Scythes matter at haymaking event

Scythers line up
Scythers line up to glean helpful tips. Photograph: Colin O’Brien

When Aidan Turner in the television series Poldark stripped to his waist to cut down a Cornish field, the ancient practice of scything was momentarily thrust back into the public eye.

Scythes were used in Britain to make hay for more than 2,000 years, but fell out of favour last century due to the emergence of horse-drawn mowing machines and, latterly, the strimmer.

But now East Londoners can learn how to handle a scythe for themselves at the annual Community Haystacks event, which takes place this month on the Marshes.

Austrian scythe expert Clive Leeke will be running workshops, where novices of all ages can learn how to master this ancient haymaking tool.

He explains that we are currently experiencing a “revolution” in scything, with more and more people wanting to learn.

“The revolution began with the introduction here of the Austrian scythe,” he explains.

“It’s a lightweight scythe that’s been around for about 10 years and is designed to be used by women and children.

“Our old English scythe was a heavy monster that required a lot of effort, but the Austrian scythe is so much easier to use.”

Far from being a macho activity, scything is all about technique, balance and a sharp blade, Leeke explains.

And whilst undoubtedly physical, the concentration needed to work a scythe makes it a meditative activity akin to yoga.

“It’s very relaxing and good for your body, especially hips. And if the blade is sharp and you’re doing the right technique it’s not hard work,” says Leeke.

Haystack
Stacks to do: making hay. Photograph: Colin O’Brien

Haymaking is part of the ancient order of land husbandry, one of the ways farmers used to lock fertility into the soil. Its revival is therefore a sustainable way of keeping the soil rich and productive.

The Community Haystacks event was founded by local artists Kathrin Böhm and Louis Buckley, and is organised with the help of Hackney food writer Jojo Tulloh.

Now in its fourth year, this community hay harvest takes place over two days with a series of scything workshops, talks and communal picnics, culminating in a scything contest.

Last year than 100 people learnt to scythe, and residents, conservationists, historians, activists, artists, families and scything enthusiasts joined together to recreate the pre-mechanical hay harvest and revive traditions of scything and commoning.

Plenty of hay for playing means children can participate too by making haystacks and mazes of their own, with possible plans this year to provide child-sized scythes for them to learn on too.

Community Haystacks
30 and 31 July
Walthamstow Marshes
h-a-y-s-t-a-c-k-s.net

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