Tales from the Wood

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New Plantation and Wood Stack

We've been in the woods for most of April - well at least in the mornings! - logging windblown trees and splitting down, ready for next winter's wood-fuel.

Suddenly the new plantation has burst into life - almost overnight. It's a comforting sight; you never really know how things are going to turn out, especially when you revisit the image of desolation after clear-felling!

Couldn't resist the 'before and after' shots!




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Rhododendron Meets The Slasher

The Slasher or sometimes called a Brushing Hook is a much underrated woodland tool. Its primary purpose is to cut and clear brash and stem material, and it was used extensively to cut back hedgerows in the days before tractor-driven flails came into widespread use.

It takes some getting used to, as the cutting sweep has to be aimed upwards, so cutting along the direction of growth. It feels strange at first, as you don't get the same momentum as you would with the more familiar downward or horizontal swing of tools like axes and sledge hammers. On rhododendrons, it works a treat (although I do sometimes resort to a powered brush cutter).

And talking of rhododendrons - the new coppice plantation has been plagued with these invasive plants since replanting, so once again I've cut them back, but this time around, I've treated the cut stems with biocide, which I must admit, I don't like doing. However, spot treatment is much less environmentally damaging than spraying, and it's the only solution at this stage, as pulling plants out with a tractor is not an option amongst the densely packed saplings.

Perhaps not a surprise, but there was no sign of insect life or ground plants anywhere near the rhododendron bushes. Rhododendron ponticum are allelopathic and exude biochemicals which prevent the germination of any competing species, and as the leaves are toxic, they are never grazed down by deer, hare or other mammals. On the whole, they are bad news, at least in this part of the world.

Oh, and the seedlings have a nasty habit of setting up home, right next to tree roots. Clever little Ponticums!



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Gathering Winter Fuel

I'm very lucky to live overlooking a beautiful nature reserve. It's designated as a SSSI and it's Norfolk reed is cut on a three year rotation. As the reed is not of thatching quality and it is worked up into habitat piles. However, when dried, it makes a wonderful fuel for open-firing, so now I'm hoping to cut and dry a decent amount, to see me through next year's firing season.

The scythe I am using is a modified Austrian model, fitted with a simple hazel bow. The bow (or Boyle as it's known in these parts) helps stop the reeds hinging back behind the cut and makes bundling a lot easier. This little wrinkle was shown to me by Eric Edwards, one of the last traditional reed cutters in Norfolk. He was a charming man and always willing to share his considerable knowledge with others.

Below you can see the reeds in action - not my usual open-firing, but a caged configuration, which does go some way in taming the sometimes unruly reed behaviour!

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After the Storm

We're just recovering from a very localised storm which hit North Norfolk in late September. The woodland suffered quite badly, with 15 trees down (or nearly down), so a lot of chainsaw and winch action, especially near the footpath that runs through the wood.

At times like these, I feel a little overwhelmed, so I call on my friend David Norton who is a third-generation woodsman and quite the most knowledgable and skilled practitioner I have ever come across.

David felled his first tree at the age of 8. It was a clandestine operation on an ornamental cherry that had pride of place in his garden. His father was furious, but couldn't help but smile when he saw the quality and precision of young David's work!


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Collecting materials for open-firing

A trip to the coast to collect a few samples of glacial till. Till is the geological term for unsorted material that has been carried down by glacial drift. It's widely acknowledged that the 'Cromer tills' found along the North Norfolk coast originated in northern Britain some 620,000 years ago. From the ceramicist's point of view, these materials are really fascinating, as they contain a variety of material grades ranging from very plastic calcareous clays through to much coarser sands and gravels. The lower images shows the 4 grades of material I managed to collect, including a microscope image (20x) which clearly shows the broad range of particle size.

By blending these materials it's possible to find the correct ratio for an open-fire tolerant clay-body. It's really a question of balancing the need for plasticity whilst retaining a texture that will allow gases to escape during a rapid firing.

It's all there - like a potter's supermarket - but without any labelling!



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Firing Stack on a Windy Day

Very windy out there today, so I thought I'd test the technology by trying a super-fast, wind-assisted firing of a rather chunky and handled coil pot. The new clay I've been working on coils really well, but it's a bit course for throwing (although coiled-and-thrown is just fine).

I've also been formulating some enamels to apply to the bare clay and now that I've found the right flux balance and enamel-medium (a mixture containing shellac) it works a treat. Not quite what you would associate with the traditional onglaze enamels of Sevres, but a lovely texture on the course clay.

Dry to fired in 15 mins! and I guess it reached about 900c judging by the melt of the enamels.

No spalling, no cracks, handle still on, and definitely - NO biscuit firing - (the very thought!)




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