Archives for the month of: March, 2012

I’m not sure if it is a sign of the state of my mind, but I am sure I am sometimes quite bad at repeating myself. This is a bit of an occupational hazard when it comes to writing these posts, hopefully it isn’t too bad. With that in mind (but with the excuse that a year has gone by since I last wrote about it) its birch sap wine making time again. I am a great believer in thinking about where your food comes from, and trying to keep it as local as possible. What better way of doing this than making your own wine. One of my favourites is wine made from the sap of the Silver Birch tree. This is partly because it tastes nice, but I suspect also largely because its making charts the passing of the seasons, and I also always make it from trees growing in a place close to my heart.

First you need to choose your tree, go for a nice healthy looking one somewhere out of the way, I try not to use the same one each year so as to tread lightly.

Drill a hole the same size as the plastic tube you have brought with you. The hole should follow an upwards angle into the tree, but doesn’t need to go in any more than about an inch.

Now is the time to tap the trees, just as the sap is rising in the spring. I try and catch them just before the leaves unfirl, but it will work for the next couple of weeks or so. If you have caught it right you should find the hole starts to leak sap pretty much straight away.

Place your demijohn at the base of the tree, put one end of your plastic tube in the hole in the tree and the other in the demijohn.

I then usually gather up some bracken and twigs and use it to hide the demijohn, it is going to need leaving out for a day or two and you wouldn’t want it attracting any undue attention. I also use a small piece of cotton wool to block up the neck of the demijohn and stop any flies or bits and bobs falling into the sap.

Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes two, but after a while the watery sap will fill the container. It is perfectly edible straight from the tree, it tastes like slightly twiggy water.

When you collect your demijohn its important to stop up the hole in the tree before you leave. Otherwise the tree will continue to loose sap and will have a wound in it that would allow easy entry for pathogens. I cut a peg from a small piece of wood, knock it into the hole and then trim it off flush with the tree.

To turn the sap into wine you will need: 1 gallon of birch sap, 2 lemons, 1/2 lb of chopped raisins, 2lb of sugar and a sachet of wine yeast.

Add the juice and some of the zest from the lemons to the birch sap and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and add the raisins and sugar. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Leave until lukewarm and then add a general purpose wine yeast. Put in a fermenting bin until initial fast fermentation has slowed down. Then transfer (leaving behind the raisins etc) to a demijohn and fit an airlock. After a couple of weeks when the sediment has settled out rack off into a clean demijohn. Then leave to ensure fermentation has finished and all sediment has settled before bottling. It should be ready to drink by the late summer, but will be even better if you leave it till this time next year.

While we are on the topic of things produced by trees, we had a slightly odd example of this last week on Black Down just a bit further up the slope from where I tapped this years tree. We had a visit from an artist from London who produces his art in a bit of an unusual way… he lets the trees do the drawing for him.

He wanted a site to do some filming and produce some artwork and remembered Black Down from a visit a few years ago. He got in touch to ask for permission to film. It made a little bit of money to help with the management of the site, and he was actually quite an interesting guy to talk too. I am very passionate about trees and it was nice to meet someone else who had a deep appreciation for them, I’m not saying I was a huge fan of the pictures, but the process of their production was really interesting.

He used elastic bands to attach pens to the tips of long flowing branches in the pine trees, then put canvasses on easels under the pens. The breeze and the motion of the tree does the rest.

It was on a pretty quiet part of the hill, but needless to say still attracted a couple of comments from curious passers by.

They certainly chose a pretty special place to produce there art. The view from Black Down over the South Downs has been really fantastic over the past couple of weeks with all the sunny skies we have been seeing.

In case you are wondering what a drawing done by a pine tree looks like, here is a sneak preview of what I am told will shortly be found somewhere on a gallery wall in London.



This year at Swan Barn Farm we have a bit of an easter treat for kids big and small. On 7th April there will be a woodland easter egg trail at Swan Barn Farm. It costs £2 to take part, there will be a trail of clues to answer around the woodland and fields and at the end they can claim their easter egg prize. There is plenty of parking in Haslemere town centre and from there it is pretty easy to find your way either down Collards Lane or across the fields behind the car park where the farmers market is held to the start point.

For grown up’s it will be an opportunity to see Swan Barn Farm at its best. The woods are looking fantastic at the moment with the spring wild flowers approaching their peak.

The flowers on the willow trees are alive with the sound of buzzing bee’s collecting pollen to feed to the new brood back in the hives.

Also this week the hazel and hawthorn buds have started to burst. The woods are turning green again.

The pictures in this post were taken within 10 minutes walk of the High Street in Haslemere. I know I am biased, but I think Swan Barn Farm is one of the best things about the town. There are so few places left these days where open countryside can be found right next to the town centre. Within the space of a few minutes you can leave the bustle behind you and be strolling along a woodland stream with celendines and wood anenomies blooming for all they are worth along its banks.

The celendines are one of my absolute favourites, I know they are relatively common, but when they catch and reflect the spring sunlight they are prettier than anything you could find in any garden.

The first bluebells of the year are flowering as well, in a couple of weeks time they should be looking great.

Meanwhile, back on the speckled wood project things have been moving on inside the building. We now have internal doors, door frames and linings and skirting boards. I am really pleased with how they look.

Downstairs in the main roon the kitchen has been taking shape too.

It was handmade from Scots pine which was felled on Black Down as part of our Heathland Restoration Project. I remember the day Matt and I felled the trees for it. There was snow on the ground and a freezing fog in the air, all in all it couldn’t have been more different to how the weather has been recently.

The logs sat at Swan Barn Farm for several months before being milled and then kiln dried to ensure they wouldn’t warp and move in the finished kitchen. As they waited to be milled they developed staining which is characteristic of pine called blueing. This greeny blue stain forms in the wood and is often frowned upon when the wood is used for joinery (allthough it is an easy way to id sawn pine). But, I think it looks pretty, it adds character to the kitchen. Knowing where it came from and how it got here makes it fit in with the way the whole build reflects the local landscape. Hopefully later in the year it will be being used for some of the harvest from the new vegetable patch.

I was particularly pleased with how the shelves turned out, they are scribed around the cruck and jowel posts and make really useful storage areas in what would otherwise have been wasted space.

The slate for the worktops was made out of an old planter that used to reside in the garden of a nearby National Trust cottage. It was falling apart but the pieces were saved when the cottage was refurbished. I got to hear about it and managed to purloin them for the kitchen, they have needed cutting into a bit of a jigsaw to make them fit, but I think they are going to work really well. They certainly look good, and being recycled fit right in to the ethos of the build.

Things are moving on, and we are hoping to be finished sometime in the next month or so. Sometime soon we will be looking for people to come and stay in the new building and volunteer in the local countryside. More on that soon I hope.

For me one of the main points of the whole project here at Swan Barn Farm has been the way we are trying to make the site more sustainable, and how we can demonstrate to the many visitors and volunteers who come here that it is possible for really positive countryside management to coexist with productivity and usefull materials from the land. I don’t think we will start to live up to these ideals without having a functioning vegetable garden. As well as the lucky three volunteers who will live in Speckled Wood at least a couple of hundred working holidays volunteers stay in the basecamp every year, I want them to be able to have the opportunity of putting their hands in the soil and helping with looking after as well as eating the fruits of a new vegetable garden.

I am now getting a bit worried as I type this, although I am a keen vegetable gardener at home I am also aware I am no expert, I feel sure we are bound to be bothered by a plague of slugs or rabbits or some other pest, but I guess that is all part of the journey. As long as we get something edible to go on the volunteers plates I think we will all be able to be proud.

We all have to start somewhere, and at Swan Barn Farm the start was creating some new beds at the side of the basecamp. Catherine used our sawmill to make some lovely oak raised bed kits. The oak for them came from within sight of the basecamp and will also be providing some new benches which will be going out on Black Down and Marley in the coming weeks.

I like using raised beds for vegetables, they make weeding and mulching easier and look really smart too, at home I have given over the front garden to a vegetable patch, I reckon they are as pretty as any flower bed.

A fair bit of pondering over levels and measurements ensued, we wanted to get them nice and level, as well as properly lined up with the basecamp. It was also important to make sure they were not going to get in the way of the events we hold here over the summer months.

Much head scratching and laying out of string lines was shortly followed 6 new raised beds. The ground slopes fairly steeply, so we had to sink one corner of the bed into the ground and raise up the other corners to get them nice and level.

I found the finished effect of them cascading down the slope at the side of the basecamp rather pleasing, to me they speak of the promise of fantastic future meals. I am sure I caught one or two of our local rabbit population eying them up greedily as well. I think a bit of rabbit fencing is going to be required.

We were lucky to have the kind donation of some well rotted farmyard manure from a nearby National Trust site to help get us off to a good start. Matt fetched it with our tractor and trailor, but getting it onto the beds still involved a bit of wheelbarrowing around the project site. All of that was made much easier as David was here in his mini digger starting on some of the landscaping works. It certainly was a lot quicker than filling each barrow by hand.

We also levelled and top soiled over the muddy patches that had appeared over the lawn at the front of the basecamp. These will be seeded so we start to get the place looking a little less like a building site.

The water trough you can see by the beds is fed using recycled rainwater from the roofs of the buildings, we have a really clever rainwater harvesting system now which went in as part of the project,must remember to write a post on that soon.

Spring is moving on fast here, hopefully we will have some vegetables in the ground soon. It is also a busy time for the livestock. The Jacobs sheep that graze in the orchard are expecting lambs any day soon and we have two cows in the fields at Shottermill which will be calving later in the spring. We have added a few extra numbers to our herd of belted galloway cattle this year so we can keep up with the grazing that needs to be done. One misty morning not long ago some new steers from Woolbeding arrived to add to the herd.

Along with George and May, the calves born here last year, they will be the grazing force for Marley Common this year. Yesterday we took them up onto the Common so they could start their job of munching and trampling and thereby providing the conditions that are required by so much of the rare and fascinating wildlife that lives there.

Its always a thrill seeing the animals making their way out onto the heath in the spring, it took such a lot of hard work by everyone here to restore the heathlands at Marley and Black Down, they have come so far in the last few years and are real havens for wildlife as well as providing fantastic access and views of the new South Downs National Park. With the weather like it is at the moment surely there is nothing better than blowing away the last of the winter cobwebs with a walk through the local countryside.

Spring is well and truly underway here at Swan Barn Farm. The warm weather has got the birds singing in the hedgerows and the wildflowers starting to peek their heads above the ground. The hazel catkins have been opening up for a while now and this week I spotted the first willow flowers of the year. That always bring two things to my mind, firstly my daft collie who was named after the willow flowers I saw on the day I went to fetch her from the rescue charity, and secondly it makes me breath a sigh of relief for the bee’s. When the hazel and willow starts to flower I know the worst is over for them.

These bluebell leaves were stretching for the light in the coppice woodland where the oak for our beams and floorboards came from.

Just back across the fields I got this glimpse of the building.

It really makes me smile when I see the building across the fields or through the woods. I hope that is an effect that a few people are sharing in, and one that wont wear off for a while.

Work has been continuing apace on the building, last week the final verandah boards were screwed down.

Now its done I can really see what a fantastic space it is going to be for the people who live there. This side of the building is washed over with early morning sunshine, the perfect spot for breakfast.

On the inside Perry and John from West Sussex Carpentry have been working hard on our doorframes and skirting boards. We milled most of the last of our air dryed oak for them to use, I’m sure this project is a bit out of the ordinary for most people in the building trade, but they are coping with us and our sustainability concerns admirably.

There is lots of pipework to box in as well so the guys have there work cut out. The door linings downstairs are looking good already though.

This week saw another milestone for the project, albeit a bit of a sad one. Our Seasonal Warden Catherine came to the end of her contract and unfortunately has left us. I am sure we will see her again, and I know she will be going on to bigger and better things, but we will certainly miss her.

She has been here for about a year and a half, her first week was a bit of a baptism of snow, we were working in the Hazel coppice here at Swan Barn Farm and the only way to keep warm was to work hard.

The roads were so bad that hardly anyone was managing to get around, Catherine managed it though in her tiny yolk car, a sign of how determined she can be.

She very kindly made a present for us, a chainsaw carving of a Speckled Wood butterfly which we all thought was brilliant. I’m sure you know that the building was named Speckled Wood after the pretty little butterfly that frequents the type of woodland glades that have been created as part of sourcing the timber for the project. This afternoon I put it up in pride of place over the verandah.

Good luck Cat, see you soon!

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