Reflections on the last 18 months of my traineeship
When I applied for the role of heritage buildings trainee I didn’t know quite what to expect. For a year and a half I had worked doing building repair work in Devon mainly using traditional materials such as cob and lime. I loved using my hands and the sense of history in the places so the opportunity to work in a museum dedicated to these old methods of construction seemed ideal to me. What exactly the museum would be like, however, I didn’t know! Fortunately the day long interview/ assessment, far less grueling than it sounds, gave me a great feel for the place and the people and what my role would be. Forward eighteen months and I can look back at what a great opportunity it has been to try my hand at such a broad range of trades and skills.
One of the first jobs was laying a chalk floor in the Iron Age roundhouse. We regrettably had to take up the old cobble floor as the cobbles were getting kicked up by lots of small feet and so the chalk was a replacement. It was a good lesson in how much the site and buildings are put under pressure by the frequent footfall (good for the museum of course) and how compromises, like replacing the cobble floor with chalk, have to be found. Some of the other jobs I carried out include thatching, blacksmithing, leadwork, lime plastering, and carpentry as well using the white earth material wychert, local to the area, to finish the garden wall of Haddenham cottage.
As part of my training I was also able to go on courses and work placements away from the museum. These included the green oak timber framing course at the Weald and Downland. It was fascinating and made me realise this was something I wanted to carry on with and learn more about. I later worked on an Elm barn in Hertfordshire, a cruck frame in Oxfordshire and learnt some timber repairs while at Orchard Barn in Suffolk and on placement in Twyford with IJP Owlsworth. So lots of good practise; unfortunately with timber framing it appears the more you learn, the more you realise there is to find out!
It was tricky at times to get the balance right between learning elsewhere and getting work done at the museum. However, the two things definitely complemented each other. For example I went on an electrical course which allowed me to do some basic wiring at the museum.
It also helped when I found myself faced with covering for the buildings manager at the beginning this year. This was always going to be a steep learning curve but what made it a more daunting prospect was that we had just started two fairly large jobs, repairing the sill beam of Thame vicarage room and replacing a supporting post in Skippings. Both were quite technically challenging jobs so the timber framing experience I had developed made it possible to tackle them.
I ended up covering for more than three months and while it was difficult, it was definitely a high point for me being able to put things into practise and leading the team (who were excellent and very patient I should say!) with whatever jobs we had on.
In summary, it has been a really rewarding experience working at the museum. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting involved in everything, from timber framing to digging foundations and even setting up for the Halloween scary walk. My thanks to everyone here for making it so special.
Master thatcher’s Mark and Roger have done a fine job transforming Leagrave cottage with a new coat of longstraw thatch. I had the opportunity to have a go at thatching I started on the ground, trying my hand at the art of yealming. This is a job a great many of the building volunteers shudder at the thought of, having yealmed some of the thatch for Marsworth.
For those not knowledgeable in longstraw terminology (and there is a lot of it, often particular to each region), the yealm is a bundle of straw about 13cm deep and as wide as the thatcher can happily handle – this makes up the basic unit for longstraw thatch that the thatcher fixes to the roof in courses.
Before I started yealming, Mark had already made up a large yealming bed of straw, dampened it, and placed a board on top to keep it a little compressed. From the bed, I pulled out handfuls of straw and placed them in front of the bed so that most of the stems were going in the same direction to make a smaller pile of straw about 10cm high.
Mark and Roger sitting down on the job in front of a yealming bed
You want most of the ears on one side and the butts on the other but a slight mix is inevitable. Starting from one side of the smaller bed, I separated as much of the straw as I needed to make a yealm, and brushed the back of my hands through it to take out some of the smaller stems and leaves and make doubly sure the majority of the stems were going in the right direction.
When I was happy with how it looked, I picked up the yealm fairly loosely and gave it a tap on the ground so the end of mostly butts started at the same place. This is very important as this is the end that will be exposed on the roof and what you want to achieve is a smooth hole-free surface of thatch. Any stems that don’t drop to the bottom when tapping the yealm you can picture as holes in the coat of thatch – not what you want at all!
The yealm is then stacked up into piles of four or five, which is called a bundle, and tied up ready to be taken up to the roof. Piling them up in different directions is enough to prevent the yealms from merging.
A tied bundle of four yealms
Straw is unlike most other building materials I can think of so it really took a while for me to understand what it was I was aiming for when preparing and fixing it in place. I only really understood the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ yealm once I had compared fixing one of my early yealm attempts to fixing one of my later ones where I knew what I was doing. One was a patchy mess, with many holes; the other seamlessly (almost) blended with the thatch already in place. Essentially the work had been done properly on the ground so that I didn’t have to play around with the straw as much on the roof. It all sounds quite simple but, like any craft, takes a while to get a feel for and many a year to master.
Written By Sam Rowland-Simms HLF Buildings Trainee at COAM
The building team have just returned from a tough two weeks dismantling not one, but two buildings – another Nissen hut, this one to hopefully be used by catering, and a folding portable cabin, to be used by the Education team.
The Nissen Hut
The Nissen hut came apart willingly enough – starting with prising off the interior fibreboard and exterior corrugated sheets to reveal the ribs beneath.
The ribs and purlins unbolted nicely with the help of a bit of WD40.
The Folding Cabin
The folding cabin on the other hand started as something of an unknown quantity – we knew that the left and right sides folded into the central area and worked out the rest from there.
Here you can see the left and right sides and the central compartment into which everything folds up.
For each side, the roof was slightly lifted in order to lower the end wall.
Then both the end wall and the floor were hoisted up together.
Where the four of us were confronted with this sign…
The side walls swung in easily and the roof slowly lowered back down
With the four lifting lugs revealed, next came the slightly daunting task of lifting the cabin.
Chains were hooked on to the lifting lugs which and lifted up through a hatch in the roof to the loader crane hook above.
We all watched apprehensively as the chains snapped taut and the cabin slowly became airborne.
Fortunately it stayed together long enough to be set down on the truck and transported back to COAM!
Following on from my earlier blog post (‘The Art of Haymaking’) the other big job that the farm team have been busy with over the summer months has been getting our rye crop harvested.
At COAM we use the long straw of the rye we grow in our arable fields for thatching the ricks in our rickyard, keeping the weather off the hay and straw. During the Middle Ages in England poorer people made a coarse, dark bread, called ‘maslin’, out of rye mixed with weed seeds, ground legumes and sometimes acorns. Wheat was reserved for making ‘manchet’ – a much finer, whiter bread only available to the gentry.
For many centuries the tools used to cut ripe cereal crops such as barley, wheat, rye and oats, remained unchanged: these were either a sickle, a reaping hook, a fagging hook or a scythe. The technique and tool varied partly according to the type of crop and to whether the straw was needed to be kept long and in good condition for thatching, or could be broken up for use as animal bedding.
Impression of medieval labourers reaping a crop. The tools they are using are either sickles or reaping hooks. For reaping, the crop was held in one hand and cut using a sharp, curved blade. A different technique was fagging (also referred to as ‘bagging’ or ‘swopping’), in which a hooked stick was used to tension the straw and the blade used to slash at the crop close to the ground.
Scythes were one of the tools still in frequent use in the arable fields of England right up to the 1950s, and after receiving some basic training in their use and history (see also previous blog post ‘The Art of Haymaking’), I had a go at cutting some of the rye using a scythe.
HLF Site and Farm Trainee Lyndsey Rule using a scythe to cut the rye crop in the Museum fields.
I found the technique was not quite the same as it was for mowing hay. For cutting cereals, the blade did not need to be kept as close to the ground; however it was even more important to swing the blade round in a full arc to ensure the crop all fell neatly to one side. If not, the stalks became quickly tangled and life became an awful lot harder for the poor binders following on behind!
During the Victorian period, mechanical means of cutting were invented such as the horse-drawn reaper. Initially these implements were only able to speed up the cutting process, but later models were developed which could bind the corn as well.
Reaper-binder adapted for a tractor, cutting the rye crop at COAM in 2009. This sort of setup was in use in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Once the crop is cut, it needs to be gathered into manageable bundles – a ‘sheaf’ – and tied, using a few lengths of the crop twisted together. The sheaves are then ‘stooked’ in the field to allow them to continue to finish ripening and keep dry. These jobs would historically have been largely carried out by women and children, with even very little children assisting with making the twists of straw used for binding the sheaves. Gathering up and binding the corn is harder work than it looks, especially out under the hot summer sun. As well as being a very active task, the rye is incredibly scratchy – particularly the long awns protecting the grain itself, which manage to get into your clothes so they continue to irritate even after you’ve stopped working. Although I loved the experience of being part of the harvest team, this job did make me much more appreciative of the invention of the combine-harvester! I also felt a massive admiration for the many harvest-hands in the late 19th century who were frequently carrying out this hard physical work on a poor diet of little more than rough bread and cheese. On some farms, small beer or cider was provided for drinking, as clean water supplies were few and far between: the only water available was like as not just that which could be scooped out of a nearby field ditch.
Binding a rye sheaf, August 2016. (Photo by Daniel Romani).
Farm volunteers stooking rye sheaves in COAM’s arable fields, August 2016. (Photo by Daniel Romani).
Once it had been stooked, the corn was sometimes built up into a field stack before being taken down to the barn – perhaps for a time when more farm-workers were available from other tasks on the farm, or to allow the corn to keep drying out in the field. We built our rye harvest into three field stacks this year, each stack containing enough for approximately one day’s work with the threshing machine.
Assisting with building a field stack in the field above the Iron Age House. September 2016
The finished field stack. September 2016
Just like the haycocks, these ephemeral mounds would have been a familiar sight in the fields of the past. A few weeks later and it was time to dismantle the stack and load the rye onto the trailer to bring it into the farmyard, ready for threshing at our Harvest weekend. As with most things, there is an art to loading the sheaves safely. Conway talked me through the basic technique while I stood up on the trailer. By about the third layer I think I’d just about got the hang of it. The sheaves are laid in slightly offset pairs, heads inwards, down the length of the vehicle, with their ‘feet’ hanging out over the edge on the first layer (making sure the load doesn’t end up too wide to fit through gateways!), but gradually being brought in as the load is built up to keep the balance in the centre. At each end, sheaves are laid at 90 degrees to the rest (though still heads inwards and feet out) helping to knit the sheaves together and avoid creating a dip in the middle. I soon got the idea of looking at the differing shapes of each sheaf as it was handed to me and judging how to best to place it to fit neatly against its neighbours, in order to build a balanced load and allow the rain to run off. The most important trick though, especially as I built up higher and higher, was making sure to turn around when I got halfway down the trailer so as not to fall off!
Loading rye sheaves on the trailer. (Photo by Heather Beeson).
During the winter months, a key task that took place down in barns like our Hill Farm Barn was threshing the crop with a flail to separate the grain from the straw. This was a long and arduous job, but it provided work for the farm labourer at a time when there was little else available after the busy summer months. Then in the late nineteenth century the Thrashing Machine was invented. This incredible contraption manages, via an intriguingly complex journey, to neatly separate relatively large amounts of grain from straw from chaff in a matter of minutes. Although it still needs quite a lot of people around to work it, feed in the sheaves, collect up the straw and bag the clean grain, the thrashing machine was seen as a massive threat to people’s jobs and livelihoods when it first came on the scene. Many farm labourers across the country rebelled, in the form of riots and machine-breaking under the moniker of ‘Captain Swing’. Nowadays, the combine harvester manages to do both the work of the reaper-binder and the thrashing set all in one, and it is a day’s excitement to see a thrashing set such as our handsome pink Ransome Thrashing Machine, in full swing!
Ransomes Threshing Machine in action threshing this year’s rye crop at the COAM Harvest Weekend, October 2016. (Photo by Clive Thompson).
Ransomes Threshing Machine in action threshing this year’s rye crop at the COAM Harvest Weekend, October 2016. (Photo credit Clive Thompson/COAM).
Our harvest event this year took place over the weekend of the 15-16th October. The beautiful dark blue Fordson Major tractor, dating from 1950, was used to provide the steady power which pulls the belt and drives the thrasher. As it started up, an air of hushed, excitement fell over the farm team at their various stations around the machine and the expectant visitors crowded around the hurdle barriers alike. All focus was on the pink and red giant box as it began to thrum and vibrate, getting increasingly louder and more urgent as it picked up speed. To set it up correctly for the safe and steady running of the machine, our expert thrashing machine technicians John Smithson and Keith Baggaley, from our Large Artefacts Volunteer Team, felt for and listened to the note created by the vibration, as well as counting the turns of the main drive belt. Using a pitchfork, sheaves were handed up to the two people stationed on top of the thrasher. They cut the bindings and fed in the untied sheaves. I was part of the gang stationed at the back of the thresher, binding the straw back into sheaves as it was chucked out. At the opposite end, Keith showed me the clean grain as it trickles out into the sack, free of all bits of chaff and straw after following its adventurous and convoluted route through the machine.
Over each afternoon we thrashed one trailer-load of rye which gave us just over 3 sacks (around 100kg) of grain. In total we now have ten sacks of rye grain currently stored in Rossway Granary to plant back in the field for growing next year’s crop!
“…so come, my boys, come – we’ll merrily roar out ‘Harvest Home!’”
(Words from a traditional English folk song ‘Harvest Home’, learnt from the singing of my parents; I’m not quite sure where they picked it up!)
“Oh our hay it is mown and our corn it is reaped, our barns are full and we’ve garnered the seed…”
The last couple of months have seen everyone down on the COAM Farm toiling out in the hot fields under a bright sun helping with two of the most important summer jobs in the farming year: haymaking and harvest.
Part One (July): ‘The Art of Haymaking’
Before I arrived at COAM I was under the impression that ‘hay’ – an all-important winter animal fodder – was grass that had been cut and then just abandoned in the sunshine for a few days before being efficiently gathered up into the familiar bales. However, I was very quickly to learn how much more complex and delicate a process is the art of making good hay!
First, using an appropriate method, mow your meadow
I did get the basics right: to make hay first of all your meadow full of grasses (diversified perhaps with some wildflowers, such as Hardheads), which has been ‘shut up’ since the Spring to allow it to grow tall, must be cut. This usually happens sometime between midsummer and the beginning of August; exactly when you decide to cut may be down to several different factors but the timing, ideally when several dry and sunny days are forecast, is critical to the nutritional quality of the hay. Cut too late (especially in a beautiful hot summer like we’ve had this year) and it will be little more than desiccated chewy stalks more appropriate for bedding than food. Cutting it too green will result in its needing more turning to dry it out which again decreases the nutritional quality, and the longer it is sitting out in the field after cutting the greater the chance of a rain shower to require even more handling and increasing the risk of mould.
Historically, hay was mown using the English Scythe, and I spent a day along with the rest of the Farm Team being trained in the use of this graceful implement and it’s close Continental cousin, the much lighter Austrian Scythe. To start with, we learnt a little of the historical changes in English Scythe production, particularly how advances in factory steel-making affected the shape and robustness of the blade. After we were shown how to adjust and set up each scythe to our individual proportions to enable comfortable and safe use and had had a lesson in technique, we were let loose onto the tall grass in Grey’s Field.
‘Farm Team Volunteers Scythe Training Day, July 2016 (Lyndsey using English Scythe, left; Penny using Austrian Scythe, right)’.
In Victorian times, a gang of men would carry out this task, one man following on in a line adjacent to the next, once the latter had got far enough in front that the swinging arc of his sharp blade would be a safe distance away. The traditional song ‘One Man Went To Mow’ apparently gives approximately the right timing for the start of each man in the gang: the leader starts off on “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow…” with the second following at the start of the second verse (“two men went to mow…”) and so on. (Though quite what the dog – Spot – did, I am still unclear!).
Just as in much else when it comes to traditional farming methods, to mow effectively using a scythe the devil seems to appear in the detail. The idea is to lean slightly forward from the hips, swinging the blade in an arc through 180o from one side of the body to another and slicing through the grass stems as low down as possible, rocking gently from foot to foot to creep steadily forward. The trick to graceful and seemingly effortless mowing (which is much harder, and a great deal more effort, than it looks!) is in working with the weight of the tool, using the swinging action to help cut the crop and carry the blade back to start the next arc. Another critical lesson was in maintaining the level of the blade across the length of the arc to prevent it either from raising up too high or otherwise from digging into the ground – not only potentially dangerous but a sure way to quickly blunt the blade!
Dry evenly under a warm sun, turning once or twice a day.
Once it is cut and lying in rows called ‘windrows’, the drying grass must be turned regularly to ensure it is drying evenly and not fermenting underneath. In the past, this was all done using pitchforks. The invention of the horse-drawn hay turner in the nineteenth century speeded up the process somewhat although it must have been a ridiculous sight when it first arrived in the fields, as in action it looks something like a giant insect running along behind the horse, flinging hay high in the air as it goes as if searching crazily for some special treasure! I was lucky enough to take a turn at driving Joshua, one of our Shire horses, with this rather unique machine, under the guidance of chief horseman Robert MacKenzie.
‘Lyndsey driving Joshua & the Hay Turner, August 2016’.
Josh pushed strongly into his harness as we started across the windrows at a smart pace; sitting high up almost level with his rump I had a good view across the field and the many Red Kites keeping a watchful eye for any unlucky rodents displaced by all the activity. I didn’t have much time for wildlife spotting however, as trying to keep Josh and the Hay Turner as straight along the windrows as possible and at a sensible speed for the implement took most of my concentration. Any spare attention was needed for maintaining my balance on the iron seat perched on top of the shaking, rattling, clattering, rather bouncy machine!
A familiar site in the fields of the past whenever rain was a possibility were ‘haycocks’. The grass-becoming-hay was piled up into egg-shaped mounds which allowed the water to run off, keeping most of the precious crop dry (a little bit like miniature hay ricks). In the morning, the hay was once more spread out in rows, to carry on the curing and drying process. Observing how the shapes of the ephemeral haycocks endlessly alter as the grass stalks settle against each other and the top layers are moved around by the breeze, seemed to me to reflect the subtle shifts that constantly occur in the landscape. I found the process of building a haycock also particularly meditative, the craftsmanship required focusing my attention in a very ‘mindful’ way.
Load loose hay, or gather and bind in small bales; best stored in a rick for use as required.
Once the hay is made, today we use machines to bale it up into manageable chunks. Historically however, it would have been pitchforked up loose onto waggons and carted to the rickyard where it was taken off the waggon again and built up in layers to create a ‘hay rick’. During the nineteenth century these large, almost house-shaped structures would have been a notable feature of the rural landscape, lined up along field edges through the autumn and winter months. A large, sharp implement called a ‘hay knife’ was used to cut off large slices as and when it was needed to be fed to livestock and the working horses.
We spend a few days loading bales onto trailers, using the Ferguson tractor or one of our other vehicles to take them round to the top of one of the arable fields, behind Skipping’s Field hedge. Here, they were unloaded and built into a big rectangular bale rick. Once again, there is an art to this, ensuring that the bales are arranged so that they tie each other in (a bit like ‘Sticky Bricks’, if you remember these awesome children’s toys!) maintaining the integrity of the stack as it gets higher and higher, and overlapping the edges and angling the peak to maximise rain runoff and keep the rick dry. The finished structure is about 4m high by 8m long by 5m deep and contains nearly 600 bales of hay, to help keep our hungry sheep, cows, horses and goats fed over the coming months.
‘Loading small hay bales with the Ferguson tractor and trailer’.
Written by Lyndsey Rule, Heritage Lottery Funded Site and Farm Trainee
Right back at the beginning of April, I helped sow a crop of rye on two acres of our arable fields, which had been ploughed over the winter. We sowed the seed using our Monarch Corn Drill, made by L.R. Knapp & Co in the 1920s. Although originally it was designed to be drawn by two horses, the corn drill has since been converted for use with a tractor, as many implements were, and we used our little 1950s Ferguson to pull it.
Conway and Lyndsey drilling a rye crop using the corn drill and Ferguson tractor, 1st April.
The corn drill is essentially a long thin box, with small holes cut at regular intervals in the bottom into which the seed falls due to the movement of the drill. Below each hole, a chute guides seeds down into a shallow furrow in the soil, which is cut by the coulter attached at the bottom of each chute. We pulled a chain harrow behind the drill to lightly cover over the seed. The invention of the horse-drawn corn drill in English agriculture by Jethro Tull in the 1700s made a huge difference to the amount that could be sown efficiently, with much greater control over rates and consistency. It also enabled advances in weed control, as sowing in rows allowed for easier management of hoeing and the development of further horse-drawn devices. Before then, seed was either broadcast by hand or using a seed fiddle to scatter the crop rather randomly across the field. In the photo you can see that the newly-germinated rye is growing in rows.
The new crop – the drilled rye germinating at the end of April on the flinty chalk Chiltern soil
Before we got as far as sowing however, we had to winnow (or raddle) the seed. This means cleaning the chaff and straw and bits of thistle out so that you are left with clean seed, and was achieved by agitating a flat sieve held at an angle over a bucket or wheelbarrow. The seed falls through the sieve into the barrow and the rubbish either blows away or can be brushed off onto the ground. Cleaning the seed like this means it will be sown more evenly across the field and is less likely to clog up the drill. It also means that you can measure out a more accurate seed rate; we sowed one and a half bushels of cleaned seed to the acre.
Our Farm Manager, Conway Rowland, drove the Fergie, while my job was to ride on the drill and check that the seed was flowing evenly down each of the twelve chutes and to free any blockages (using a stick or a long-handled screwdriver), that the chutes remained attached to the coulters and that the coulter pegs, which allow the drill greater flexibility over rough ground, didn’t break. As well as this, I kept half an eye on the harrow being pulled behind to make sure it wasn’t getting too choked up with any debris. It was a very exhilarating experience: the combined clattering of the three pieces of machinery (tractor, corn drill and harrows) over the flinty Chiltern soil was very noisy and I had to keep at least one hand holding on tight in case of a sudden lurch over a particularly uneven patch. The noise and movement combined with having so many things to focus on doing was absorbing and I felt as though I was part of one big machine.
Lyndsey sowing a mixed grass forage ley using the shandybarrow
A fortnight later, we used the shandybarrow to sow a grass and clover forage mix under two acres of rye that had been sown before Christmas (which we will use to thatch the hay rick in the farmyard). The shandybarrow, which can be seen in action in the photo below, is a simpler version of the corn drill. It is a similar long (ours is 12 foot), narrow seed box, with holes in at regular intervals for the seed to fall out on the ground. A little metal plate which can be moved across each hole to different degrees allows some control over how many seeds fall out at a time. This box sits on what is essentially a wheelbarrow frame and the whole thing is pushed by hand. We sowed 7 gallons of the ley seed to the acre. It was rather hard work pushing the ‘barrow backwards and forwards across the field – especially up the steep hill behind the Iron Age house! I had to keep an eye on heading towards the point on the headland, which we’d measured out to the middle of the ‘barrow, in order to keep a straight(ish) line. When I got there, I turned the shandybarrow (making sure I didn’t clout the hedge with one end!), to start at the next point already measured out one ‘barrow’s width along, and set off again, back across the field. But it was a lot quieter than sowing with the tractor and corn drill, and although I still had to concentrate hard, I was more in control of the pace and able to notice the sound of a skylark singing across the valley and a robin watching me from the hedge behind Haddenham Croft Cottage. Since it was sown in April, this ley has been establishing under the growing rye crop, helping to compete with and keep down weeds. Once the rye has been harvested in the next few weeks, this forage ley will be able to grow up quickly and can be used for grazing in the autumn when other grass is becoming scarce to find.
In the Chilterns an historical practice as part of the mixed farm system was the folding of sheep on arable land, to provide a good source of grazing for the sheep (often over the winter) while fertilising the ground with manure, improving it for the next crop at the same time. Since the end of May, we have been grazing some our sheep on the two acres of rye that we sowed with the corn drill. Originally, folding would have been using wooden hurdles: the flock would have been penned tightly over a small area and moved onto a new patch the following day. The Oxford Down breed was developed especially to cope with living in these close-knit conditions and to do well on the thin chalky soils of the Chilterns. However, due to the huge amount of manpower which was required in the historical practice to move tens of hurdles every day, we have used rather more modern electric fencing to open up the next strip of the tasty, ungrazed crop to the flock each day.
Folding Oxford Down sheep on young rye in June.
By Lyndsey Rule
HLF Site and Farm Trainee at Chiltern Open Air Museum
We were overwhelmed with the support that we received during our social media campaign to find us a WWI Nissen Hut. Infact we found 2! We’re in the process of seeking funds to re-erect our newest additions, which we hope to rebuild and interpret respectively as a WWI Nissen Hut and WWII-style NAAFI during the next two years. Our mission is to rescue and re-erect threatened buildings, and each one is meticulously photographed and documented before being carefully transported here to the heart of the Chilterns, repaired, and re-erected. The new Nissen Hut will primarily be used as a much-needed education space for schools and the local community, and will have a WWI theme to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. The first of the two Nissen Huts has now been moved to the Museum and the buildings team are busy evaluating and planning the work that needs to be done on it so that it can be rebuilt at the Museum.
Our Heritage Lottery Buildings Trainee Sam Rowland-Simms tells us a bit more about Nissen Huts and the process the buildings team are going through in order to rebuild them at the Museum.
Rebuilding a Nissen Hut
The Nissen hut is an iconic building design, famed for its simple and versatile structure, made up of a series of curved metal ribs and covered in sheets of corrugated iron or steel. You might then imagine that it would be a simple job to re-erect one but, oh, you would be very wrong.
Picture above is of a WWI Nissen Hut courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
That said, right from the outset it would seem we have been intent on making it as difficult as possible for ourselves! Firstly we decided to opt for an early WWI design, to coincide with the centenary of the war, rather than a later WWII design. The difference being that the WWI design is semi-circular in profile while the later designs had a curved profile that extended past a semi-circle. The ribs we got hold of, though, are of the WWII variety so will need to be cut down to the right size. They will also need to have new holes drilled for the 135 hook bolts that attach the ribs to the purlins, that Museum blacksmith Brian has lovingly made.
A second issue is that the ribs of the WW1 design are of a smaller radius. Rather than re-bend our ribs, we have adapted the drawings for the larger radius and from this created a new list of materials that we will need.
Picture above shows the component parts of the Nissen Hut that we hope to soon have. Pictures courtesy of the Imperial World War Museum.
Only when we have the materials list and new adapted drawings, can we start putting the hut together. Tasks to carry out include building the brick piers, erecting the ribs and bolting on the purlins and sheeting, cutting and fixing into place all the timber parts including the floor panels and the interior cladding and making new doors and windows.
So all in all not a simple job, but also one, through our own meddling, we haven’t made any easier!
Sam Rowland-Simms HLF Buildings Trainee
If you would like to make a donation towards rebuilding our Nissen Hut you can do so by clicking the donate button on the right hand side or by contacting Richard Berman firstname.lastname@example.org 01494 871 117.
I have been fortunate enough to recently attend two timber framing courses. The first was at the Weald and Downland museum in West Sussex. It dealt with the primary timbers of a green oak timber frame, using historic methods and tools to mark out, cut and fit the timbers. The essential tools for creating the joints were the chisel, mallet, saw and T-auger.
On the second course, near Datchworth Hertfordshire, started on the construction of a three-bay barn, made of Elm from the local area, to show that this type of timber is worth still looking into despite Dutch Elms disease. Although we didn’t just use traditional tools on this project (it was refreshing to have a tape measure again!), the techniques employed were very similar and the principles were the same.
On both courses we dealt with one frame at a time, either a cross-frame that goes across the building or a side-frame that goes along, the timbers of which would be laid out horizontally on saw-horses to be worked on. Certain timbers like the posts and tie beams would be in both layouts. These are called the primary timbers and because they need to be correct in two planes they are the most important to get right.
The main type of joint used was the mortice and tenon joint – the protruding tenon slotting into the chiselled out mortice. It is useful here to be aware of the most important areas of the joint. The end of the tenon for example is not the most crucial part of the joint. It will be concealed in the mortice and isn’t supporting any weight. So as long as the length and thickness is about right, you needn’t get too hung up on the aesthetics of it. Though that’s not me making an excuse for lazy workmanship!
On the other hand, the shoulders of the tenon, the areas either side of the protruding part, will be taking the load and visible from the outside. It is therefore really important these surfaces are flat and level and well worth taking a bit of time over. You are rewarded for your careful chiselling and cutting with a satisfying thud when two well-fitting members slot together.
Tightly fitting joint being pulled together by a pin
The mortice and tenon are then secured together with an oak peg being driven through. Here a clever technique called draw-boring is used to make a nice tight fit. Rather than making one long aligned peg-hole through both the mortice and the tenon, the peg hole through the tenon is offset by the width of a pound coin in the direction of the shoulders, relative to the mortice. When the peg is driven in, it has to bend in order to pass through and this pulls the mortice and tenon together. You can do this by eye, marking out the centre of the hole on the tenon and then offsetting it, or you can use the wonderfully named offset-pricker, a tool made for the job. Seeing them pull together when a pin is put through is almost as satisfying as the initial thud.
Me and the green oak frame (primary timbers completed) at the Weald and Downland Museum
The completed Elm Barn Cross Frame 1 laid out in the sun
Currently grazing on the green outside Leagrave Cottages can be seen a contented flock of Oxford Down sheep. These are the lambs born last year, now looking quite grown up.
I am quickly learning the amount of effort that goes into such a peaceful, quintessentially English scene! Some of the tasks I have helped with so far include twice-daily feeding, moving hay bales from the farmyard up to the main sheep fields every week, and separating the pregnant ewes away from the others out into the Cherry Orchard, to make it easier to increase their food – unborn lambs do a lot of growing in the last six weeks before birth and it’s important to keep up the condition of the ewes as much as possible prior to lambing.
One of the bigger jobs we have carried out this month in readiness for the new lambing season was to move the Lambing Fold, from where it has been down by the Prefab to a new position in the field behind Rossway Granary. Historically used as part of a traditional ‘fold’ system – where sheep were kept in a series of temporary pens and grazed on arable crops as part of a rotation, helping to manure the fields as they did so – the Lambing Fold is essentially a yard with small enclosures around two sides. The pregnant ewes are brought down to the yard area when close to lambing and any that give birth are moved into one of the pens. These ‘mothering pens’ provide the newborn lambs shelter for their first few days to help them build up strength, and a safe space to allow mother and lamb to bond so that they can find each other again when let out with the rest of the flock. As well as providing protection from the elements, the Lambing Fold enables the shepherd to keep a closer eye on things and deal more comfortably and quickly with any difficulties when they arise.
The Lambing Fold here at COAM is essentially a timber frame, roofed with thatched wooden hurdles. It is moved every two years to avoid a build-up of parasites and diseases, which could be disastrous to a new-born lamb. With the roof hurdles removed, the timber frames for each section of pens could be dug up and rolled one at a time onto a trailer, taken to the new site and rolled back off the trailer. Once each section had been moved into its new position, it was dug in to provide a good foundation, and then attached to its neighbours.
Next we had to get the roof hurdles back up and tied into position on the roof; this was a mucky job as some of the hurdles still had patches of the old, rotting, straw thatch on – slimy! Once the frame was secure, we could get out the ladders and start thatching with straw to make a good, waterproof roof.
Using a rough long-straw thatching technique which feels essentially like sewing bundles of straw in rows on to the hurdles, this is a lovely job when the sun’s shining, up on the roof with views across the farm and valley below. Before lambing is due to start we will finish the structure off with a thick wall made of hurdles and straw to keep out those chilly April winds.
Hello, my name is Sam and I’m the new Heritage Lottery Fund Buildings Trainee and will be assisting John, Buildings Manager and the buildings volunteers in maintaining the buildings on site. I’ll be taking over from Kirsty and I’ve been fortunate to have her insight and advice on getting the most out of the traineeship, as well as someone to double-check volunteer, staff and building names with, with so many to learn! I’ve felt really welcomed by everyone, staff and volunteers alike, and I’m excited now to have started and to be out using my hands on site.
The first job I assisted with was on the Iron Age roundhouse floor. The floor was previously made with flint cobbles that had suffered at the hands (and feet) of many school children. Originally the plan was to bed the flints in chalk but, having seen how solid the chalk became after it was compacted down with the hulking vibe-roller, we decided to just use chalk. Hopefully this will prove more resilient – we will see!
Following this, we set about repairing the daub wall, fire-pit and ‘fridge’ and reconstructing the bread oven. Using a large wooden mixing box we mixed a lovely blend of clay-earth, straw and manure with forks and feet. We soon found there is in fact an art to this – the manure needs to be mixed thoroughly with the earth to break it up before adding the straw, and you only want it to be as wet as necessary for mixing, to minimise cracking when the daub is drying out. John demonstrated that there is even a correct stamping method, twisting your feet as you stamp down making it into an Iron Age workout! When it came to using the daub, the general technique was to roll a handful of the daub mix into a ball or sausage (depending on the situation), lightly wet the area you wish to apply it to and not be too tentative when putting it in, to ensure you get a good stick. In fact, if your aim is good, throw it on! After that you can sculpt the daub into position with your hand. It was good fun and strangely quite therapeutic.
There have been a number of other jobs undertaken in my first month but that’s enough for my first blog post! Thanks again to everyone at COAM for the warm welcome I’ve received. If I haven’t yet met you, feel free to say hello.