaping and the tapered eye socket. Couldn’t resist buying it. He’s also made a small bearded carving axe – you’ll see more of it before long as I also bought it on the spot.

DSCF9439The problem with the Sunday afternoon competition plots, particularly the 5x5m championships is that there is a lot of nervous waiting around and then a couple of minutes of violent activity. I’m not a sprinter by nature and so the larger plots seem to suit me much better.

Nerves didn’t seem to worry Chris Earl much though. A retired farmer (if you can retire as a farmer) from Grantham, Chris brought along his Rumanian Scythe but I talked him into showing off his skills with my vintage English Nash Universal Scythe and he entered the competitions.

He also seems to have the knack of resting on the scythe. I think you’d have to agree that the English Scythe is so much better as a leaning post than the Austrian scythe?

DSCF9481A few more scything photos to prove that we did more than stand around photogenically resting on them. Arthur was a newcomer to the scythe at the start of the weekend but produced a good showing mowing in the competion being awarded best novice for his 10×10 plot.

DSCF9520 Andi Rickard mowing her 10x10m plot. Andi appears to be powered up by a secret weapon – home made pemmican. Rocket fuel for mowing I reckon. No wonder she’s the ladies champion, though it’s always a closely fought battle with the tricky grass at Wimpole. Having tried the pemmican I am converted and I just need to find some time to make some!

DSCF9488Richard Brown competes hard with his Austrian Scythe and has in the recent past been the overall winner at Wimpole. He gave it everything and produced a fast time with an excellent quality of cut. A time of 1:49 and a quality of 7.5 – which under the conditions is an amazing combination of speed and quality.

DSCF9489But in the end Wimpole’s evil little fescue grasses on a hot and windy Sunday afternoon brought him to his knees – literally.

DSCF9490Is Richard having a quick snooze or should we call an ambulance? Luckily Richard recovered swiftly just in time to take some more punishment.

DSCF9511Hard work all this standing around in the sun leaning on your scythe and waiting for something to happen.

DSCF9921So a great weekend, in really good company. Thank you everyone who made it so special! Oh and did I tell you I won a cup? I prefer the medals – but if there’s a cup on offer it would be rude to refuse wouldn’t it?

Having won the cup twice now, I am starting to look forward to somebody coming forward who can wield an English Scythe faster and perhaps more importantly with keep the quality at speed – though I don’t expect to yield without a fight.

Meanwhilst more scything ‘Bling’ to add to the collection, with a couple of spoons and the Magnificent Magnus Made small bearded carving axe. Come and try it and maybe Magnus will Make you one as well?


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If we can’t actually go out with our scythes then at least we can get together and talk scythes!  There’s not a lot of opportunity for mowing with scythes during the depths of winter – they tend to be hung up on the wall waiting for warmer days like these blades and snathes in John Lett’s office cum snug on in his barn on the farm near Gt Missenden.


So with mowing withdrawal symptoms in full flood last weekend we (members of the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland that is) congregated at John’s barn for a weekend of talking mowing, grass, blades, snathes and of course peening.

As John grows around 100acres of ancient grain varieties we had the bonus of discussing traditional wheat varieties as well. It’s a subject I have started to get interested in, the natural consequence of starting home bread making and wondering just what is, or perhaps more important isn’t, in the bread for sale in the local supermarkets. And thanks to Vince a master baker who works with John’s flour who came along to find out what was going on – we got to do some baking with the traditional wheat varieties as well.


This loaf was baked using a kind of sourdough recipe with John’s traditional wheat variety wholemeal flour, left overnight to rise and then it only needed a quick fold (no hard labour kneeding the dough) and left to prove before into the oven


– and quite rapidly into our mouths! Thanks to Vince’s expertise it wasn’t long before we were putting away a selection of various breads.


Like this simple focaccia – made with plenty of olive oil, rosemary and a bit of finger exercise.


and Simon Damant (not known for his gentle approach) attempts to fold a pretzel.


It’s always a pleasure to eat hand crafted artisan bread but we don’t often get an opportunity to look at where the flour comes from. With John’s grainstore just next door it was a fascinating opportunity to link the grain characteristics directly to the flour and the bread being made.

Amongst the ancient wheat varieties that John grows is Spelt, originally a cross between the one of the earliest cultivated wheats Emmer and  wild Goat Grass. You can buy Spelt flour in the UK now but it’s harder to get the grain, which can be used like pearl barley or lentils in soups and stews. John very kindly polished some Spelt grain for me – which effectively ‘pearls’ the grains. Cooking with Spelt in this way helps to retain the nutrients and fibres and because it’s not processed (ok it’s arguable that the polishing is a form of processing) it slows down the carbohydrate overload on your digestive system that highly refined white flours can often cause.

Thank you John and Vince for a really ‘riveting’ and fascinating winter wheat weekend (I am sorry for the in-joke but ‘rivet’ is a medieval wheat variety that John grows)

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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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I’ve been keen to get some serious scything going at the Weald & Downland Museum for some time but for one reason or another it’s been something of an uphill struggle until recently and on Friday I helped Simon Fairlie run a one day course.

All very well, but why the photo of a cottage? Well it turns out that the field that we’d planned to mow in had been enthusiastically cut by the heavy horses with their own mower only the day before. Hard to complain really as it’s great that the horses were doing the work. So the course had some more challenging areas to contend with…..

….such as the classic cottage garden behind Walderton. Not the easiest challenge for newcomers to the world of scything, and to make it worse the museum gardener, Carlotta was on the course as well – so it wasn’t going to be easy to hide any unfortunate accidents with the flower beds or worse still the leeks in the veg patch!

These patches of lawn are normally mown with a petrol powered mower just before the museum opens to the public. Despite the danger to the flowers in the end we managed to mow the lawn quite effectively though I admit that I did this bit when I got hold of one of Simon’s new style blades.

Although it was more constrained than mowing in an open field I think it was a very powerful demonstration of the versatility of the scythe and it’s ease of use in the garden rather than just an outdated and obsolete historical tool. I think we may have some converts and I’m just hoping that we will now start regular mowing at the museum and perhaps even get a team together – who knows we might be allowed to cut around the edges of the hay field this year?

If you are hoping for action photos of people wielding scythes then you will be disappointed as unfortunately I was so busy coaching that I managed not to take any photos of the action.

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