Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Forgotten Place

Harry in the Lane
So the snow has melted; leaving little, fast-flowing streams and shallow pools of water on the smallholding and across the local countryside.  Everywhere is wet - and because I'm finding it hard work making my way across the sticky, heavy soil of the ploughed fields, I decide to walk my dog Harry along a local lane, which is muddy enough, but easier going.  It's also a fascinating walk, because this is a lane that had a purpose once, leading from one village to the next through a local hamlet, but which now leads to nowhere at all.  Instead, after a mile or so, a gate, fence and signs forbid the walker to go further, because there is a large reservoir ahead.  The distant fields - and the rest of the lane - are now under water.

The reservoir was created in the 1950's; a hamlet of farm houses and farm cottages was destroyed so that it could be built.  There is not, contrary to popular belief, a church with a ringing bell under the water, but there is a strangeness, almost an eeriness, about a community that has simply vanished. A sixteenth century manor house was also demolished; apparently it was a fine building with a great entrance hall, Elizabethan panelling lining the walls and huge fireplaces.  The grounds were said to be beautiful.  And it also had slightly notorious connections, as it was (supposedly) visited by the plotters of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 - and a later inhabitant was also suspected of plotting against a king (this time Charles II).

The Sixteenth Century Manor House Demolished for the Reservoir
I don't know how old my lost lane is; but I've found it on a map dated 1805.  I imagine that it once saw traffic passing backwards and forwards; from tramping, farm labourers to the motorcar.  Then, after the reservoir was built, it fell silent, with only the occasional walker or horse rider or wild animals, using this path.

At the entrance to the lane, there are three cottages and then a barred gate preventing vehicles from going further.  I happen to know something about these cottages because I know some of the people who once lived in them.  These cottages were all farm cottages until the late twentieth century.  I knew a man who was raised in one of them with his twelve brothers and sisters and as I walk by the cottage, I remember one of the stories he told me about his family.  It goes as follows: The ground behind his cottage was used for village fairs, and the highlight of these was a competition to climb a greasy pole to win a haunch of meat.  Visiting the fair one year was my story-teller's ancestor, who was a man with a reputation for using his fists too readily and so, because of this, he was forbidden to take part in the competition.  But he went ahead anyway, climbed the pole and won the meat, defying anyone and everyone to stop him claiming his prize.  Today, the fair is no longer held, and a private house now stands on the land.

Woods by the Lane
It's January, late winter, and the lane is not looking its best.  A landowner has recently flailed some of the hedges, so that they look broken and torn.  There is something a little sad about the lane at this time of year, which is so different to being here in spring and summer.  In June, honeysuckle weaves its way through areas of the hedge, and the scent is beautiful.  But the highlight of the year has to be late April, when I hear a nightingale singing from a patch of woodland by the side of the lane.  Whether the nightingale is passing through, or it stays, I don't know, but I always love to hear it.

There is wildlife here today; a flock of long tailed tits flit along the hedges beside me and a muntjac deer barks from the woods.  Another muntjac deer stares at me for a while from further ahead, before disappearing. I remember that I saw a hare in the lane a long time ago.  This countryside was once rich in hares, but many were lost before the reservoir flooded the land and I would be very surprised to see one in the lane again.

The Lane meets the Reservoir
As the lane meets the reservoir, I am amazed by the sight of a vast, new, reed bed area for natural recycling that has been constructed over the past year on agricultural fields.  But I soon realise that there has been little impact on the lane itself, because it isn't used to reach this development.  Instead, a shiny new access road enters the reed bed area from the other side.  So the lane remains silent, and in the summer, the reed beds will be hidden anyway behind trees and hedges.

I reach the end of the lane and the reservoir.  A skein of geese fly over my head and before me there are the sounds of birds calling and squabbling on the water.  New wildlife inhabits this area now.  In the last few decades, human intervention has completely transformed this landscape - and the story of this place with it.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Estimating the Ages of Our Oaks...and Making a Fine Oak Table out of Scrap Wood

Snow covering the local fields
The largest, sturdiest trees on our smallholding are the oaks.  In this snowy weather, they stand like white-cloaked guardians around the edge of the land, looking solid and permanent - and spreading out long branches that are loved by visiting birds and squirrels.  I've decided to discover the ages of the oaks standing closest to our new barn, and to do this, I've used the simple method of measuring their girths (following the Woodland Trust's guide).  The age of the tree is estimated by measuring the metres/centimetres of the girth (from about 1.5 metres from the ground).  I selected the two oaks nearest to the barn (I couldn't reach a third because of some holly at the trunk) and I estimated, using this method, that one is about 100 years old and the other is about 80 years old.  I wish I knew, now, the history of their growth.

We'll never cut these oaks down, but we do use and craft oak on the smallholding.  As well as smaller items like a bread board and a case for a clock, we've crafted an oak table out of off-cuts and scraps of oak accumulated over the years.  This has now been placed as the central feature in the barn's kitchen area.

Moving in the oak table made from off-cuts and waste timber
After designing how the table should look, we took the oak-timber to the carpenters in the village.  We know them well - so as a favour to us they put the timber through their saw and planing machines.  The timber was also shaped with a jigsaw and router, before it was assembled using clamps, glue and dowels.  The table legs were originally four (rescued) old oak fence posts, which were turned by a local wood turning company.

The table legs made from old fence posts
When the table was finished and placed in the barn, we sourced some cheap chairs on eBay.  As these were being sold about three miles away, they became a local purchase.  All in all, it's been satisfying to create the table (and acquire the chairs) for so little money - and using local wood and craftsmanship. The table and the chairs are now an important addition to the barn.

I hope the barn will stand, with the oaks, for many, many years to come.  The idea behind the barn has always been to merge it with the natural world; blending wood with wood.  I'm pleased we've achieved this; so many local, modern barns have been constructed quickly and are huge, ugly, metal buildings. Our aim has always been that our barn should have an organic feel, so that it becomes truly rooted in its local landscape.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Winter Colour

In these short, dark days of winter I've been searching for some colour in the landscape....and I've found some wonderful, striking flowers in bloom at this time of year.  I've included, here, a selection of the flowering shrubs that were a welcome sight on a dull, bleak January day.


Winter Jasmine



I'm now looking forward to the late winter/early spring flowers, including hellebores and primroses. And I'm especially looking forward to seeing the bees out flying on a mild day and settling on the snowdrops and crocuses, which are flowers that provide important, early-spring food for my colonies.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Midwinter in the Woods: More Logs....and Making a Long Seat from Hazel Coppice

Midwinter in the Woods
This midwinter, we've some seasonal, woodland work to do.  First of all, we're processing logs - and as we're now producing more logs for sale (as well as our own use) we've recently invested in a log splitter. Splitting logs by machine doesn't have the romantic image of cutting logs by axe, but it's a lot less hard work and it's quicker. 

After some research, we settled on a Balfor 11 ton PTO (power take off) driven log splitter which will match our small tractor.  It's not the cheapest log splitter on the market, but we've seen cheaper ones break.  This log splitter copes with all wood, and has proved very reliable so far.  It also has the added bonus of having a table, so that it can be used without any bending (and this really saves the back!)

As we process the logs, the whine of the machine echoes around the smallholding.  When we stop the splitter, the air is suddenly quiet and still - until it's filled with a mistle thrush's song. The song of this bird is a familiar and lovely sound on the smallholding in early January.

Midwinter is also the time of year for coppicing (cutting trees to the ground to stimulate growth) before the sap is too high, because coppice material, cut in winter, dries better and lasts longer.  This winter, we're cutting more hazel for furniture for the barn.  We don't need a chain saw to cut the hazel stems - instead, we use a folding saw.  After looking around the woodland, we found some hazel by the stream that was suitable - we're looking for straight stems that can be used for a long "sofa" seat to be put with the hazel chair David made last year (and I wrote about in October). 

Cutting Hazel
Cutting the hazel stems isn't difficult, but dragging them away is - because the fields are far too wet to bring the Land Rover down.  So we have to carry them all up a steep hill; where I have to struggle through several curious horses that obviously think if I'm carrying something, it has to be investigated!

The Long Walk Back

The next day David makes the seat - and now I have to think about the cover for it so that it's comfortable to sit on.

The Finished Hazel Seat
It's a bit early to be thinking about spring; but the early signs are there in the woods - the primroses are about to flower and the bluebell shoots are pushing up through fallen leaves.  In these short, dark days, any sight of green is welcome in the dull grey/brown of the woodland landscape.