Scything On Walthamstow Marshes
Raf Szafruga, heroic scyther
In celebration of Lammastide, which marks the beginning of the grain harvest, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I went along to join the mowers wielding scythes on Walthamstow Marshes at the weekend. Although scything exists in the public imagination as a resolutely macho activity, we discovered a range of participants of both sexes and all ages eager to take up scythes and set forth onto the grasslands.
Devised by Kathrin Böhm & Louis Buckley, this is the third year of Community Hay Harvest upon the Lammas Lands, which were originally drained for agriculture in ancient times and exist now as one of the last areas of natural marshland in London, protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
In the nineteenth century, this became the location of conflict when the East London Waterworks illegally fenced off some of the marshes and, on 1st August 1892, several thousand local people turned out to take down the fences and reclaim the Common Land. William Morris, who was born and brought up in Walthamstow and knew these marshes as child, was instrumental in setting up the Commons Preservation Society in 1865 to protect land such as this, which has been in common ownership for centuries.
“We’ve hit one hundred!” declared scything expert Clive Leeke, who had been giving lessons, “more than one hundred local people have come to learn scything.” As the climax of the afternoon, the joyful scythers set off together in a line cutting rhythmically through the long grass under the wide sky and Clive explained that, in spite of the heat, he was not expecting see any perspiration. Scything is about having good technique and a sharp blade rather than physical strength, I learnt.
Nevertheless, it was obvious that Raf Szafruga from Poland made headway across the marshes far in advance of all the other mowers. Clive explained that, over the weekend, East Europeans who were blackberrying around the marsh came to join the scything and had no need of lessons. “They’ve never lost touch with the land, like we have,” he admitted to me with a grin and a shrug.
Yet as we turned our heads, we could see the line of mowers their working away across the marsh as they would have done before the railway came and it was remarkable how swiftly they had picked up these age-old skills. At the end of proceedings, Clive presented a Lammas loaf to the mower with best overall performance and style, and we all went away sunburnt and satisfied by a memorable summer afternoon on Walthamstow Marshes.
Scything Guru, Clive Leeke, teaches ‘Scything without tears’
Richard Williams - “I was born in the country but I have lived in London for thirty years”
Sharpening the blades with whetstones
Natalie Wood won the prize for the best windrow
Julian Weston - “Yesterday, I did my first scything and today I won a competition.”
Kathrin Böhm & her son Lawrence
Kathrin - “My heart is gladdened that so many people have come out to give it a try”
Kent & William Sturgis
Lammas loaf baked by Jojo Tulloh with flour ground in Hackney
Click on this group photo to enlarge
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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