This week I’m getting ready to mow wheat in Lancashire as part of Whitey’s Working Weekend. The hosts, Margaret & Andrew Webster, came to the Cumbria Scythe Festival with their family to see if they could find someone with a scythe to take part in their ‘Harvesting through the ages’ demonstration and, for some reason, I put my hand up.
The thing with cereals is, because of the seed head, they’re top-heavy so when they’re cut they have a tendency to fall all over the place rather than being carried by the blade into neat windrows like grass is. This is even more important with cereals as you ideally want the stems aligned ready to make into sheaves. Otherwise it’s a long job to sort and collect up. What’s needed is some kind of catcher to collect the stems as they’re cut and put them neatly to the mower’s left hand side and there’s basically two types to choose from. The simplest is a thin willow or hazel rod bent into a curve and attached at the blade which pushes the cereals in the right direction. More advanced is the cradle, a contraption of long fingers suspended on a frame above the blade. These collect up the stems which can be dumped out at the end of the stroke into a neat sheaf. Allegedly.
They were most common in the US, with millions in use during the 1800’s and there’s plenty to be found in old photos and museums. Finding someone who’s ever done it is proving more difficult even though they were still used into the 20th century to ‘open up’ the field for a machine.
For a couple of years now I’ve been working with my friend John Letts, who grows ancient wheat in Oxfordshire, on developing the tools and techniques for harvesting. John & I have built and tried out a few different models with varying success. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to his Lammas Day harvest festival this year where he unveiled this futuristic aluminium model.
So there’s a really good reason I put my hand up. I’ve got the chance to play with whatever bows and cradles I can make in a field full of wheat with the owner’s blessing. Hopefully something will work but even more than that, I’mhoping someone will be stood in the crowd gently shaking their head and smiling before coming over to show me how it should be done.