Archives for the month of: August, 2011

The straw bale walls were being finished off towards the end of last week.

The feel of the building has changed dramatically with the appearance of its walls, the internal spaces are becoming clear, and you start to get a idea of what it will be like to live in.

Once the bales get to the top of the walls the last row of bale spikes has to be driven in. The membrane and sheeps wool insulation was folded back so that the spikes could be driven in from above.

The spikes hold the wall together, but it will not feel completely solid until it has its protective coating of lime plaster.

The two sides of a straw bale have very different textures, this is because of the action of the baler, on one side (the outside of our building) the straw is folded and on the other (the inside of the building) the straw is chopped. Our lime plaster will adhere much better to the chopped side. This is why the outside of the building has a layer of wire mesh against the bales, it will help the plaster stick properly. The photo below was taken prior to the mesh being attached and cut around the window frame.

On the inside the bales have been shaped around the windows and doors, this allows more light in as well as creating a sculptured feel to the openings. The windows will all have big wooden interior window seats so you will be able to sit and look out at the view.

To start with the bales around the openings all looked distinctly hairy.

But after they were trimmed up and the curved reveals were cut out they started to give more of an idea of what they will eventually look like.

As you can see from the wire to the side of the door the first fix electrics has been going in as well.

This is the time of year we make our hay, we cut it a little later than most to ensure the wild flowers have had chance to set seed. Doing this encourages meadows which are packed full of flowers, as well as all of the insects and other things that live on them. The hay we make is used as winter fodder for our small herd of belted galloway cattle. The cattle have a vitally important job to do, they help us manage our heathlands, the action of their munching and trampling keeps the heaths open and in good condition for the many rare and endangered species of wildlife that live there.

You may remember George and May, this years calves, being born back in the spring. Here they are grazing at Swan barn Farm in the meadow opposite the Speckled Wood building with their mums. I am pleased to report they are doing well and growing fast.

Making the hay they will need this winter is one of the jobs we have going on at the moment, such a post on the blog would normally mean lots of picture of tractors (not that there is anything wrong with that). But this year some friends asked me to help mow a small meadow up on the Lynchmere Ridge, I was keen as I knew they would be using sythes, and I have been wanting to have a proper go at some sything for a while.

Hay is simply grass that has been cut and dried prior to baling, if made at the right time of year the wildflower seeds in the sward are spread and set back into the soil as a side effect of the process. The guys have been cutting this meadow by hand for a while now, and the results were clear, there were lots of flowers in amongst the grass, including plenty of Yellow Rattle.

It acts as a semi parasite, gaining some of its nutrients from the roots of the surrounding grasses, this can be usefull as it weakens the grasses and allows space for other wildflowers to grow, I always like seeing it, and was pleased to hear that the owner of this little meadow was activley encouraging it, she was even kind enough to give me some seeds to take home for my own little wildflower corner (otherwise known as the bit I don’t often mow!) in my garden.

The sything went really well, we even managed to get most of the grass cut around the beehives without making them too cross. I really enjoyed it, there was something quite theraputic about the swing of the sythe and the swish of the blade cutting the grass. I think we will still be using the tractors in order make enough hay to keep our cows happy, but its nice to see traditional methods being kept alive, for small areas like this I suspect they are also just as efficient as anything powered by petrol could be.

I couldn’t resist sneaking a photo of Mark’s land rover loaded up with his sythes and hay rakes, it seemed to fit in very appropriately with the late summer sunshine.

We have an upstairs. Ok, so far its only the joists, but it still counts in my book.

The larch joists were made out of a tree from Boarden Door Bottom on Black Down, they were sawn a while ago, but this week took their place in the building. There will be two bedrooms on top of these joists, stretching out from them will be roundwood poles on which our gallery will sit. They will change to roundwood at the tiebeam where the sawn ones can be seen ending. This is because they will be visible from underneath at that point.

From the gallery you will be able to look out over the rest of the building, which will be open from floor to ceiling. Its a bit early to see any of that yet, but just to give you an idea I went upstairs and took a picture to show where this view will appear.

The crucks will fly up through the void, I’m not sure the scale of them comes across in pictures, they are fantastically chunky and textural pieces of wood, ones which I am sure all of the people who were involved in cutting, transporting, jointing and setting them into the frame will feel a close relationship with, I really like that they are going to be so prominently on display.

Windows have also started to appear in the building as well, Dylan has been fitting them over the past few days.

They were one of the few pieces of woodwork we didn’t feel we could make ourselves, although they are FSC certified. They are triple glazed to keep the space well insulated, this one will have a big wooden window seat on top of the bales for sitting on and looking out over the verandah. The colour has been a bit controversial on site, nobody is too chuffed with it, suffice to say they will look even better when they are painted!

The bale walls are extending upwards as well, for the past week or so the interior had a stack of bales in it, now they are moving into place the interior space is starting to reveal itself.

Tomorrow we are off on a mission to an ex holiday cottage to scrounge some furnture for the interior, am hoping for happy hunting.

I have been meaning for a while now to apolgise for my spelling in some of these posts, my excuse is that wordpress just doesn’t have a spell checker built in, poor excuse I know, but it will just have to do, hope it doesn’t detract too much from what we are tryng to achieve. My flagrant disregard of the rules of grammar has also been pointed out once or twice, all I can say is that whilst I realise my use of the apostrophe does have a scattergun approach I am just hoping that I hit the mark every now and again.

The last of the main frames of the building was lifted into place last week, that doesn’t mean we haven’t still got a long way to go, but it does mean we are moving properly onto the next phase.

It was the frame for the outer edge of the last of the verandahs. It was constructed on the framing bed at the back of the basecamp over the past week or so. It had to be shifted from there round to the opposite side of the building and stood up on its padstones, another job for the telehandler. It was a bit more tricky this time as there is scaffolding in place for the roof which needed to be driven around (you can just make out the edge of it to the left of the telehandler in the picture above).

Once it had been lifted up it was driven around to the front of the building. This is always a bit tense, the frame is designed to stand upright in the building, and when it is being moved the pressure is running the wrong way through the frame. The timbers are pretty hefty though and the jointing has been expertly done, so each frame has fealt solid on the move.

After sneaking it past the scaffolding the frame was spun round and raised upright.

Have just seen the face I was pulling from the cab of the telehandler, not exactly sure what that expression means, but hopefully I was concentrating.

It was then a question of driving the frame in and dropping it off on its padstones.

Last minute tweaking of position and lining up was done by Dylan with the comedy hammer.

The joists are now being put in for the verandah floor on this side of the building, when these are in place the full footprint of the build will have appeared on site. Dylan told me how he particularly likes the curved appearance of the final frame, he said it hugs the building. Using roundwood for the main structure of the building has been a real eye opener. The character of the wood leads the eye and gives a soft, natural feel. It makes the building sit well within the wooded landscape here at Swan Barn Farm and gives a built record of the management of the woods.

The straw bales for our walls started to arrive on site this week. We don’t have any National Trust arable land on this estate, but we managed to get our straw from the farm next door, so it hasn’t come far.

Straw bales have fantastic insulation properties, and if used in the right way, make an economical and very environmentally freindly walling material. They also go up satisfyingly quickly.

Fisrt of all a bale ladder was built all the way around our new oak floor at the outside edge of the building. You should also be able to see how the lovely new floorboards have been protected with a corrugated black plastic cover, just to make sure they aren’t damaged during the rest of the build.

The bale ladder is made of Black Down pine, it keeps the bales off the floor, each of the gaps in the ladder was filled with sheepswool insulation, and then the bales go on top.

A metal bale spike is attached to each “rung” of the ladder to secure the first course of bales.

After that it is a bit like massive lego as the layers of bales are built up. Each bale is held in place with two wooden bale spikes which are hammered through it into the bales below, this keeps the whole wall really sturdy and solid.

The bale spikes are made out of coppiced sweet chestnut, we have been lucky to have the help of another working holiday this week, amongst lots of other jobs the volunteers were working up in one of our coppices cutting the spikes for us.

On the outside of the building the bales will either be lime rendered (if they are protected beneath a verandah) or have a cladding of oak boards. Where the oak boards are going a frame of studwork is being built. You can see it in the picture below, you can also see where the floor is starting to be created for the link building which will connect Speckled Wood to Hunter Basecamp. This link building is where our biomass boiler will be going (quite excited about that!).

On the other walls where the render will go a chicken wire mesh has been constructed against the straw, this will help hold the render in place, it did look like some sort of strange fight club cage when it was being built, but none of it will be visible in the finished structure.

Everyone here has been working really hard again this week, and the results are plain on site, the build is motoring forward at the moment, its been fascinating seeing so many different parts of the structure coming together, I’ve been interested in straw bale use in construction for a long time, and have really enjoyed seeing ours starting to go into place.

I have been in Dorset for a few days getting away from everything. This is a fascinating project to be involved with, but sometimes it can get a bit stressfull, and there is only so much you can take without a bit of a break.

The Isle of Purbeck in Dorset is one of my favourite places, you can really get away from it all. I have always loved being near the sea, and Dorset has such a fascinating coastline, there is always something new to see. I found this fossilised Ammonite in the cliffs near Langton Matravers, it was over a foot across.

Meanwhile, away from Durdle Door there has been some serious progress on the floor. (couldn’t resist saying it again!)

Sheepswool insulation has been inserted in between all the joists and the boards have been going down on top. The boards are secret pinned to the joists, meaning that you wont see any of the nails which hold them down. They are tongue and grooved, the groove fits over the tongue of the previous board and the pins are hidden in the tongue.

First of all holes are drilled through the tongue, then nails are hammered into these holes.

The nails go through at an angle into the joists so they don’t get in the way of the next board. They are then hit home with a punch to take them tight up against the wood.

The result is a secure, stable, and stunning looking expanse of uninterupted solid oak flooring.

I think it looks fantastic, and am particularly excited about the way you can see the character of the wood in the grain and the rays that run through it.

The floor has been layed within a stones throw of the woodland where the trees were felled. I like to think that some of the character of those woods is starting to show in the building. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that we were out working in the woods felling and processing the trees for these floorboards.

Seeing them take their place in the building is quite something. It was great to get away for a few days, but its also pretty good to get back.

If you will pardon the pun.

Earlier in the year the team that look after the Wey Navigation asked if we could spare some timber for some boat mooring bollards. I quite like the idea of some Black Down timber ending up by the side of the Navigation, after all Cotchet Valley on Black Down is the site of the source of the River Wey.

We passed on to them some nice chunky pieces of coppiced sweet chestnut. The other day Steve, the Navigation Foreman kindly sent over these pictures of them being installed. Our post hole auger runs off a tractor, but when you are looking after a navigable waterway a barge becomes the source of the horse power.

This sort of job still needs someone on a spade at some point though.

I hope the wood we provided for them does the trick, we wouldn’t want to see any barges slipping their moorings.

The Navigation opened in 1653 and was one of the first British rivers to be made navigable. In 1764 the Godalming Navigation opened, creating a 20 mile waterway running from the Thames at Weybridge to Godalming. Originally the Wey Navigations were used for transporting barge loads of heavy goods via the Thames to London. Timber, coal, corn, flour, wood and even gunpowder were regularly moved up and down the waterway. Its a lovely place for a walk, and you never know, you might even see a bit of Black Down timber by the tow path.

The verandah rafters have been going on to the building this week. They are made of coppiced sweet chestnut from Ridden Corner.

They span the gap between the wall plate of the building and the outer edge of the verandah, you will see them if you stand on the verandah and look up.

Their round profile fits nicely visually, but they need to have a flat face on the top so that the line of the roof doesn’t end up wonky. To achieve this we put them on the sawmill, choose the flatest side and mill a flat on the top of the round pole.

On top of this flat section will sit sarking boards, a membrane, counter battens, battens and then our shingles. We need to start getting all of that on the roof as soon as possible, we have a busy few weeks ahead of us.

The rafters also needed to have their bark peeled off. This is the only surface working any of the roundwood in the building has had. When the wood is green the bark peels off like a banana skin, these were cut a few months ago so weren’t quite as easy, but, in the hands of our volunteers the peeling spades still make pretty short work of it.

Then they went up onto the roof to be attached to the frame. A line was run across the building to show the height they needed to be fixed at, and then dishes were cut out of the wallplate for the rafters to sit down into.

Where the verandah turns a corner round the end of the building a bit of complicated joinery was required.

Before long they were all slotting into place. With them fitted the outline of the building has taken another step forwards, what was really nice was getting an idea of what the verandah space will feel like.

I remember last year Ben, Val (our architect) and I having a lengthy discussion about the size of the verandah, the problem was every time you tried to alter its dimensions it meant one of the other peramiters of the building (height, roof pitch etc) changed, it was a bit of a balancing act. I think we got it about right though, it is going to be a nice sized space, with plenty of room for our volunteers to sit and relax in the sunshine after a hard days work in the woods.

Yesterday our floorboards came back. Some of you may remember the journey they have been on.

The oak trees were felled as part of our coppice management work here at Swan Barn Farm back in the winter.

They were then taken just down the road to Wests to be processed and kiln dried. I was really looking forward to them coming back, hoping they were going to look as good as I had imagined.

They came back all neatly bundled and wrapped up.

You couldn’t see the boards through the wrapping, so we had to unload them before getting chance to get a decent look. They were put straight into the building, construction of the floor is underway, and they will be starting to go down pretty soon.

I am not sure a photo really does them justice, but they looked pretty great to me. In these days of fake wooden flooring a solid oak floor is something you don’t see very often, certainly it hasn’t been cheap, but by using our own timber we made a considerable saving, and it should last for a very long time. It will also look pretty special in the building and will be a major part of the way the building reflects the character of the woods from which it came.

Having had a 20 mile round trip these are the furthest traveled pieces of wood in the whole building, most of the timber has travelled less than 2 or 3 miles, something we are very proud of. They will end up being used 3 fields away from where they grew.

Oak from this part of the world has always had a reputation for being of the best quality you can get, the timber produced at Swan Barn Farm is certainly right up there. The climate and soils in the Weald of England provide ideal growth conditions and the woodlands we have are cabable of sustainably producing timber without the resource being depleted.

The boards will go down soon as the edges of the floor form part of the support for the straw bale walls. They will have a protective covering put over them while the rest of the building is completed, I will definitely be taking a peek to see them in place before they are covered over.


Ok, so, roadbuilding is ordinarily definitely not my thing, but this is something a bit different.

Those of you who know Haslemere will also probably know Hindhead and the works that have been going on there over the past few years.

The A3 has for many years bisected a beautifull natural area and for the last few years a tunnel has been under construction, it has taken the road under and around the hill rather than straight over the top. It opened last week, and the old road was closed, I went up yeasterday to take a look and see what the new Hindhead was like.

The effect was dramatic. I remember years ago when I moved to Haslemere reading something about the picturesque village of Hindhead, to be honest, when I arrived I missed it, the place used to be full of traffic, fumes and bad tempers.

But now, the road was empty, people were walking along it, cycling, smiling and generally enjoying the peace. It was transformational, not just as if something was missing, but as if the peace and quiet was bursting out around you.

Soon the old road will dissapeer as it is buried under spoil from the tunnel, this will allow a link to be re established between Hindhead Common and the Devils Punch Bowl, quite something, a wild landscape stretching out from Haslemere towards Thursley and beyond.

I took the above picture sitting by the side of the road, something unthinkable a week ago when this lot would have been thundering past.

In some quarters its been a bit controversial, but I think most people can now see the benefits of removing the road from the landscape. I guess the old road has just become a bit of history, a bit like the old milestone I found by the side of it, I don’t know how many times I have driven along the road and had never noticed it before.

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