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On Scything

Volunteer Dr. Grant Repshire talks about his experience Scything…

When I first contacted Gilbert White & The Oates Collections about working as a volunteer, offering up my experience as a historian and literary scholar, I thought I’d spend my time studying history – but I’ve also found myself fortunate to get to live it. Spending some time volunteering in the garden, to give myself inspiration for my research into Gilbert White’s 18th-century Kitchen Garden, led to the most fun I’ve ever had doing physical labour: mowing grass with a scythe.

Like many, the idyllic image in my mind of the agrarian societies of Britain (and the rest of the Western world) before industrialisation featured workers mowing and harvesting using scythes. Heavily influencing my view were paintings such as Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, depicting an American Civil War veteran cutting a bountiful wheat field with a scythe, or John Constable’s The Hay Wain, depicting the wagon that would be used to haul a harvest, with workers in the distance cutting hay among the beautiful Suffolk countryside of the early 19th century. Scythe mowing is referenced again and again in Gilbert White’s journals, so central was it to a cultivated 18th-century landscape.

1. Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. The scythe used is the American style, which is the same as the English style. The faintly visible tines above the blade are a grain cradle, which aides the user in keeping the cut grain stalks orderly for bundling into sheaves. Image placed in the public-domain by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Of course, a new image of scything has recently found its way into the public consciousness: Aiden Turner portraying the eponymous character in BBC’s Poldark. As modern scythe-users will tell you, Turner’s technique in that infamous scene is far from good – the actor admitted on The Graham Norton Show that he made scythe mowing look more difficult for dramatic effect.

2. Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark in the BBC Series 

Indeed, scything, while still sweat-inducing physical labour, is a meditative, graceful action, as many staff members and volunteers at the museum now appreciate. The gardening team uses scythes to cut much of the grass around the museum’s thirty-acres of gardens and meadows (mechanical mowers are still used for some areas). Not only does the sight of a scythe itself, along with the gentle ‘swish…swish…swish’ sound of grass being cut, lend itself to the evocative 18th-century scene that the museum strives to preserve, unlike a string trimmer it does not throw projectiles at high speed, or significantly damage nearby objects and plants, and it doesn’t fill the air with a loud mechanical buzz that would disrupt the bucolic environment that visitors appreciate.

gilberts games

3. Volunteer Ralph Oakley demonstrating scything techniques. 

We use Austrian-style scythes for day-to-day work, as they are more lightweight and easier to maintain than traditional English scythes, though the English scythe is used when historic demonstration purposes call for it. Learning the basics of scything takes only an hour or so. The cutting action involves holding the scythe with the arms fully extended downward, with the blade to the right and slightly behind the user (whether you are left or right handed makes no difference), and then sweeping in an arc forward and to the left, using just enough force to cut the grass (the first 20 seconds of this video demonstrate this well). Minimal force should be needed if the blade is properly sharpened, and on their belt the user carries a small whetstone in a water-filled metal sheath to quickly re-hone the blade from time-to-time. As the scythe cuts it carries the cuttings with it until the user reaches the end of their stroke to the left, depositing the grass out of the way in tidy ‘windrows’, which are then easily raked.

4. The author’s first scythed area of meadow grass beside the Kitchen Garden, with the cuttings raked into piles. The Austrian scythe and hay rake used rest in the foreground.

The work is good for both mind and body. The physical exercise is obvious. The mental relaxation comes when the user gets into an almost hypnotic rhythm of cutting, watching the grass disappear an inch or two at a time and then dropping into the windrow, drawing the blade back along the

ground to reset, taking a half step forward, and repeating – all the while accompanied by birdsong and other natural sounds that a string trimmer or mower would drown out. At the end of the job, you are rewarded with the satisfaction of having created an orderly pattern of swathes of shorn grass and windrows, and a feeling of accomplishment. As the museum’s Gardener Keith Oakley said to me after my second go at scythe mowing ‘Scything is good stuff because humans need meaningful work – life doesn’t need to be all drudgery.’

Scything demonstrations will occur at the museum’s annual Georgian Fair, 4-5 August 2018, where you can learn more about this age-old craft and its modern revival, as well as experience many other fun activities suitable for the whole family.

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Further Reading and viewing:

-Informative and entertaining descriptions of scything and hay-making occur in the introduction and second chapter of Alexander Langland’s Cræft – How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2017)

The Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland’s website is very informative and useful:

An article from The National Trust on how scythe mowing allows better wildlife management: 

Informative playlist of videos on practical application of scything from Huw’s Nursery: