Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Petrified Forest

David and I had heard of, but had never got round to visiting, the Petrified Oak Forest in Mundon, near Maldon, Essex, which is not so very far away from where we live.  As we're both fascinated by anything to do with trees, forests and woodland, we had to see for ourselves this unusual sight.  And now we've made our visit to the forest, I kind of think that we should have seen it in a storm, or on a darkening, winter afternoon, when the gnarled branches, like old men's fingers, cast long shadows over the ground...

But, instead, we visited on a bright, sunny morning in August.

The oaks are apparently centuries old - and they certainly look, now, as though they no longer belong in the landscape; as though the surrounding countryside is continuing a cycle of life without them.  But they haven't been abandoned altogether, because I've read that local wildlife, such as owls, can still be seen in and around the forest (I can just imagine visiting this place one late afternoon in winter, with owls hooting from the branches  - now that really would be a haunting experience).

The Domesday Book mentions an old settlement called Wringehala, which was once located around here.  But this has long since been lost.  Also lost is the old name for the hundred in this area: Wibrihtesherne.  The parishes in this area of the county are now part of the Dengie Hundred.

The Petrified Oak Forest looks out over the flat, open land that stretches down to the coast.  On its other side, stands the small, fourteenth century church of St Mary's.  This has been disused for decades, but has recently been restored and is now looked after by the Friends of Friendless Churches.  The church is open to visitors.

St Mary's Church, Mundon
The Petrified Forest and church are situated at the end of a country lane, but they can also be reached by walkers on St Peter's Way, a long distance footpath that runs across Essex, from Chipping Ongar to the remote, Saxon chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, at Bradwell-on-Sea.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Which Firewood is Best for Burning?

It probably seems a bit mad to think about winter firewood when the weather is still warm (and it's August) - but now is the time when we assess the wood we have for our winter fuel.  As David loves nearly all things wood and has worked with it for most of his life; we've made having a log fire a priority.  We have access to wood and we rely on it to save money on central heating, so we want to make sure that if the cold weather comes early, we've got our logs ready.

Our favourite woods for burning are hornbeam and sweet chestnut - they burn well and give out good heat.  Sweet chestnut can spit, although we do have a log burner, so that's not such a problem.  (Conifer, which is one of the woods easily available to us, also tends to spit - and it can soot up the chimney).

The following woods we use take a year to season (dry out) properly before they burn well:

Sweet Chestnut
Ash (This wood can actually be burned almost from felling, but it's better seasoned)

We also burn oak, but this takes a lot longer to season (up to two years).  We don't, by choice, use eucalyptus - because the grain is very twisted, it's difficult to split into logs. 

We store our logs under cover in a small barn (where we also store our straw and hay).  We divide the log piles into two; the first (and oldest) pile is for this winter, and the second is for next winter (2013/14).  The logs are raised off the ground (on pallets) and stacked so air can circulate freely around them.  Mouldy logs will not burn well!

Our wood store

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Trying out an Honesty Box

For the first time this year we've tried an honesty box outside the house to sell the produce from our smallholding and beehives.  I've heard from others that generally an honesty box works really well, and that only occasionally do people help themselves to the produce without paying.  So we decided to give it go, and see how we got on.

We built the honesty box ourselves.  It's designed to be permanent, not moveable, but it does open and close.  We also bought a little money box which is fixed down inside and is only revealed when the honesty box is open.  This has a key, so we unlock it when we want to get the money out at the end of the day.

When we first opened the box this spring, we sold daffodils, because we have dozens growing on the smallholding.  Since then, we've sold veggies and I'm now starting to put out this year's honey (although there isn't much of it yet).  The plan was also to put eggs out, but as we still only have three chickens and haven't re-stocked yet, we only have enough eggs for ourselves at the moment.  The produce we have put out has nearly always sold, and people mostly have lots of goodwill and leave money.  Occasionally, people have paid just a bit less, but at the same time, some people have been so generous that they pay more than the asking price (when they seem to have emptied out their pockets and put all their loose change into the box!)

The box is right next to where people walk, but cars can also pull up easily to it, which helps.  So far, I'm really encouraged by the response, so, at the moment, we'll definitely keep going with it.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Buzzards in Essex

The fields around the smallholding have all been cut now.  This year, the local landowner grew oil seed rape and wheat, and I know the contractors struggled at bit to gather it in because the ground was so wet.  A few days ago, when I walked across the footpath, I suddenly came across the combine harvester crouching in the corner of the field like some silent monster - and close to it were deep trenches where the wheels of the agricultural vehicles had got stuck in the mud.  Now the harvest is finished, there are still a few stubbon patches where the crop can't be gathered, but on the whole the fields are bare with just the stubble poking up from the soil.  The land is very open, and exposed.

This is not good news for the small creatures that've been using the crops as cover.  Suddenly, rabbits are dashing around everywhere.  And circling low overhead, are our new neighbourhood predators - the buzzards.  Only five or so years ago, it was very unusual to see a buzzard in this part of Essex, but now it's quite common to see them.  They sometimes fly low over the smallholding, and the geese and chickens, which are still getting used to them, know instinctively that they mean danger. The geese start cackling, and the chickens just freeze.   So I'm alerted to them as soon as they appear.

I find it impossible to get close enough for a good photo, though - their eyes are far too sharp!

So I wonder, now, if other predators will follow the buzzards return (such as red kites, for example.  There has already been the odd sighting of these birds locally). Sadly it's a different story altogether for the farmland birds such yellowhammers and skylarks. These are definitely in decline - and no wonder - because the hedgerows are still being pulled up in the local fields, and so their cover, and food, is being lost.  I can only imagine what it was like until a few decades ago, when the birdsong and sightings of these birds must have been amazing around here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Planting an Apple Orchard and Making a Cider Press.

Everything loves apples on our smallholding.  We eat them ourselves and the sheep, geese and chickens devour them.  We also throw some out for the blackbirds in winter - and at night different creatures come in to finish up the leftovers.  So it seemed obvious that we should plant some apple trees - both cookers and eaters - somewhere on the smallholding and it wasn't long before we got involved in planting an apple orchard. 

We didn't plant the orchard all at once; instead, we've planted trees over a number of years  (sometimes maybe two or three a winter).  We also decided early on that we wanted to have a go at producing cider, so we bought a variety of trees for a cider blend.  These included some traditional cider apple trees called Sweet Alford (I believe this variety originates from Devon in the 18th century).  To be honest, these trees aren't doing as well as some of the other trees; so our real blend will come not from cider apples, but from general cookers and eaters.

We searched for a cider press, but decided to save money by making one instead out of scrap. The press we made is in the photo below, and we've used it for two years now.  The main section of the press has been made from old oak fence posts, cut and planed into battens and two bands have been cut and bent from scrap metal.

Home made cider press (centre) and home made shaving horse (left)

The frame was built from some seasoned beech which was cut and planed.  The three large threaded rods and large nuts (which were left over from building the barn) apply pressure on the apples - and so squeeze out the juice.

We started to drink last year's cider this summer, and it's good, but we've decided we'd like it sweeter this year (David and I prefer sweeter drinks).  So I'm going to make it differently this autumn.  I also hope to make more apple juice (which was perfect last year - but there just wasn't enough of it).  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it will be a good apple year, but hopefully, in addition to our own crop, we can beg and barter enough apples from neighbours (in return for bottles of drink) to have a decent harvest.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Running our Land Rover on Waste Vegetable Oil

Six years ago David set up the Land Rover to run on used, waste vegetable oil.  It's greener and saves money.  Travelling behind the Land Rover is a bit like following a mobile chip shop, but that's a great improvement on the suffocating stench of diesel fumes. 

The Land Rover is a 1988 130 double cab tipper.  It now has two tanks to hold oil and diesel, because although it is running on oil it always starts on diesel until the engine reaches temperature.  When it does so (after about two miles), it switches to vegetable oil which it takes from the second tank.  It is then a simple case of switching back to diesel about two miles before getting home in the evening to make sure that the Land Rover starts after a cold night.  To date, the Land Rover has done over 90,000 miles on vegetable oil with no major problems.  The 300 TDI engine has done 251,000 miles.

Looking at the photo there is a heat exchanger to heat the vegetable oil which is connected into the heater pipes.  There is a three way solenoid valve wired to a switch on the dash.  The system is very simple and reliable and has been a success, saving money (about £200 a month). 

The heat exchanger can be seen at the top of the photo
and the solenoid valve is bottom left.

David gets the oil from two local cafes, and he has to produce a waste licence to collect it.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Dunmow Flitch Trials

As the distant thump of the V Festival reaches the house (and it's very hot, so the windows are open), I'm beginning to think that this event has probably now become a sort of local tradition. And we don't really have many of those in this part of the country, except there is one local tradition which has been around for centuries - the Dunmow Flitch Trials.  I went to the last trials held a few weeks ago on 14th July.

The jury of six maidens and six bachelors take the oath

The Flitch Trials are held every four years in Great Dunmow and I guess their real purpose is to celebrate marriage.  A flitch of bacon is awarded to married couples if they can satisfy a judge and jury (of six maidens and six bachelors) that in a twelvemonth and a day they have not wisht themselves unmarried again.  The trials appear to date back to the early medieval period and have always been well known (it is referred to in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, by the Wife of Bath, a champion of marriage who dragged five men to the church door and is now looking around for the sixth).

First couple take the oath
Although David and I couldn't stay all day at this year's trials, we enjoyed what we saw very much.  The trials were held in a marquee; participants competed a bit against the heavy rain drumming down outside and the noise from the Stansted flight path.  The rain also impacted on anything taking place outside, including the processions.  But it didn't really detract from the event, which was all good fun, light-hearted and well performed by judge, barristers and other "court officials".  Couples have to admit a certain amount of personal information to prove they're happily married and they then get gently teased about it.  In the historical records, the names of previous successful couples date back to the 1700s, but before then, tellingly, only the husbands' names are recorded.

The next trials will be in 2016.  The next V Festival will probably be this time next year!

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Wizard Wood Carving

In the centre of the new barn, we placed a large, yew trunk that we'd come across years ago.  At first, it stood like a central pillar, but now it has been set into a dividing wall with windows.

We always wanted the yew carved, and so when we met Simon, a woodcarver from Wales, at a local country show, we asked him to come and use his imagination on this piece of wood.  A few months later Simon arrived and assessed the shape of the trunk and began to carve using a chain saw.  And very quickly, a wizard's face began to emerge from the rich, red-brown of the yew's wood.

The wizard is stern-faced and fierce; his is linked to a folk tale about turning a princess (who disobeyed him) into an owl.  So the wizard just balances an owl on his fingers and they are both surrounded by flowers.  The wizard kind of acts, now, as the barn's watching spirit.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Building a Cruck Frame Essex Barn

When we bought the smallholding, we inherited a decades-old, corrugated iron barn.  This was almost falling down - and couldn't be secured in any way - and so we decided to replace it with a timber-frame Essex barn; something that would be carefully crafted and would feel very much part of the traditional landscape.

Removing the bark from the sweet chestnut poles
We wanted to build as much as we could ourselves - along with a carpentry business from the village - and to source as many materials we could locally.  So, to begin with, after we'd demolished the old barn and put down a concrete base, we hunted out and cut down some sweet chestnut trunks for the barn's timber fames (including the large "A" frames) from a local farm.  After a hairy journey transporting these through the village by tractor and trailer we had an even hairier afternoon lifting the trunks, as poles, into place with a few friends and a hoist.  The frames were 6 metres in height.

Raising the frames

Once the frames were in place, the carpenters arrived to put together the weather-board exterior (weather-boarding is a traditional feature of old barns and buildings in the Essex countryside) and we painted this black, with barn paint.

The barn doors go in
Inside we have a large area, open from floor to ceiling, and a galleried area.  We insulated the barn with straw and sheep's wool, because we wanted natural materials (although space is lost because of the bulk of straw bale insulation).

We had a debate about the floor under the galleried area and settled on red brick tiles.  It's tempting to have attractive looking materials that naturally belong to other parts of the country (like stone or slate) but red brick has been used historically in the south east (brick making used to take place just a short distance away in the village) and red brick tiles blend well with wood.  In the end, we went further afield - to the Weald in Sussex - to buy hand-made brick tiles.  They were reasonably priced and cost even less when we agreed to pick them up ourselves.  They're uneven (each brick is slightly different) and they're already weathering in to give the barn a traditional look.

The barn is painted

The barn is still far from completed, but the windows and doors are in, including the large, solid barn doors at the front.  The next task is finishing the floor in the galleried area.