A Happy New Year to all of you from all of us! Following a three-week period for rest and recuperation our volunteers returned, fully refreshed, to Swardeston Common on the 3rd and 4th January to continue clearing the old blackthorn and elder. Under the guidance of Paula on Thursday and Matt on Friday we worked our way around the edges of the site nibbling away at the blackthorn and opening up the area further. Although it is a new calendar year, I consider that “our year” really starts when we move into the woodlands in Autumn and finishes with the final grass cut of the Summer season.
The fire was soon lit and the cut blackthorn and elder burned. As ever, the fire burned fiercely getting through the backlog of material and eventually catching up with the team doing the cutting. On the Friday morning the fire needed little encouragement from Alan to burst back into life ready for the day’s output.
An early job was to clear around an oak in a corner of the work area. Blackthorn and other scrub were growing underneath the oak and would eventually reach the branches of this mature tree. The young blackthorn was cut back with a brushcutter and the area cleared. The oak tree now stands out as a feature of this part of the site.
Another “feature” piece of work was tidying up a tunnel of blackthorn hanging over one of the many footpaths around the site. Robert and I worked our way along the path cutting back any branches hanging down to create a more rounded shape to the tunnel.
On our next visit on Thursday 10th January we had a new project to pursue on a different section of the Common. Adjacent to the meadow are two circles of willow planted many years ago to celebrate the births of the daughters of a local resident. We last pollarded the willow just two years ago, but it has grown back 10 foot or more since then! (See our previous blog, Swardeston Common – Willow Pollarding).
Previously we burned the cuttings but our plan this time was to reuse the willow branches to make faggots for a riverbank restoration project elsewhere. We have made faggots many times before and now have a technique for making them. Faggots (or “Facines”) are bundles of brushwood tightly bound together which are used for strengthening riverbanks or creating revetments. Faggots have also been used to create causeways across marshy ground or to provide foundations for buildings in wet areas.
We did have a small fire but that was to burn the odd bits of brash and warm us on a chilly and overcast day.
While the team set to work pollarding the willows, the frame for making faggots was constructed. Basically, it is just four stout posts knocked into the ground which are used to contain the bundle of willow for each faggot. A rope is then tightened around the bundle to compress this as much as possible. The trick is getting the bundle compressed and for this we use a Spanish Windlass – a rope attached to a pole placed through the centre of the bundle and the other end attached to a shorter length of wood which passes under the bundles and is twisted around the central pole until it is as tight as possible. Stout wire is then tightened at two or three places around the bundle to hold this in place. The bundles (faggots) are then lifted out of the frame ready for use elsewhere.
We had plenty of material, so built a second frame and inducted some of our newer volunteers into the mysteries of faggot making. It is hard work twisting the rope and tying the bundles and the end result is a heavy bundle that needed three people to carry each one. The faggots were stacked away for another day.