Archives for the month of: September, 2011

Such a beautiful day here today, a real indian summer day, lots of sunshine and the start of all the colours coming through in the trees. When I got in this morning the sun was shining through the mist and the dew on the spiders webs. As the air warmed the spiders seemed to sense something and decided it was the right day to start ballooning. This is the term for the way their young disperse on certain days in september and october. Lots of spider species do it, and its a pretty clever evolutionary trick. They make their way to the tops of the trees and bushes, spin a length of silk and let it get caught in the breeze. The silk carries them away into the air and they float off to populate new areas. They can be carried for many miles, and have been recorded right out at sea. But what you tend to notice is the way the breeze often blows them together and the strands hang in groups across the trees. Lots of them had been making there way across Swan Barn Farm and quite a few had landed in the oak tree next to the new building.

On the inside of the building today we started putting in some of the chestnut laths on our internal walls. The picture below shows the patch of coppice we cut last winter for the timber frame of the building, this woodland also provided the timber to make the laths.

Laths are horizontal strips of wood which are nailed across panels prior to being covered with plaster. They provide the structure and the plaster that binds onto them provides the finish. We will be using earth plaster, more on that later.

The laths were made for us by Justin, a local coppice worker who makes his living in the woods around Haslemere. Along with a number of other products his team cut a series of four foot lengths out of the timber that they felled last winter, these lengths were then split into blanks and the laths were cleaved off the blanks.

A froe is used for the cleaving process, this clever tool can be steered through the grain of the wood to ensure you get a nice straight even lath (after you have learned how to use it well).

A billhook is then used to trim up any rough edges.

Prior to bundling them up for delivery.

Sweet chestnut is a naturally durable hardwood, meaning they should last well, they came from a coppice so they have been grown in a sustainable and renewable manner. Finally, cleaving them by hand rather than sawing provides the ideal surface for the earth plaster to bind onto, all in all the ideal material for our walls, and the whole process took place within a stones throw of the building.

The internal walls of the new building are made of a sawn sowftwood stud frame onto which we today started nailing laths. The interior of the walls will be filled with sheepswool insulation. They are positioned so the plaster will cover them as well as sneaking through the gaps in between and binding around the back of them.

We are using copper nails, as the tannins in the wood would attack steel nails and damage them. With the colours of the copper nails and the grain showing in the sweet chestnut it makes a pretty attractive looking wall, it almost seems a shame to plaster over it.

Last friday we had our first apple pressing of the year. A group of working holiday volunteers who had spent the week with us on the building and in the orchards got to see the process in action.

First of all the apples were all quartered and any rotten bits were discarded. There was a fantastic collection of varieties of apple on display, including some which are quite rare these days. That’s the best thing about making apple juice and cider in this way, it is such a product of the place it grew, no two pressings (sometimes even bottles) are ever going to taste quite the same.

From the chopping boards the apples were taken over to the scratter (its the machine with the big fly wheel on it to the right above). The scratter squishes the apples and turns them into pulp. It was restored in our workshop a couple of years ago having been kindly donated by a freind of the estate. It is hand powered, and takes a bit of effort to get it going, its really effective though and processes a trug full of quartered apples in not much time at all.

From the scratter the crushed apples go over to the press. A frame is set up with a cloth inside it, the scratted apples go into the cloth which is folded over, the frame is taken off and a board put on top of the “cheese”, as it is known.

Several of these cheeses are built up, and as the weight starts to build the juice starts to flow. when the stack is high enough the press is wound down to squash the stack and force out the rest of the apple juice.

Our press has been in action in this part of the world for at least a hundred years. It was also restored in our workshop using Swan Barn Farm oak and plenty of TLC. The result has been a machine which people really enjoy using. It takes a bit of hard work to process the apples, but the required teamwork and resulting flood of apple juice is always really satisfying.

It collects in the wooden tray at the bottom, when there is enough there the cork is pulled and out flows the juice. We drank plenty of it on the day, and it tasted fantastic. The rest was put into fermenters to be turned into cider. A lot of this was sent home with our volunteers (along with some cider making instructions), but a fair bit stayed here too. I’m looking forward to some of it being ready in time to toast the building with when we have finished.

If you want to find out more about the mysteries of cider making, why not pop along with some apples to our community pressing day this saturday, 10.30 till 3.

Meanwhile, on the building, another piece of significant progress has been made, we have started to put some of our shingles on the roof.

I have no idea how many people have worked in the woods helping us to make them, but I know its a lot. Its something we are all very proud of. When the roof is finished it will be the result of so much effort by so many people I think it will be really quite special.

The shingles are made of coppiced sweet chesnut, and any number of volunteer groups have been helping us to make them over the past year. We have 12000 or so made, we think we will need another 3000 or so in the end, but the onsett of autumn has meant we really had to start getting some of them in place so the main section of the roof at least could be finished.

Chris and Sam have come in to help us get the roof right, and we are glad of the help, as it is quite a complicated job, especially as our hand made shingles are not exactly uniform in size and shape.

I think the overall effect is pretty spectacular though. There is a long way to go to get it finished, but we are all glad they have started to go up.


Another group of working holiday volunteers are staying here this week. The main focus of their week is on our two small orchards, but they are also helping our with a few jobs on the Speckled Wood building as well.

Now the third coat of lime plaster has been applied to the outside of the building its time to start on the limewashing. This is a traditional form of paint, made of limestone which has been crushed, burnt and slaked with water to make lime putty. The putty is matured for several months before being thinned with water to make the limewash.

It has insecticidal and anti bacterial properties as well as being breathable, the perfect finish for our timber and straw bale walls.

At least four coats will be needed, with each one adding greater protection to the surface of the building. We have also been busy cleaning off any excess lime plaster which was spilled on the timbers. I have really enjoyed the effect on the appearance of the building as the coats of limewash go on and the timbers are cleaned up, escpecially when the morning sun shines on it.

The guys have also been out in the orchard collecting apples and pears.

The aim of this weeks holiday is partly to help with management of our orchards, but also to show people what can be achieved with their produce. We will be pressing apples with them later in the week, as well as teaching them how to make cider and perry.

As well as picking there was a fair bit of tasting going on.

Many of the varieties of tree in our orchard are pretty rare these days, and they have flavours the like of which you simply wouldn’t ever come across on a supermarket shelf. This year our Worcester Pearmain was particularly good, it was perfectly ripe and really sweet.

Don’t forget we have a public apple pressing event on October 1st from 10.30 till 3,  you can bring along your apples and apple or orchard related questions and learn the secrets of apple pressing and cidermaking.

The second and third coats of lime render have now been applied to the outside of the building, the walls have taken on a terrific sculptural quality as the layers were applied. The walls have attracted quite a bit of comment already, ranging from medieval, through bumpy all the way to marshmallowy. I really like them, they add masses of character and look great against the roundwood frame.

The second coat was what is refered to as a hair coat. It contained animal hair so that it could stay strong whilst also having an element of flexibility. using lime rather than a cement based render will allow the building to breath and move over time.

The third coat created the final effect, allthough we still have a number of coats of limewash to apply before these walls are finished.

There is still lots more plastering, both with lime and clay based plasters to do inside the building, but there is something comforting about seeing some of the exterior of the building being completed. We are all very aware that autumn is upon us, and winter only just around the corner, the next few weeks are going to see a lot of work on the roof, those shingles everyone has been working so hard on are going to start being put into place.

In preperation for the shingling we had to get the sarking boards up last week. They are the boards which create the ceilings of our verandah’s.

On top of these boards will sit a waterproof membrane, then counter battens, battens and the shingles. They are feather edge boards made out of larch from Boarden Door Bottom on Black Down and processed on the sawmill here at Swan Barn Farm. In the finished building they will only be visible from below, but it was nice to see progress on the roof.

Coming up on the 1st October (10.30 till 3) we have a community apple pressing day here at Swan Barn Farm. It will be an opportunity to see the Speckled Wood Building, as well as to take part in pressing and processing any surplus apples you can get your hands on. The idea is that you bring along any apples you can beg, borrow or scrump and then join in the fun of chopping them, feeding them through our scratter (which crushes them) and then the apple press to produce the finest tasting apple juice you will ever come across.

The scratter and press are both historic pieces of equipment, and people have a lot of fun helping us to operate them. The team here will check how many apples you brought and then dole out a fair portion of juice for you to take home. You can either enjoy it fresh over the next couple of days, or, even better still, follow the instructions we give you to turn it into cider!

The team here have been responsible over recent years for planting 3 new orchards, and will also be on hand to try and answer any of your apple or orchard based questions.

If you can’t find any apples (and I’m sure a bit of inginuity will lead to finding a few) you can always just come along, partake of the tea and cake that will be on offer and join in the fun processing and pressing the fruit. The postcode for the Farm is GU27 2HU, hope to see you there!

Meanwhile, back in the orchard, the bees have been busy making honey. This was recently removed from the hive for processing. They are a new colony this year, and as such I had not been expecting much of a crop, but they have done really well, and we should get a few jars so our volunteers can get a taste of the local wildflowers.

The bee’s store the honey in a box called a super (because its for honey which is superfluous to their needs) which sits at the top of the hive above their nest.

The frames within a beehive encourage them to build nice straight combs, this makes handling and managing the bees much easier as without frames the combs can twist and turn all over the place. This is fine for the bee’s, but makes the beekeepers life a bit problematic. You can see this effect in the piece of honeycomb in the picture below which one of my colonies recently built inside the roof space in their hive.

When the supers get back to the honey processing room (kitchen in my case) each frame has its cappings cut off and is then put into the extractor.

The extractor is like a sort of giant spin drier, it spins the frames round fast and the honey flies out of them and collects at the bottom of the vessel.

The honey is then filtered and bottled. I don’t heat treat it or change it in any way, it comes in the jar just as the bee’s made it, a natural product which is full of character and of benefit to the local environment. Honey bee’s are having a really tough time of things at the moment, and without beekeepers to look after them would have pretty much dissappeered from the countryside. The problems are caused by a parrasitic mite which sucks the blood of the bee’s and spreads diseases. This mite is very difficult for them to control without help and can kill off entire colonies in no time at all. We all rely heavily on honey bees, both for our food and polination of many species of flower and tree. The simple action of putting honey from a local beekeeper on your toast in the morning can have knock on benefits across the countryside.

There are a number of ways of managing the mites in a colony, I try to avoid chemical input wherever possible, and one of the methods I use is placing a small tray of thyme oil in the colony after the honey has been removed.

This natural oil has a narcotic effect on the mites, knocking them off the back of the bees. Its just one of a range of weapons being deployed at the moment in defence of the bees.

This years honey crop turned out to be a big surprise to me. Haslemere is surrounded by heathland, and for all the time I have been beekeeping people have been telling me how lucky I must be to get heather honey. Its a highly sought after product which commands a high price. Up till now though I have hardly ever had any, the heather is often really difficult for the bee’s to work, as it flowers when the colony is starting to wind down for the winter. Its a useful source of winter feed, but I rarely see any in my jars.

This year though the supers were packed full fo the stuff. I did the extracting with a freind who is also a beekeeper, we were extracting from three diffent apiary sites around the town, mine, his and Swan Barn Farm, and each one of them was packed full of heather honey. Fantastic tasting stuff and as I said highly thought of, but an absolute pain to extract. It is one of the only substances in the world which is thixotropic, this means when it is stirred or agitated it turns liquid, but when it stands still it is a solid, most unusual. The extractor got properly clogged up and we made a bit of a mess. We managed to get it out of the combs in the end, but it was really difficult work. I had noticed the heather was flowering really nicely this year, but hadn’t been expecting this. Its the first time I have seen it in eight years of beekeeping, I wonder when I will see it again?


The building has undergone another huge transformation in the past week or so, largely because the straw bale walls have started to be covered with their dressing of Lime render.

We are using Lime for a number of reasons. Firstly it is a breathable material, it will help the building lose moisture and thereby protect the timbers and straw. It acts as a natural rodent and insect deterant, which will be beneficial for our straw bales. Also it means we can avoid using cement, which is an extremly environmentally harmfull product. Cement and concrete have huge costs in terms of carbon dioxide. Lime also produces greenhouse gasses in its production, but unlike cement it reabsorbs CO2 as it sets. It gives a very different asthetic to the building compared to cement, it is a traditional material which has been used in building for centuries and gives a more natural look and feel.

The Lime render was mixed on site in a specialist mixer.

The first coat was then applied to the bales by being blown on with compressed air.

This forces the lime into the surface of the bales to form a really solid bond. The timbers in the walls were covered to avoid them from being coated with lime during the process.

A second coat is now being applied by hand, this coat contains goat hair to help keep it well bonded and strong, the final finish will be achieved with a third coat which will also be trowelled on.

Where we have a verandah protecting the walls their surface will be lime render, some of the building is more exposed to the elements though, and on these walls we are using oak weatherboards. The straw bales were built up against softwood studwork, lime mortar was used to cover the bales, a breathable membrane was then tacked on and the membrane is now being covered with boards.

The boards were cut on our mill using oak from Swan Barn Farm. Our weatherboards are feather edged, as you can see this means they are triangular in section, the thicker part of each board overlaps the thinner section. We wanted to use these boards partly to tie the building in aesthetically with the existing basecamp, but I also really like the way the square edges of the boards look against the roundwood of the frame and the the lime render.

The feather edge effect is created by placing a jig on the mill, after every pass of the saw the jig is turned to tip the block of oak one way or the other, this means the next cut is at a slight angle to the previous one giving the triangular section to the boards.

Each board only has one row of nails put in as it goes up, this will help to prevent them from splitting as they dry out. The top of the board is then held in place by the board which sits above it.

Its a lot of work to get it right and produce good quality boards, but I think they look great, this is the side of the building that you see as you arrive, and I think it will create quite an impression.

Last week we had another group of working holidays volunteers come to help on the project, thanks very much to all of them. They made another load of shingles for the roof, and amongst other things also christened our new charcoal kiln. We have been making charcoal here for a number of years, its a really useful way of using up offcuts of wood and less desirable species from the coppice and has great green credentials. We sell charcoal on the site and it is used by our volunteers for their barbq. I have always thought food can provide a useful introduction to environmental issues, and cooking your burger over some sustainably produced charcoal is a very good introduction to woodland management issues. For the last few years we have been borrowing a kiln, but now, thanks to a kind donation from local supporters group the Three Counties Association we now have one of our own.

The guys used up some of the alder which came out of the coppice last winter for the first burn. The process effectively removes the water and other volatile compontents from the wood by cooking it in the absence of oxygen, what is left behind is mostly the carbon structure of the wood. As well as making a great product for cooking your burgers the finer particles can be used as a soil conditioner in your garden, it holds in moisture and locks away carbon dioxide.

Its always interesting to see how much the volume of the produce in the kiln reduces by during the process, it was full at the start of the burn, but close up you can still see the structure, grain and even the bark of the wood.

Right from the beginning of the first plans we ever discussed for the build there was one particular bit of wood I knew had to be included. It took us over two years to get all of the neccessary permissions (internal and external) finalise the plans and get enough funding to get the project off the ground. Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen, but we were determined, probably had a fair slice of good luck and had a lot of freinds out there who supported us and helped us along the way.

In Cornwall the Rowan tree is held in particularly high regard. It’s thought to bring luck and to keep evil spirits at bay. You often find them planted at the entrances to properties, I have even seen them growing right next to front doors. I remember one of the guys I used to work with would always say you should be careful about cutting a Rowan, in case the witches get you. I’m not sure I believe in witches, but I do believe in luck, and right from the start wanted to find a special piece of rowan to put into the building.

I’ve always tried to encourage as many Rowans as possible on Black Down, they are great for wildlife, the blossom in the spring is a vital source of nectar, and the berries are a good food source for the birds in the late summer and autumn. I’m not sure if its my imagination, but this year the berries seem to have been a particularly vibrant red, lighting up any walk across the local commons.

Last winter when we were coppicing in the woods at Swan Barn Farm we came across a rowan that had been coppiced several times before. After wondering what uses its wood had been put to on the previous occasions when it had been coppiced I realised just where it ought to go this time.

It was a bitter day, in fact I remember it being a pretty bitter winter, but we were really enjoying knowing where the products of the woodland were going to be used in the coming year.

We saved the piece of Rowan that was cut that day, and brought it back to the build site with the rest of the timber we extracted. I had been thinking that it needed to go in the threshold of the front door, but it was pointed out to me that it might be disrespectful to step over it, I realised that the right place for it to go was over the door, most people who go under it probably wont notice, but I thought it was important to do something to mark the entrance, make it special, and give a bit of a nod towards the good luck that has brought us this far.

The other day its bark was peeled and it went onto the mill.

This was used to put a flat profile on it so it could be mounted.

Dylan made a great job of mounting it above the front door, you can see it here with the straw bales being trimmed up in the background.

Its not the most durable or hardy species in the world by any means, I don’t know how long it will last, but for me it binds up within it much of the feeling that has gone into the project.

Preparations have had to be made to our new straw bale walls for the lime render which will be applied to them. The openings around the doors and windows have had to be finished and we had to think ahead and make decisions about things like curtains, shelves and hanging points. It’s important to get fixings in position for this before the lime goes on so that they are solidly anchored into the bales.

Another little touch we have decided to put into the wall is a truth window.

I’ve seen them in a few straw bale buildings, and although you could argue its a bit twee, I quite like the idea. It sits somewhere unobtrusive in the wall surounded by render, but with the glass enabling visitors to see through the render to the straw, thereby telling some of the story of its construction. I made it from some offcuts of our floorboards and a piece of glass I had knocking about in the back of my shed at home.

The kitchen is going to require some strong fixing points so that we can mount cuboards onto the walls. To make sure they stay solid we have mounted bolts that go right back through the bales and tie into the wooden studwork on the outside of the wall.

After the walls have been plastered the kitchen cuboards will be mounted onto the bolts.

We also wanted to put some pegs in the walls so that we had fixing and hanging points in place. The pegs were cut out of some of the douglas fir we had left over from the joists. First of all we cut out some lengths on the mill.

Then we cut foot long blanks out of these lengths.

They were then ripped in half diagonally to make the basic peg.

Points were then cut on the pegs before they were hammered into the straw bales at the appropriate points. As well as going in for hanging points they are also being put in everywhere we will have power sockets and light switches. The back of the switching boxes will then be screwed onto the pegs when the second fix electical work is being done.

I realised as we were making them that the waste wood from pointing the pegs would make the perfect size of fuel for our kelly kettle.

We use it when we are out working in the woods in the winter. The top half of the kettle is a water jacket, it forms a cylinder which acts as a chimney for the fire which you light in the bottom section. In the picture above you can see the hole which the fire draws air through. The flames are drawn up inside the cylinder to boil the water. Its a great thing on a cold winters day in the woods and boils surprisingly quickly, especially if you have some nice small dry offcuts of timber to fuel it with.

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