Coppicing the Nut Walk

Coppicing the Nut Walk

 

It has snowed and frozen on and off for some days now. The medieval gardens

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at Prebendal Manor are blanketed in white and imprinted with the feet patterns of people, dogs, ducks, rabbits, sheep, geese and numerous other creatures. Gardening is out. Today I decided, it was a good time to thin the Nut Walk as it is creating too much shade for the vegetable garden and orchard. Wearing a pair of waterproof boots; a pair of leather chaps, left over from my horse riding days, but which are really good for cold weather; several layers of tee shirts, ruby shirts and jumpers and some woollen fingerless gloves (I can never find a pair of leather gloves that are tight enough to work safely) I set out into the cold air to the tool shed. The Gardener’s Hut is a wattle and daub building that some friends and I built about eleven years ago. The thatch is falling off, but today the snow covering the roof made it quite warm inside – well, compared to being outside…

I collected my tools which were:

A carpenter’s ‘Jet Saw’ that costs less than £10 from a DIY outlet.

They cut through most wood very easily and unlike bow saws they will go through thick wood, they will get into difficult spaces and they cut in straight lines and don’t go wandering off as a bow saw often will. There is never enough adjustment on a bow saw to get the blade as tight as is required.

A curved-ended blade billhook.

I have used curved blades since I was about 9 for splitting kindling, so it is what I am used to. I have tried straight blades but they don’t get behind branches like my favourite blade. I bought this one second hand in Lavenham. The blade is sharp and I have sanded the handle to remove the varnish and oiled it instead. This gives me a better grip and stops the handle spinning in my hand.

The nut walk is for shade. Medieval ladies showed their status by having pale faces. This showed that they did not have to work in the open air, getting sun or wind burned. They stayed in the shade by walking under arbours and remaining out of the sun. This is certainly preferable to using some rather noxious chemicals to whiten the face. I started by cutting out the taller and thicker branches. The inention is too thin out the larger branches. This may mean losing some nut bearing branches, but as O mentioned it is shade, not the nuts, that I want. In spite of this, some years I have been lucky and the squirrels have kindly left me a few nuts.

I didn’t cut at the base as I wanted do that later using a good pruning saw. On such a freezing day I wanted to do lots of sawing and chopping as this type of work keeps you warm. I cut through the branch and then pull it out, which is usually not that easy as the smaller branches get tangled in the all the other growth. The next job is to trim off the side branches. This is when I use the billhook. I stand on one side and at the base of the branch. Working towards the twiggy end, I remove the branches on the opposite side. A sharp billhook would make a nasty cut in the leg. Better safe than sorry. The twiggy end easily removed and I stacked the main stem to be later cut for firewood. To trim the smaller branches I hold by the thick end in the air in front of me, then using the bill hook, I cut off the side branches, working towards the thin end. The brash may be bundled for the house fire if I have time. They may be used for pea sticks and or they might end up on a bonfire. Usually it is a combination of all three options.

The sheep wandered over, deciding to pass the time by watching me work. They nibbled at some twiggy growth and watched me again. They were very inquisitive and hungry sheep. They couldn’t eat the grass as the snow had formed a hard, frozen layer over the sparse grass.  I watched the sheep, and they watched me, expectantly, with dark mournful eyes. ‘Feeding time?’ they seemed to suggest. I stopped work and walked to a large ivy-clad willow. The sheep had already eaten all the greenery for as high as they could reach. I lopped off some large branches of ivy and took them back to the sheep. I didn’t even have time to get the ivy on the ground before they began tearing at the leaves.

Josie is a Saxon breed, now known as Norfolk Horn, a genuinely rare ‘rare-breed’. She is at least fourteen years old, which is ancient for a sheep in these modern times.  Josie stuffed her face into the leaves, getting her horns tangled. She carried on eating. She was far too hungry to worry about anything else. The other two sheep are a modern breed, but I have no idea which one. They aren’t very pretty to look at, but they are friendly. The younger one, Billie, is silly and usually leaves her food to follow you, in the hope of getting something better. Her mother then eats the food that Billie walked away from. In spite of this Billie is very fat. Just as well in the circumstances.

Very quickly there was a pile of bare ivy stalks and three very contented sheep. They decided I had served my purpose and wandered off in search of some bare grass.

I continued to saw and billhook my way along the Nut Walk. The easterly wind was cold and blasted sawdust into my eyes. The sky was a wash of grey with a dull lemon splodge where the sun hid behind the clouds. Saw, drag, trim, stack. Saw, drag, trim, stack. Very repetitive, but very satisfying as the Nut Walk began to look less overgrown and let more light into the orchard and vegetable garden behind.

A large mass of wild ducks waddled on the top bank of the fish ponds, knocking up clouds of snow and impatiently quacking to be fed. The manor’s geese began to cackle and strode into the army of invading ducks to let them know who was in charge and had first rights to food. Some ducks remained on the pond, rotating on the only ice-free patch of water, beneath the willow that leans over the water’s edge. The sheep stood by the gate into the garden. It was nearly feeding time for them, so they began bleating for their meal. Jane came into the garden with a wheelbarrow loaded with a bale of hay. The sheep promptly followed. The geese cackled furiously and the ducks quacked and scurried around. I continued to work on the coppice. It became quiet once more as birds and animals fed and disappeared into their shelters.

The wind became colder and stronger. The sky turned a deep orange and then red which spread across the sky. Red sky at night, but somehow I didn’t think the shepherds would be delighted- just very cold. I felt the cold wind on my now warm cheeks and shivered a little as the sharp breeze cut through my clothes. It was getting too dark to work safely. There would be plenty of time to finish the task the following day. Now it was time to get back indoors to the aga-warmed kitchen for a refreshing cup of tea.

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I am a garden historian, but a practical one. I resarch how gardening was carried out in the past, rather than just researching gardens. It can be very interesting. Some things that I learn seem to be rather unbelievable. Some other methods are still very practical. Visit my web site- www.historicgardener.co.uk

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