Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Tai Chi with a blade

Snath and peen? Not an anagram but two new words for me. Snath is the wooden handle of a scythe onto the end of which is fixed the razor sharp blade of a scythe, in our case an Austrian scythe. Keeping it sharp is of the essence; rubbing a wetstone repeatedly over the top of the blade, then removing the burr on the underside, every two to three minutes.

But after a day of scything, sharpening alone will not be enough, and it will be time to peen your blade. This is a cold forging of the steel; using a hammer to strike onto a peening rig, the final 4 mm of the blade is beaten outwards to give a thin profile which is then ready for sharpening.

Why does it need to be a wetstone? In sharpening, the stone is taking off dirt and metal which would gunge up the stone unless it is kept and washed in a pouch of water.

Blades peened and sharpened we were inducted into the technique of scything on Cae Poeth, one of the National Trust’s wildflower meadows at Bodnant Gardens. Keep the wind to your back, work downhill and cut at a right angle to the lie of the sward; it’s not always possible to manage all three! The blade should be slid across the ground as it needs to be as close as possible to the base of the grasses if it is going to cut as opposed to stroke. Head down, stay focused and get into the zone sometimes described as Tai Chi with a blade.

Our instructor, Siôn Jinkinson, explained that in a day it should be possible to scythe an acre of meadow. This is somewhat less than the boast in H E Bates’ short story, The Mower, in which Ponto claimed:

'Me and my old dad used to mow twenty- acre fields afore dark - and start with the dew on. Twenty- acre fields. You don't know what mowin' is.' He went on to say .... 'My old man used to drink twenty pints a day. God's truth. Twenty pints a day. He was a bloody champion. You can't mow without beer.’

I enjoyed my scything workshop, so peaceful compared to strimming, with no pollution and less chance of wounding wildlife. As for the relative costs the scythe wins hands down – a good scythe, complete with accompanying tools to sharpen and peen, can cost about £135, will last a lifetime and needs no fuel other than what you eat. Equipment can be ordered from The Scythe Shop and Siôn Jinkinson is the distributor for north Wales.

Thanks Siôn and thanks National Trust. A great day.

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