Archives for the month of: May, 2011

It wasn’t brilliant for photography at the weekend, pretty cloudy, so you might have to excuse the pictures, but I was thinking about what seemed like the early flowering of the elder this year and it prompted me to take a walk in Valewood. Its on the north western flank of Black Down, you may remember its where the ridge pole and wall plates for our building came from, a walk through the northern fields should lead you towards Winding Meadow if you are interested.

Winding Meadow is always a treat when it comes to orchid flowering time, ordinarily I wouldn’t bother going to look for another couple of weeks, but when I got there I was in for a surprise.

Thousands of orchids greeted me. They do seem to me to be flowering a couple of weeks early, I suppose it could just be because of the warm start to the year, or it could be as some think a sign of the changes in climate we might be starting to experience. I don’t know what the answer is, but wonder if there may be some interplay between the two things. It certainly makes you think about the way we are living our lives at the moment.

But, leaving that aside, you have to think there is nothing quite so pretty as this many orchids all in one spot.

Orchids are clever things, some of them attract polintors by having flowers which resemble female insects, others still give no reward in terms of nectar and have a mechanical mechanism which deposits pollen on the insects back where it cannot reach it but from where it will polinate the next flower visited. They are living evolutionary masterclasses.

Most of those at Valewood are either Heath or Common Spotted Orchids, allthough I am told the two can hybridise. Sadly even the so called Common Spotted Orchid is not seen as much as it once was, a reflection on the intensification of agricultural production. Its not all bad news though. Valewood recently went through a long period of conversion to become registered as an Organic holding. In cooperation with our tennants from Rother Valley Organics it is managed without artificial pesticides or fertilizers in a way that both produces some pretty fine beef, and allows the wildlife to flourish.

In amongst the orchids there were all sorts of other little gems to be spotted.

I remember being told by a certain well respected conservationist that whenever you spot this little plant you know you are somewhere pretty interesting.

Its a Lousewort, a funny looking plant in some respects, its semi parasitic, taking nutrients from the roots of other plants. I reckon she was right though, wherever you see this there are usually some other interesting species to be found.

I was also pleased to see the ladies smock still flowering.

Its one of the main larval food plants of the orange tip butterfly, which I am told is having a good year. Here is a picture of one I took a couple of years ago.

The orchids were great, but I am just as easily pleased by some of our more common species of wild flower, lesser stichwort is one of my favourites, its so tiny, each flower is only about 5-10mm across. The petals look really delicate in amongst the grasses.

Quite a comparison with a big brassy oxeye daisy.

Turned out it was well worth going for that walk, even if it was a cloudy day. If you are local I would recomend having a look around Valewood in the next few weeks, it really is quite spectacular at the moment.

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Today the joists started to go in to the building, real progress, which I thought was pretty exciting, it marks the start of the frame becoming a house. The joists will support the floorboards, on which people who work in the woods will walk. Thats what I like about this project, the whole thing is so circular.

The joists are made of douglas fir. You may remember the trees we are making them out of being felled earlier in the year.

They came from a plantation not far from Lion Green in Haslemere. Thinning the trees in plantations is really important if any wildlife is to live in them, it also allows the remaining tree’s to grow to their full potential. If you find yourself walking in a plantation the most interesting place to look is usually where any small glades have been cut in it, thats where the wild flowers and birds will be found.

Once they were felled the tree’s were cut to length and brought back to Swan Barn Farm.

The five meter lengths were for rafters and the three and a half meter pieces were for joists. You may notice I have developed the unfortunate habit over the years of mixing metric and imperial measurements in a slightly odd way, its a habit I have noticed Ben also seems to have. For example our joists were cut at 8 x 2 inches by 3.5 metres long. I suppose it comes partly out of the mix of people you work with with in the woods but it also seems that imperial measurements are still used in most building projects, they are just given in multiples of 25 millimetres. It can be confusing sometimes, our sawmill for example has a ruler mounted on it which only shows inches and a computer which measures in millimeters. Best not to worry about it too much, it all seems to work out in the end.

Once they were back here at the farm the timbers then needed to go onto our sawmill in order to be turned into joists.

The timber is squared up to start with, we plan to use the offcuts from the outside of the log in our biomass boiler when it is installed. Then some 1 inch thick boards were taken off the outside to create a blank 8 inches wide. The 1 inch boards don’t go to waste, they were resawn into 4 x 1 inch planks, you will see where they are being used in a bit.

The 8 inch wide blank is then sawn into as many joists as you can get out of it. On the bigger logs we could take 2 inch boards from around the outside and then recut these into 8 x 2’s as well. Learning to see the timber within the wood and making a plan for how to cut it out is one of the key skills in sawmilling, one we are hopefully doing ok at.

This was one of the last pieces to be milled, in the background you can see the stack of sawn joist’s waiting to be taken up to the building.

Today some of the timbers off that stack found their way to the end of their journey.

Above you can see them running away from the camera. They are hung in the bays that are created by the main underfloor oak beams. Each joist has a piece of 4×1 inch douglas fir screwed onto its underside before it is put into place. This sticks out an inch either side of the joist and is there to hold up a layer of insulation.

We will be using sheeps wool for insulation. The sheep in the Speckled Wood orchard are due to be shorn soon, but there are only 7 due a haircut, clearly not enough to insulate a building. The sheeps wool insulation will have to be bought in, but if I’m lucky my friend might knit me a pair of socks from the fleeces of the sheep in the orchard.

Last week we had a group of volunteers staying in the basecamp and helping with the project as part of the NT working holidays programme.

Here they are with Spike standing in front of our smoking charcoal kiln. They did a great job, hopefully they had a nice time as well. Andrew is missing from the photo above as he took it, thanks to him for providing the pics for this post.

Making charcoal was one of the jobs they did. Below you can see flames curling out of the top of the kiln prior to it being clamped down.

The charcoal turned out really well, the volunteers use it for the bar b q at the front of the basecamp and we sell any surplus here at Swan barn Farm to the public in the summer months.

Another job that was tackled was peeling bark from the timbers for the building.

All of the timber has been brought back from the woods to the build site, the bark was left on while it was transported, but before being used it needs the bark peeling off. If it was left on it would look pretty unsightly as it flaked off over time and would also encourage fungi to start rotting the wood. Chestnut bark peels off pretty easily, especially when it is still quite green.

Peg making was another of the jobs that could be done out in the woods, the frame of the building will be held together with several hundred oak pegs, so keeping a production line of these going is an important job at the moment. But, the main job of the week was shingle making. The guys did a great job, making 700 or so in the end. We are up to just over 6000 now, although the whole roof is going to need about 15000 so there is still a fair way to go.

Above you can see the shingles being split out of foot long blanks of sweet chestnut, they are then passed over to the shave horses for shaping and bevelling.

The shave horses hold the shingle in position (its a sort of large scale vice you sit on) so that you can use a drawknife to make sure it ends up the right shape.

Another nice piece of news from last week was that the Swift boxes on the front of the basecamp have at last had there first resident bird in them. Unfortunately not a pair of swifts though! It was a cheeky pair of robins who had obviously not read the sign.

This was one of the fledgelings which was spotted hanging around on the benches in front of the basecamp. I noticed (or heard rather) that the blue tits which are nesting in the wall of the office next to my desk have just hatched their clutch of eggs as well.

Rudy, Dylan, Adam and Nick have been busy working on the frame for the south gable end over the past few days. This frame forms the end of the building and will be completely glazed above the verandah. The glazing is being let into a roundwood frame, quite a tricky prospect, but when its done it should look great.

The framing bed is once again in use to construct this extra frame. It will sit just outside the cruck frames that were raised last week. The jowel posts for this frame need some complicated joints cut in the top of them, so we had to find some nice big chestnut trees in the coppice to make them out of. Above you can see the jowel (outer post) being moved into position.

There are four vertical posts that make up this frame, above you can see the guys cutting the mortices in the tie beam which will sit on top of these posts. Above this beam will sit the triangle of the gable end, this is where the clever gazing will be happening, jointing the roundwood timber for this is one of next weeks challenges.

We realised earlier this week that we were running a bit short on softwood for the build. We felled some douglas fir earlier in the year for rafters and joists, but it didn’t go quite as far a we had hoped, so today a trip back to the woods was needed. We needed another two trees for some extra rafters and the battening onto which our shingle roof will be nailed. This time we decided to go for larch, it has many of the same qualities as douglas fir, being one of the more durable softwood species. The ones we had selected were growing in Boarden Door Bottom, a valley on Black Down about 3/4 of a mile or so from the build site.

The trees we had selected were nice and easy to get to and just the size we needed. Not very many trees grow completly vertically, and often the slight lean they have is away from the direction you need to fell them in. There are a number of ways of getting around this problem. But for these tree’s we decided knocking in wedges would send them in the right direction.

The cuts are put in as normal, and then a series of wedges are knocked in with a sledge hammer from the back of the tree.

This tilts the tree over just enough so it falls in the direction required.

Once they were down we loaded them onto the trailer and drove them back to Swan Barn Farm, they will be sawn into the required dimensions on our mill some time in the next couple of weeks.

On a seperate note, I heard The National Trust’s senior ecologist (i think I have his title right) Matthew Oates on the news this morning. He was talking about how many of our native species have reacted to the unusually warm spring weather by emergeing a few weeks early. One of the species he was talking about was elder. I had noticed the same thing last week. The elders at Swan Barn seem to be flowering early this year. Here you can see one just next to the build site.

Very pretty, but it does make you wonder what we are doing to our climate in order to send species out of sync in this way.

However, they do say that while the sun shines you should make hay, and in the spirit of this one of my jobs next week will be making some elderflower champagne. If I remember I will post a recipe.

Last week was really pretty exciting here, the day of the frame raise started out very stressfull and ended up a bit emotional. I think it has taken a bit of a readjustment this week to get back in to the swing of things again. The frame looks great still, I can see it out of the window as I’m typing. But after the excitement comes more hard work. We have a group of volunteers here this week in the basecamp who have been doing brilliantly on the shingle making for the roof. There has also been lots more sawmilling being done, finishing off the rafters and joists.

One of the other interesting jobs that has being happening is the damp proofing of the frame. This seems to be an idea that Ben has developed over the course of a few of his buildings and I think is a neat little refinement. You may remember that the uprights of the frame sit on recycled york stone padstones. Well, what is there to stop water from sitting on these stones and working its way into the uprights and rotting them? The first line of defence is the fact that they are under the building and so sheltered to some degree. The building also sits off the ground allowing a drying airflow underneath it. But there is a further piece of weather proofing as well.

The bottom of each post was painted prior to the raise to protect it and now the frame is upright each post in turn is jacked up and has a thin piece of slate put in under it.

This piece of slate acts like a damp proof course stopping water getting from the padstone to the wood. Slate used to be used in brick buildings for damp proof courses, and this is an adaption of the same principle.

After the post has been put back down the slate is chipped away around the post, in the end you wouldn’t really notice it unless you knew it was there.

Meanwhile out on the heaths local bird watcher and guest blogger Dave Burgess has been busy, he has sent in an update on what is around to be seen at the moment which you can see on the wildlife postings page.

Its a lovely time of the year up on Black Down, the heathland wildlife is just starting to resurface, but the woods are still looking stunning in their late spring / early summer foliage. The beech hanger is particularly worth visiting, especially on a sunny day when the cool shade can be really refreshing.

It’s on the eastern side of Black Down, you can’t really miss it, if you walk through it you will also find a couple of fantastic viewpoints from which you look out over the patchwork quilt of woods and meadows that make up the western weald, I am clearly biased, but I reckon Black Down gives just about the best views you can get over the new South Downs National Park.

In his update Dave mentions some of our classic heathland birds, it got me thinking about the return of the nightjars, always something to look forward to. Its well worth a walk across the heath in the evening just as the sun is dissappearing, I reckon in a couple of weeks time there will be a very good change of hearing nightjars around here, his description of them sounding like a cat purring loudly is spot on, if you get to hear that as well as spotting a decent sunset it makes for a pretty great evening in my book.

The solar panels went up on the back of the basecamp the day after the frame raise. So we are now generating electricity.

In the picture above you can see them at the top of the basecamp roof. The top section of scafolding will be taken away soon and then our solar hot water panels will be added on to the lower section of roof.

Part of the project here at Swan Barn Farm has always been to make the site much greener in terms of its energy consumption. There seemed little point putting up an eco building next door to a basecamp that was wasting carbon. In order to redress the balance we are putting a log fired biomas boiler in which will provide hot water and heating for the basecamp and the speckled wood building, this will be topped up with solar hot water in the summer. We are also working on better insulation and secondary glazing to keep in the heat. The first part of this side of the project was the solar panels, so its very exciting to see them up and working.

The system we have put in is capable of generating 2.2 kw on an ideal sunny day, but will do pretty well even in less than ideal conditions. This size of system is capable of producing enough green electricity to save almost a tonne of carbon dioxide being emited into the atmosphere per year. It should produce about half of the energy that would be required by an average UK household.

The solar panels produce DC electricity, this is changed by an inverter into the AC which we use. When electricity is being used on the site it will reduce our draw on the National Grid. When we are not using electricity the power they produce will be sold back to the grid, giving us a credit which will help pay back the cost of the panels.

The system came with a clever little read out gadget, it is also solar powered, you leave it in a window and it gives you all sorts of information on what the solar panels are doing. It will tell you what current is being generated as well as giving information about how much carbon dioxide and money the system is saving. You can see in the read out that even on a pretty cloudy day we were generating 1.52 kw.

Yesterday was the day of the frame raise for the new building, and what a day it was.

Everyone was up an about early, one of the first jobs for the day was to make a wreath, we wanted it to go up on the frames for good luck. I went out on to Black Down to find a pretty special tree I know. Its a Rowan, one of the largest on the hill, Rowans are thought by some to bring luck, which certainly couldn’t do any harm.

I took what we needed, said thank you, and left a small present in return.

We added in some hawthorn and wild rose flowers from the hedgerows here at Swan Barn Farm, and then it was hung on the first frame.

Ben led the raise, the Black Down Countryside team and Roundwood Timber Framing Company team gathered together for a safety breifing and a run through of the plan. Then something rather special happened. You may not believe me, but its true, and it set the theme for the day. Some time ago we decided to name the building Speckled Wood after the pretty little woodland butterfly. As we were waiting to start a Speckled Wood butterfly flew in and landed on a mallet, we could hardly believe it, in front of the whole frame raise team it then took off, flew into the site and landed on top of one of the frames before it took off once more and dissapeared. It was just that sort of day.

The ridge pole was brought in to the site and settled in the top of the first frame, and then the raise began.

There were four frames to raise, they were pulled up using a hand winch which was anchored to one of our tractors which we had parked at the end of the site.

The first frame reached up into the sky and dragged the ridge pole up with it.

We then used the telehandler to hold the ridge pole up and out of the way whilst the other frames were being winched into position.

We knew before we started that the first two frames were going to be pretty tricky, getting them in the right place before any of the rest of the structure is in place to brace things was really quite difficult. But the inevitable problems that came up were dealt with calmly and the raise proceeded as palnned. Quite a few people had shown up to watch from the field next door, which was really nice, if you came along I hope you enjoyed it.

As frame two came up there was a fair bit of manouvering of the ridge pole that had to be done to ensure it didnt push against the ridge and knock the first frame out of position. We had a cloudbirst of rain at this point as well, and everything was all rather tense. In the end though everything slotted in to place and it was on to frame three.

Things were gradually starting to get a bit easier, as the frames were braced together everything was becoming more stable, and the tension was starting to lift. Frame three was our target before stopping for lunch, which was sometime after 3 oclock !

Once this frame was in position we could finally remove the telhandler, which had been supporting the ridge pole all day. That meant the last frame came up without any noise from machinery, you could hear the birds singing in the woods as the frame was winched upright.

The last frame slotted into position and deep breaths were drawn all round. It looks pretty impressive now as you come down the lane to the farm, if you get chance to come and have a look its well worth it.

There is clearly a long way to go before it becomes a building, but yesterday was a very proud day. So many people have worked so hard to get us this far, I think the frame is a tribute to all of them.

By the time we were finished and tidied up it had been a  long day. Fortunately we had a batch of Swan Barn Farm cider chilling in the fridge. We fired up the bbq in front of the basecamp and settled in to toast the successes of the day.

As you can imagine we fealt in a pretty celebratory mood, and the party went on well in to the early hours.

Once the main A frames have been jointed together they need moving off the framing bed onto their padstones so they are ready for the frame raising. They are quite heavy, and a pretty awkward shape, so a well thought out plan was called for.

The plan was to move them using a telehandler (the big green machine you can see in these pictures, which has been kindly lent to us by our collegues at Hindhead). The framing bed had been constructed at an angle to help with the move and above you can see us putting together retaining woodwork for a temporary track that leads around the side of the site. This track allow’s us to keep the machine on solid level ground while it is moving the frame.

Once everything was in place and everyone was briefed on what to expect the telehandler was brought in and lifted the frame off the bed. We arranged the lifting strops so it was held steady and level, and then it was up to the driver to manouver it safely into place.

The temporary track made the job much easier, but manouvering still required some skill to avoid the hedge and keep everything smooth and safe.

Once the frame had been moved to the other end of the site the telehandler had to be lined up so it could drive in to position to drop off the frame without hitting any of the carefully bedded padstones, a bit like threading a needle on a slightly bigger scale.

Then the frame needed to be shunted about a bit so it found the right position on its own padstones.

Once it was in just the right spot it could be dropped off and the next set of timbers were brought in and put on the framing bed to be jointed together. Ben’s team have been doing a really good job putting the frames together, the joints all look really good.

We now have three frames sitting on their padstones and the last one is on the bed being put together.

It still looks like we are on schedule for thursdays frame raise, we are not quite sure what timings are likely to be on the day, so if you are coming along to watch you might have to bear with us a bit, it should be interesting to see though, and I hope everyone enjoys it.

The sweet chestnut frame of our building is being held together using oak pegs and wedges. The oak for them came from the coppicing work we do at Swan Barn Farm, if you get chance over the next couple of weeks I would really recomend taking a walk through the woods on the farm, the bluebells are at their peak, and if you get chance to visit early in the early morning the dawn chorus is an an avian assault on the ears. The coppicng creates ideal conditions for wildlife, and at this time of year you can realy see the response.

Wooden pegs are the traditional method of holding timber joints together, but a roundwood frame requires a slightly different technique to traditional draw pegs. The oak for the pegs was sawn on our mill back in february on a very rainy day.

It seems a long time ago now all that mud has turned to dust. We used a tree that had been felled two years previously and have been seasoning them further for the past few months. The idea being that the green wood of the frame will shrink onto the seasoned pegs over time and lock them in tight.

The pegs are cut to length and then the corners of the square blank are shaved off with a drawknife. After this a rounding plane is used to create the peg. Its a sort of giant pencil sharpener, you wind it around by hand and it shaves off the excess working its way down the wood to create the peg.

There is something quite satisfying about making something round out of something that was square. The frame requires quite a lot of pegs, another job for our hard working groups of volunteers.

The wedges are being made out of a couple of planks that have been seasoning nicely in our woodshed for the past couple of years. I spent an hour or so in the workshop making them the other day. It was done using our small circular saw.

I cut a small rectangle out of the plank and then set the saw at a slight angle. Flipping the rectangle over each time a cut was done made lots of small wedges all of (roughly!) the same angle.

After the joints have been cut in the two pieces of timber they are held together using ratchet straps. A hole is then drilled through the two timbers.

The peg is then knocked through the hole and a small saw cut is put in either end of it into which the wedge can be driven.

The wedge expands the end of the peg and holds it firmly in place. The wedge is left slightly proud in case it needs to be knocked in a little further as everything seasons and dries out.

The second frame is on the framing bed and is just about finished, we will be moving it onto its padstones tomorrow. Everything should be ready for next thursdays frame raising on time (touch wood!). I am really looking forward to seeing the first phase of everyones hard work coming together, hopefully it will be a proud day.

Our Belted Galloway cows have justed calved, I know lots of people like seeing them at Shottermill and out on the heath at Marley, so thought I ought to post a couple of photo’s.

The small herd we look after carry out conservation grazing work for us on the heathland at Marley. The action of their munching and trampling helps us to keep the common open, and provides the right habitat conditions for a wide range of very important and increasingly rare wildlife.

We have had three steers for a while, and over the winter these were joined by two in calf heifers. They came to us from another NT herd in Gloucestershire, and as is often the way with livestock there was no guarantee the bull had done his job.

After a while the girls started to grow, and eventually it became obvious they had come to us bearing beefy buns in the oven as expected. Then it was just a waiting game. First to come along was George (don’t blame me for the names!).

You can see him above peering out from behind his mum. He was a bit of a problem delivery and Catherine and Matt had to put in some hard work to get him into the world. For some reason cow and calf took a while to bond, but with a bit of help and assistance they both got the hang of things after a while and now they are both doing really well.

May came along on the first of May. She was delivered without any help and has been doing very well right from birth. Here she is with her mum relaxing under the tree’s in the lower field.

Both calves have been loving the warm weather, and have been spotted a couple of times enjoying a bit of sunbathing. They will stay at Shottermill until they are a bit older. They are still a bit shy at the moment, but if you are passing and take a while to look over the gate you should get chance to see at least one of them.

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