Thursday, 31 July 2014

“Come up here if you don’t know how to peen” …

Andrea Gilpin from Caring for God's Acre

… so shouted out our guide for the day, Andrea Gilpin, of aptly named Caring for God’s Acre from the top of a Tintern graveyard one hot and sunny July day.


Andrea displays the range of blades
A small group of AONB volunteers was on a steep learning curve that day as we were introduced to scythes and scything and encouraged to mow as much of St Mary’s churchyard as we could. Few of us had touched a scythe before and we listened intently to tips on carrying, sharpening and even on how to stand in a group (scythes on ground in front of you, edge down). We learned that scythes have a snath (shaft) and a blade, and that a blade has a tip, heel, tang, beard, belly and knob. Oh, and that peening is a hammering technique which cold forges the blade to bring it back to a thin profile.


The churchyard was overgrown with long grass, bracken and many weeds, all of which covered ruined stones and metalwork. We couldn’t have had a much tougher introduction as we were scything in tight spaces on sloping land, constantly in danger of damaging the blade tip on hidden objects. Somehow, we made progress and it wasn’t too long before those who weren’t scything were carrying away our fresh hay on pitchforks. It was a curious scene: a country churchyard with no one in it apart from our group of scythers and forkers looking very much as it might have done in the Middle Ages.


Andrea was an excellent instructor and we all learned a good deal from the day. We even managed to mow some of the yard too!



The following Thursday saw AONB volunteers in action again, this time assisting the Gwent Wildlife Trust at its Pentwyn Farm site in Penallt, a few miles further up the valley. Our task was to spread green hay onto one of the farm’s larger fields in order to further diversify the plant species growing in the meadow there. Our green hay had been cut and baled that morning from a field near Wet Meadow, just to the north of Trellech, and sat in an ominously large pile on a trailer in the Pentwyn field. Luckily, the field had already been mown and scarified and the bales were deposited regularly around it, so our task was “merely” to spread the hay evenly all over it.


We had pitchforks and rakes at our disposal but, following a wide variety of individual experimentation, all but one of us soon dispensed with them and scattered the hay by hand, again giving a scene redolent of medieval times. The sun was hot and the Penallt mercury hit 26C for much of the time. Sarah’s sunscreen was much in demand (her insect repellent proving to be redundant) and her frequent calls for drinks breaks were both welcome and necessary as the work was not only hot but very dusty too. Seeds got everywhere, even to the extent of mysteriously filling pockets with several ounces at a time and many shower drainage systems were strangely challenged later on!


All in all, some 150 bales were scattered and we broke the back of the work needed to be done. Can’t wait to have a look next spring to see the results of our labours!


David May



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