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Haymaking On Walthamstow Marshes

July 21, 2016
by the gentle author

Raf Szafruga, heroic scyther

Last summer, 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. This year you can join them yourself on Saturday 30th & Sunday 31st July from 10:30am each day. Devised by Kathrin Böhm & Louis Buckley, this is the fourth 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.”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.

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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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Vanda Human permalink
    July 21, 2016

    Isn’t it amazing what can be achieved when a community works together.

  2. Shawdian permalink
    July 21, 2016

    Wonderful. Credit to them all. I had no idea this was taking place on Walthamstow Marshes. William Morris is close to my heart being the best friend of George Bernard Shaw and would be heartened that so many are taking part. Over the years many skills and traditions have disappeared, though I know this tool is still used in other European Countries. Scything looks back breaking hard work and something I associate with Thomas Hardy novels with casks of Cider and huge chunks of bread and cheese wrapped in a cheese cloth eaten under the open skies with young maiden’s by their sides. Both men and women toiled the fields yet it is men who are mainly associated with the scythe. I have only seen the scything tool in old photographs or in television programmes depicting life down South and have wanted to give it a try as the tool fascinates me with its odd shape of long curved metal and long lithe wooden handle. It looks magical like there is a secret way to use it only a few know how. The scythe is also the tool you see in many drawings associated with Death. Who makes the Scything Tool, is it manufactured or are there still skilled people out there creating them? Are there Scything competitions a Society? I am interested now and will be doing some research. Delighted this tool is still used and that Walthamstow Marshes has had a traditional hair cut by so many good people. I would have liked to have been there on the great weekend 30th and 31st July. Hail to the Scyther’s who are rightly proud of what they do, thank you for sharing.

  3. Alison Homewood permalink
    July 21, 2016

    This account inexplicably brought tears to my eyes. Life is beautiful at its simplest. What a poster boy Mr Szagrugga is too. We have a lot to learn from the Poles….

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 21, 2016

    Cleared area visible from the Chingford-line trains, too!
    [ JJ Tulloh has written a couple of good cookbooks, too – IIRC she holds an allotment in Leyton ]

    Watch out for the little Egrets, especially early in the morning – they moved in about 2 years back.

  5. July 21, 2016

    Such a nice blog with a good community spirit they were blessed with really good weather. This was hot thirsty work I noticed a tent perhaps for refreshments. You are right about good scything the curved blade must be kept super sharp that’s the secret, its so much easier with big side-sweeps. After all the hay is harvested there will be thousands of seeds not gleaned. I notice flocks of birds just waiting to mop up the fallen seeds, a second harvest. Where does all the hay go to perhaps for the horses at Hyde Park Barracks. Thanks to GA and Colin O. PS don’t let them ‘try’ to build here please keep it safe as a SSI for the community and all the dedicated marshland people. John B

  6. July 21, 2016

    I believe that growing hay on the marshes has a more recent history than the nineteenth century campaigns. I have inherited a photograph of haystacks on Hackney marshes apparently taken during the war.Does anyone else remember this? Know any more about this?

  7. pauline taylor permalink
    July 21, 2016

    Good to see so many people enjoying themselves on the marshes. My great grandparents lived in Spring Lane, right beside the river Lea and I have photos of paintings, that another branch of the family have inherited (worse luck), that show the view over the marshes towards Walthamstow.

    I think that most men in the village where I grew up would have known how to use a scythe, and a rip too of course, very useful tools in the countryside, but I doubt if anyone who lives there now has the skill which is another sad sign of the times in which we live.

    My grandfather was a farm bailiff so my mother, who could plough with a team of heavy horses as well as any man, taught me a love and a respect for the land and for the horses too of course. It makes me weep to see how much both are neglected now, and to hear and read about flooding on country lanes makes me mad as hardly any ditches exist now, and if they do they are not cleared regularly and encouraged to flow towards the river as my grandfather made sure that his deep ditches were. We lose all these skills and all this wisdom at our peril!! Wild flowers have already vanished and birds are being deprived of their nesting sites while we root out hedgerows and fell trees and concrete over far too much of the remaining countryside for our own convenience.

    All of which is a long winded way of saying how pleased I am to see that these people here still care. All power to their elbow, especially when using the scythe!!

  8. Kavin robert permalink
    July 25, 2016

    Wow. It’s sounds great.
    I grew up in the country side.
    And I knew they used to do this.

  9. kathi richards permalink
    July 26, 2016

    Reading this and seeing the photos caused me to smile. Thank you to all the participants, the teachers, the ones who recorded the event.

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