Cradle trials for harvesting wheat

Clear blue skies, old tractors and a field full of wheat greeted me for my mowing demonstration over the bank holiday weekend.

Margaret & Andrew Webster, with their family and David White had done a fantastic job of putting together the event, held in  Aughton in Lancashire.  I’m not really a tractor fan and know pretty much nothing about that world but I couldn’t have hoped to spend the weekend with a friendlier group of folk. Various machines looking more or less like tractors as we know them took to the field ploughing, harrowing, ditching or simply cruising at an awesome 2mph.  All of them were working, most of them were immaculate and a lot of them sounded better than my peugeot.

Bow cradle

Bow cradle

My involvement was to mow their wheat by scythe as part of ‘Harvesting through the ages’.  I was shown the two 1-acre blocks and told I could experiment and play as much as I wanted.  First off, I worked with a scythe fitted with a simple willow bow, a peasant’s cradle that I’ve seen in many old photos.  The wheat was easy to cut and not as heavy as I expected with the bonus of making a satisfying sound as it was cut.  The bow certainly did it’s job of pushing the stems over into a row though they often got caught in the web which made them messy.

Straight snath scythe with FAO cradle

FAO cradle

On Monday I switched to the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) cradle, a model that was designed for use in the developing world after WWII.  More difficult to make, it works basically on the same principle, pushing the stems over as you cut. The wire mesh prevented the stems getting tangled and improved things a lot.  I’d build this onto an Eastern-Europe style scythe with a straight shaft and single handgrip, another first for me.  Once I found my rhythm I could happily cut a 4ft swath, tipping my right hand at the end of each stroke to drop the wheat into a row. With the sun beating down I felt like I was really harvesting.

Plenty of people wanted to stop me for a chat and provide an opportunity for a rest.  Lots of them could remember their father using a scythe to cut around the edge of a wheat field to make space for the reaper but none had actually done it themselves.  About a dozen chaps showed me how to use the wheat itself to tie up a sheaf, in two different ways. At least they would have done if it hadn’t been so short and we’d been cutting it green when it’s not so brittle.  Their memories were all interesting, I never tired of hearing them.

It was a great weekend and a fantastic opportunity to learn.  Many thanks to the Webster’s for inviting me and their hospitality.

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About Steve Tomlin

I am a greenwood worker and scythe tutor. I carve spoons, bowls and other products from locally sourced greenwood. During the summer I teach scything around the UK.
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