Category Archives: Heritage Lottery Funded Trainees

  • -

Building the WW1 Nissen Hut

At the start of my last blog, I remarked on the three whole months that had passed since I last wrote something for our website. That blog was written in the early months of this year and published in March. That was six months ago – I appear to be getting worse!

Anyhow, moving swiftly on from my optimistically overestimated number of blog posts, to what the Buildings Team have been getting on with this year, and what I, the Buildings Trainee have been doing to get in the way. Since March, I have unfortunately had a significant amount of time away from the museum due to ill health, however since being back I am hoping to make up for the time that I missed.

The woodcarver, Colin, who I had hoped to meet earlier this year, kindly let me into his workshop last week for an initial visit. During our meeting, he showed me around the studio, introducing me to the projects that he and his team were part way through and also took me out on site for a quick tour around his current live project. As it was only the initial meeting I unfortunately don’t have any photographs to share, but if you are interested in the work of an extraordinary local woodcarver, check out the website www.lillyfee.co.uk

As it was my intention at the end of the last blog to explore the decorative side of conservation work, I have joined Colin and his team on one of their evening woodcarving courses with the intention of following up with some work experience.

Although it doesn’t look like much, this piece is the result of the first hour and a bit working with chisels in an official woodcarving capacity. There is a lot of refining to do, however I’m pretty pleased with the outcome so far…it looks pretty much how it’s supposed to!

Also planned for this year was starting the elm barn in Tewin, using the timber collected from the woods in December. I attended a course, coincidentally alongside previous HLF Building Trainee Sam Rowland-Simms, and had an amazing time putting in to practice some of my slightly rusty framing skills. Lots of photos were taken over the frantic week working among the sprightly Spring lambs in the scorching* sun and the following snow. I also had the opportunity to re-join the course leaders, including Sam, for two days the following week. We spent those two days going over the previous weeks work, correcting any minor issues and starting the remaining cross frames.
*mildly warm, but enough for no sleeves.

I had hoped to return to Tewin to continue assisting with the construction over the summer months, however my illness put the kibosh on that. The barn has since been raised and looks spectacular in the September sunshine. Hopefully, I will be well enough to return to help with the cladding, tiling of the roof etc.

Returning somewhat closer to home, the Nissen Hut project is well under way and construction has commenced. The panels which John, myself and the volunteers have been putting together since the end of last year have started to piece together like a jigsaw…ish.

With each passing day, the Hut has grown in some way or another. This is my first build with the Museum and has been so incredibly exciting to be a part of.

End of day one

Day two

Day three

Day four

Day five

It was also this day that I decided to treat the volunteers…to a table during break for the paper cups of tea. I do know how to spoil the team!

Day six

Day seven

Day eight

Part of the Hut build that I have had more involvement in is the linen windows. We knew from various records that these would contribute to the most accurate representation of the hut, yet none of us were 100% sure on how to do it. So after I researched oiled linen and oilcloth and determined what was useful for this project, the boss and I had a go at making windows.

This image shows the difference in the linen after one coat of a 50% boiled linseed oil and 50% white spirit mixture.

These images show the difference in transparency after two coats of the same mix.

After quite a while drying, the windows were then fitted just in time for out Meet the Tommies event weekend in September at the Museum.

Conclusion of the oilcloth window experiment is that it worked pretty well and lets in a surprising amount of light to the hut. Notes for replacement windows: make the canvas tighter as windows shouldn’t billow!

For the foreseeable future, completing the Nissen Hut will be our primary focus, with urgent maintenance and repairs fitting in as and when they arise.

The woodcarving course continues in to December, so I shall update you with my progress around Christmas time…no idea which Christmas it will be though.

Written by Jess Eyre
HLF Buildings Trainee


  • -

A Buildings Team update

When I started at the museum, I had hoped to write a blog every month or so to let you all know what I/we were up to. This was seemingly quite optimistic as it has been about three months since my last post!

Here is a little bit of what I have been up to recently and since my last update…

Previously, I told you all about the doors to our Edwardian public conveniences, Caversham. These have since been fitted and I have encouraged all of the volunteers to go and gaze over the fabulous paint job. I don’t think they have gazed quite as I had imagined, but the doors are in, they work…mostly…and the rest of Caversham is hopefully going to get a new coat of paint later this spring.

I have also gone and completed my Asbestos Awareness training. This will prove to be invaluable when working with our old buildings, and also after I leave the museum, as asbestos was such a widely used material in pre-1919 buildings and continued to be used in construction up until the end of 1999.

Chapel Studio:

Since starting at the museum I have put some thought in to what I want out of my time here and what I have to offer the team. Having been very focused on more of the structural side of heritage buildings, I decided to take a look at some of the decorative disciplines within the industry.

From the end of November, and every Tuesday for the following 3 weeks, I spent the day with the team at Chapel Studio in Hunton Bridge. From my first day I was well looked after, fed chocolate whilst listening to Christmas songs, and introduced to the techniques and methodology used in making stained/leaded glass windows.

To start with I was offered the use of the clear glass. Given the prices of some of the coloured pieces, I was more than happy to stay away from those for a bit!

Step one was to create a template. I was advised to include both straight lines and curved lines to get used to using the cutters and this is the product of that lesson.

I had to amend the initial design slightly as I had neglected to take the thickness of the lead into consideration.

Step two was to select my glass and cut it. Although all of the glass I chose was clear and not coloured, I spent time choosing different thicknesses and textures. I ended up with a piece of frosted glass, some thick, modern, flat glass with a green edge, pieces with an embossed pattern on one side, and some very thin, delicate fragments with small air bubbles in.

After cutting the glass, the third step was to start leading the lights. This was a bit trickier than I had imagined and really showed the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of my cutting skills.

Once the lead had been fitted to the glass, and I was happy that it represented the template precisely, they were soldered in to place. This, obviously, is a vital part to get right as the risk is of the panel falling to bits under its own weight. I’m proud to say that this was executed almost perfectly! Although they could all have done it a lot quicker than me.

After four days with the team, this was my finished product. I am very pleased with how it turned out and especially how much I leaned in those few days. The very specific and different stages that make up a leaded glass panel was interesting to discover and the labour that is required to make from new but also restore existing windows was not something I had really appreciated. At some point soon I hope to return to learn some more about the techniques and methods used for painting the details on to glass panels.

Elm Barn:

Just after my final day at the studio in Hunton Bridge, I returned to the more structural side of heritage buildings and made my way to a woodland just to the South of Cambridge. Here I helped a team of four collect the last few elm logs for the building of a timber barn. This was hard work to say the least and I was grateful for the buckets of tea that were supplied.

After a morning collecting timber, we headed back towards Welwyn Garden City where the brick plinth for the barn was in the final stages. Here our logs were added to the huge piles of previously acquired elm and larger pieces of oak, all of which are to be converted towards the end of February for use building the barn.

The main reason for my attendance here was to have a go at bricklaying and help with the brick plinth. I laid a few bricks while I was there and some of the other members of the team continued to mix lime while the sun set.

Nissen Hut:

Here at the museum, we have continued to make some headway with our current project, the new Nissen Hut.

Before Christmas the templates for our panels were being made in the workshop, and this year already we have stormed through 11 of the 16 floor panels. As with some of the previous projects, I have enjoyed drawing pictures on our whiteboard to try and keep all of the volunteers up to speed with the current part of the project. Here is my attempt at illustrating the many components of the floor panels…there is quite a lot missing still but I ran out of space.

Each semi-circular end of the hut is made up of five main sections: the central part of which contains the door, the sections containing the windows which flank the door, and the smaller panels on the outside edge. These outside edge panels, four all together, have now been completed.

For the 16 floor panels, each of them over 8’ long and over 4’ wide, we have had to individually prepare each floorboard. By this I mean we have had to:

  1. Remove excess sawdust, residue and resin from both sides – this can affect the machinery that we send the boards through and also give inaccurate readings for measurements if not removed.
  2. Check that each board is over 1” thick along the majority of the length – as the boards need to have a smooth, planed side, they need to be over an inch so that they can be planed to the same thickness.
  3. Cut each board to 5¾”wide – each panel consists of nine boards, 8 of which are this width.
  4. Check the grain for direction of cupping and determine the topside of each board – the boards are being placed on the panels so that any distortion lifts in the centre, rather than at the edges.
  5. Send the board through the planer/thicknesser, topside up – this gives a smooth top surface and makes all the boards the same/correct thickness.
  6. Create the tongue and groove – this entails sending the boards through the machine three times.
  7. Fit the boards to the panels.

For the 16 panels, this process has to be completed for each of the 144 floorboards!

Once the floor panels are finished, there are six more panels for the end walls to be completed, the ribs still need to be modified, the brick piers have to be built, and quite a few more bits and pieces….more to follow in later updates.

Over the next couple of months, I hope to explore the decorative side slightly more by visiting a local wood carver. I have also booked a week to help construct the elm barn by Welwyn Garden City, and I am looking at further framing courses at the Weald & Downland museum to broaden my understanding. The Nissen Hut is due to be finished and opened this year so I will be continuing to help with that along with the scheduled maintenance on the other buildings.

Hopefully, in there somewhere, I can get back to send you all another update of where we’re at…

Written by Jess Eyre
HLF Buildings Trainee


  • -

Tractors, Tractors and Tractors

As you may have guessed from the blogs title, there is something I have become very fond of whilst being here at COAM……. TRACTORS!

Having very limited experience on tractors, but a keen interest since from when I can remember, I made a tractor driving course high on my priority. I attended a two day course at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester were I obtained my tractor driving and machine handing certificate. With my main interest in tractors of an older generation I was much unprepared when meeting what I thought was nothing short of a spaceship.

Fortunately my instructor on the course was also interested in older tractors and would often refer to them during the training. Over the two days I was able to understand the controls needed for most jobs from simple driving to using powered implements on the PTO (power take off).

Since then I have been very fortunate to use my skills during the process of planting of this year’s wheat. I was able to use a harrow after it had been ploughed, which is essentially breaking the bigger clods of soil into smaller ones. I was then able to harrow after the wheat had been sown to disperse and bury it and then roll it to complete the process.

A personal favourite of mine is the Fergusson TE35 we have on site. A brilliant little tractor and a real classic example of extraordinary agricultural engineering of times gone by.

A new additional to the farms supply of work horses is on the small size, in the shape of a Kubota B1620 which at its rather “cute”, size its ideal for jobs like getting through the woodlands narrow paths and transporting fire wood. A handy extra is the tipping trailer which we brought with it, meaning we can load and tip all sorts of things from brushwood to gravel.

I really do appreciate how vital a tractor is to running a farm, especially when seeing Rob working the heavy horses on site. It’s a reminder of the extraordinary extra amount of work that was involved before the introduction of tractors.

Written by Josh Hayes
HLF Farm and Site Trainee


  • -

Introduction

Jess-300pxAllow me to introduce myself, I am Jess, the third and final Heritage Lottery Funded Buildings Trainee to walk through the COAM gates.

I am only about a month into my Traineeship, so have almost the full 18 months to look forward to and I’m excited at the prospect of what I will learn in that time. In these first few weeks, while I find my feet, I am under the watchful eye and expert tutelage of the Buildings Manager, John. He and the Buildings Team volunteers have all made me feel very welcome and been very patient with me.

As this is my first blog post, I will let you know a bit about me as well as what I’ve been doing on site these past few weeks.

Firstly, I’ve moved down from Milton Keynes to begin this traineeship. Not too far in terms of distance, but I do feel a long way from the grid system and concrete cows at times.

My previous relevant building experience includes six months spent at the Tywi Centre, South Wales in 2015, where I learnt basic carpentry, lime plastering/rendering/science, and dry stone walling. I found during this time that I was particularly keen on working with timber and subsequently took myself on multiple framing courses, which I loved and which taught me so much about the possibilities of working with this material. I have also undertaken brief introductions to blacksmithing and other metal work/welding, although these further confirmed my interest in timber and trees.

Tool-cupboard-shadow-board-400px

After moving back to MK slightly earlier than planned, I found historical building work pretty thin on the ground for my basic skill level. As a result, and in an attempt to keep up to speed with the industry, I started an MSc in Historic Conservation. This has been put on hold whilst I complete my training here and I will resume immediately after completion in January 2019. So a busy couple of years ahead!

 

Getting back to the work here at COAM, there have been a few little projects on the go, including a general workshop tidy. It was here that I put my hard earned Fine Art degree to good use with the creation of a rather spiffing shadow board!

The Buildings Team have also been busy covering the rest of the workshop in Glory Mill with tarpaulin. Glory Mill is a Museum building used as a workshop and as a storage facility for the collection of historic buildings that are waiting to be reconstructed at the Museum. There are about 15 buildings stored flat pack style all waiting for funds so that they can be reconstructed on the Museum site.

Stacks-covered-in-Glory-Mill-600px

This tarp is to protect the contents of our Aladdin’s Cave from the effects and over-spill of spray-on foam insulation. The front of the workshop has already been treated by my predecessor Sam, John, and some volunteers, and the rest is penciled in for very soon.

Glory-Mill-internal-ceiling-300px

I’ve taken a photo, for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, of the line in the ceiling where the existing foam meets the bare corrugated ceiling.

In other news, I have also made a small wooden box which has been used to house an external RCD socket. I have taken an exciting number of photos of the building process as it was my very first project…

 

 

 

Box-7Box-17

 

Box-22-320px

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…if you’re still here, thank you for taking the time to read my first blog. If you’re on site and see me around, pop over and say hello (the orange hair means you can’t miss me!) and I look forward to showing you lots of photos again next time.

Save

Save

Save

Save


  • -

New 2017 Farm and Site Trainee

Hi my name is Josh and I’m the new farm and site trainee. I am coming to the end of my first month at COAM and what a month it’s been. Over the past two years I’ve been studying a countryside management course which focused on wildlife and conservation, but I always have had a passion for agriculture specifically livestock which I’m really looking to get stuck into and hopefully learn as much as I can about. This picture to the below shows me with one of our resident rams, Darrell who is the father of this year’s lambs and a favourite of mine. In the future I would love to work with sheep and from the traineeship I hope to gain the skills to be able to do this.

Josh-and-lamb-COAMAnother side of farming which I have had a chance to have a go at is the hay making process. The picture to the below shows me in the process of making a haycock which are made in order to create an egg like shape which will protect most the hay from bad weather or even morning dew. Having done nothing with arable farming before this was a new for me and was quite an experience as it was a blisteringly hot day.

Josh-hay-making-COAM

Something which has been one of my highlights of the month is being able to make two hurdles as shown in the picture. I have been involved with greenwood craft for just over two years now and so I know some basics but I had not made a hurdle before. These are used on the farm exactly the same as modern metal hurdles to pen up sheep when we want to do something with them, for example when we put them in the foot bath. They were traditionally used in the process of folding sheep which meant a shepherd could move his flock to different sections of fields along with his shepherd van.

Hurdle-COAM

Overall my first month at COAM has been brilliant and I’m very excited to see what I will learn throughout my 18 months.

Save

Save


  • -

Heritage Building Trainee 2016 – 17 reflections

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.

building a wychert wall

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.

slip-tenon-600px

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.

Sam Rowland-Simms
HLF Heritage Building Trainee

Save


  • -

The Art of Yealming

Master thatchers at COAM

The Art of Yealming

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.

The art of yealming

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.

Bundle of Yealm

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

Save

Save

Save


  • -

How to fold a cabin

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

New 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.

inside our new nissen hut

nisen hut frame

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.

Folding cabin

Here you can see the left and right sides and the central compartment into which everything folds up.

side of folding cabin

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…

Folding floor sign

 

 

The side walls swung in easily and the roof slowly lowered back down

the-floor-of-the-folding-cabin-600px

With the four lifting lugs revealed, next came the slightly daunting task of lifting the cabin.

Inside the folding 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!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save


  • -

Summer on the COAM Farm – harvesting rye

harvesting rye

“Harvest Home”

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.

Medieval labourers reaping crop

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.

mowing rye crop 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 at COAM

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 rye sheath at COAM

 Binding a rye sheaf, August 2016. (Photo by Daniel Romani).

Stooking

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.

building a field stack

Assisting with building a field stack in the field above the Iron Age House. September 2016

the finished field stack

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 onto the trailer

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!

threshing machine

 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!)

Written by HLF Site and Farm Trainee Lyndsey Rule

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save


  • -

The Art of Haymaking Part 1

July – August 2016

“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!

  1. 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.

mowing-training-COAM-600px

‘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!

  1. 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.

COAM-HLF-Rural-Heritage-Trainee-working-horse-drawn-hay-turner-600px

‘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.

haycocks-in-Gray's-Field-Jul16-2-600px

  1. 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-bales-on-trailer_July16-1-600px

‘Loading small hay bales with the Ferguson tractor and trailer’.

Written by Lyndsey Rule, Heritage Lottery Funded Site and Farm Trainee