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Scything On Walthamstow Marshes

August 4, 2015
by the gentle author

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.”

Louis Buckley

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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. August 4, 2015

    Good to see that the Marshes are still there and haven’t been built over, and wonderful that people are learning the old traditions again. Valerie

  2. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    August 4, 2015

    Marvellous story. Thanks
    In 1875 John de Morgan pulled down a fence that cut off a triangular piece of land that is now occupied by the Mossbourne Academy. That piece of land was part of Hackney Downs and had been bought by the Grocers’ Company for their school. de Morgan objected to this common(Lammas) land being cut off from the main portion of Hackney Downs. Thus he pulled down the fence. The Grocers’ Company were forced to erect a more substanial dividor to protect their new school.
    This wall remains and is all that remains of Hackney Downs (formerly The Grocers’ Company’s) School. Melvyn Brooks Karkur Israel

  3. August 4, 2015

    Another example of great community spirit!

  4. Genevieve permalink
    August 4, 2015

    Very very interesting. My son forwarded this to me from USA. There was scything at Forty Hall last week. My grandfather could scythe.

  5. Jill permalink
    August 4, 2015

    I had no idea the Hackney Marshes were still open ground – hooray! I’m sure my dad (a big Hammers fan) used to talk of a West Ham training ground in the Marshes? Well done to all the scythers, it looks incredibly difficult.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    August 5, 2015

    Walthamstow Marshes always appeal as I pass over on the train – or less often these days, cycle across & down them. In Spring or Autumn, sometimes the train is suspended over a white sea of mist in the morning’s low sunlight.
    Pity I didn’t know about the event – I learnt to use a scythe over 30 years ago …
    The wildlife alone deserves several write-ups – “Count the Egrets” is a good game to play on a morning Walthamstow – Liverpool St train, because white Little Egrets have moved in (the first one was seen early in 2014) & they are now a regular occurrence.
    Other things you might not expect, but live down there:
    Rabbits, Weasels, Terns, Kingfishers, Great Crested Newt.
    I’ve not seen the last, but all the others will show up on the right day or conditions.

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