Weird and wonderful #3

Not weird but certainly wonderful, I’ve been handling a good deal of ash and oak recently.   These have been firewood logs, however, with only a few bits suitable to be set aside for carving and other purposes.

Restrop Farm, where all my fuel comes from, is a small farm of rolling pasture fields and woodland.   Included within its bounds is Ringsbury Camp, an Iron Age hillfort (scheduled monument 1018124) which sits on a spur of rhaxella chert looking out from the limestone ridge over the head of the Thames Valley.   The views to the north, towards the Cotswold Hills, are fabulous.

About two-thirds of the hillfort banks and ditch are covered in trees, which along with the burrowing badgers have been compromising the integrity of the earthworks.   The interior has been ploughed in the past, although only for a relatively small part of the twentieth-century after the Second World War, and not (as far as I know) with deep ploughing equipment.   For many years the farm was owned by three sisters, the Misses Paginton, and their dairy farming practices were old-fashioned and gentle.   It is to be expected that archaeological remains inside the hillfort are in good condition, but aside from a few stray finds there has been no controlled excavation here.

Sometimes the yellow stony scree thrown up by the badgers, which rolls down the banks onto the hillfort’s encircling paths, is a reddish-brown colour.   This is the bloodstone, reputed in local story to be the stone stained red with the blood of unknown warriors who died in combat here – an event commemorated by the name of the nearby lane “Battlewell”, and “Red Street”, the alternative name for this part of the parish.

Ethel Richardson, in her local history published in 1919, mentions the possibility of there having been a Civil War skirmish here, when the lanes ran red with blood.   She ties the red of battle to the red which at the time was thought to be the origin of the place-name Restrop.   The historical truth is in a way more prosaic, and yet (to me) more romantic.    Restrop is derived from “Rada’s thorp” (Gover et al 1939); Rada, the name of the otherwise invisible Anglo-Saxon farmer who cared for his crops and animals on the hillside and in the coombes which cut through the limestone, looking out over the clayey Thames valley to see wisps of smoke rising from the hearths in the walled town of Cricklade to the north.

Oak and ash both grow well at Restrop, and useful woods they are.   They are both ring-porous.   The vessels which transport water and minerals up from the roots to the tree leaves are made up of cells that make long tubes.   Those vessels formed during rapid Spring growth are much larger than the tubes that grow in the Summer, thus forming rings which emphasise the tree’s growth rings (Abbott 1989, 2007:17).   You can see this in the photo below:

Ash and oak

Ash and oak

The piece of ash on the left has especially clear growth rings.   The rings of vessels are the darker, brown-coloured lines, in-between the pale wood fibres.   This piece comes from a faster-growing branch, which you can tell because there are only four or five growth rings to the inch.   Faster-grown ash is stronger than slow-grown because it contains more wood fibres, which is good for shock-resistance and is why ash is good for tool handles and furniture.   Ash grows best on deep soils over limestone; just like the banks of Ringsbury Camp.

On the right, the oak – showing the very clear distinction between the dark heartwood and the light sapwood.   Oak has a very strong and rich smell, owing to its acidic tannin content.   This makes the wood resistant to rot (but also eats into steel so I am very careful to clean my tools quickly and thoroughly after using them on oak) (Abbott 1989, 2007:26, 28).   There are a number of big oaks at Restrop, which have built themselves for strength against the wind that blows up and down the limestone ridge, and the prevailing weather rolling in down the valley from the west.   Oak is a sinuous wood.   Its strength and longevity have resulted in more than 90% of building timbers being taken from oak trees (Rackham 1986, 1995:86).

Now that the hedgerows and woods are greening up, it’s time to take a good look at the ash and oak growing at Restrop to see which buds come out first,

“Ash before oak – in for a soak;

Oak before ash – in for a splash.”


Abbott, M. (1989, 2007)  Green Woodwork   Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications

Gover, J.E.B., Mawker, A., Stenton, F.M. (1939)  The Place-names of Wiltshire   English Place-Names Society/Cambridge University Press

Rackham, O. (1986, 1995)  The History of the Countryside   London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Richardson, E.M. (1919)  The Story of Purton; a collection of notes and hearsay   Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd

This post is the third in an occasional series called “Weird and Wonderful”.

Weird and Wonderful #2

At last, some good weather!   Finally, I have cut my willow.   I wouldn’t normally have left it this late, but it’s been so difficult to get on the ground in this rain.   Neither do I have the right space to store too much greenwood; so it’s really important that my raw materials are in tip-top condition to keep, if I’m not going to use them right away.

These considerations bring to mind two issues: good materials; and seasonality.

I grow different varieties of willow, each of which is a basketry type: Salix purpurea “Dicky Meadows”; Salix purpurea “Lancashire Dicks”;  Salix triandra “French”; Salix daphnoides “Continental Purple” and Salix alba vitelina “Britzensis”.   Here is the first wonderful thing about willow.   Many varieties produce great rods for basketry – good for their long, slender, straight rods with strong skin, and with flat, close-growing buds.

In Britain there are eighteen native willow species and twenty-seven interspecific hybrids (Brendell 1985:2).   The second wonderful thing about willow is that it is fabulously successful at reproducing.   There is widespread hybridisation, it flowers and seeds, and it will “strike”; push a 9″ stick of willow into the ground in early Spring, and it will root and grow for you.

Following on from willow’s strong inclination to expand its tribe is its determination to keep on growing.   Cut back some willow, and return next year to see how well it has come on!   Be amazed at all the straight rods growing out of the treetop where a branch has fallen away in a storm!   I imagine that it would take no more than a season to realise how easy, and how valuable, it is to manage willow to grow really useful products; from basketry rods to fence- and building-sized poles on pollarded trees.

Which brings me to seasonality.   It’s time to cut the basketry rods once all the leaves have fallen off.   This is usually from November.   The rods are then a season old, good and straight with no branching, the buds are small and flat, the leaves have fallen naturally.   You can continue to cut over the Winter, until the sap has started to rise again, when the buds on the rods will start to push on.   As long as you can keep your harvested rods cool and dry (beware mould and frost), you don’t have to use them right away.   They change from “greens” = unseasoned rods, to “browns” = seasoned rods.   All it takes is the right amount of soaking and damping when you need them, and you can make baskets with your browns any time of the year.

So if you do want to store your rods, this has an impact on the building space that you need.   The right space for storage, the right space for soaking and mellowing, the right space for working (although working space is the least demanding).   Which is another way of saying that it was not necessary in the past for life to be entirely governed by the seasons, given planning and preparation.

Last year, however, the lack of frosts meant that my plants still had leaves well into December.   Then it seemed that it would never stop raining.   If I had cut my rods a few weeks ago, I would have risked loosing the lot to rot in storage.   As it is, I was only just in time, as you’ll see from the photos (the buds, especially towards the tips, were starting to sprout).   The photos also suggest another wonderful thing about willow, the beautiful range of bark colours.

What the pictures can’t convey, however, is the last wonderful characteristic of willow that I want to highlight.   The fabulously spicy, salty, aromatic smell.

Willow harvest, March 2014

Willow harvest, March 2014

Willow harvest, March 2014

Willow harvest, March 2014

Brendell, T. (1985)   Willows of the British Isles   Princes Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd

This post is the second in an occasional series called “Weird and Wonderful”.