Well, for a long time I have tried to start a charcoal making course. The Estate bought a ring kiln many years ago and made an awful lot of charcoal ( I have forgotten how long ago, but this ring kiln supplies the charcoal for the Victorian forge). However, to run a course I needed three kilns so had Andy Klose Engineering make another two. This was to show one that had been burnt, one to burn and one to be loaded. Dreams/ideas are sometimes hard to turn into reality and so it was with the charcoal course; however, Matthew had booked onto the course and, because this was the first time, I decided to use poor old Matthew as a guinea pig. Unfortunately for him it decided to bucket down with rain; not all was lost however, a morning’s session making a ram’s head hook meant we were dry and kept busy and, as the rain fled eastward, we ventured out to empty the ring kiln and fill it with unburnt wood. We also fired up the Hookway retort.
Now the retort is only a 45 gallon drum so won’t produce very much charcoal; however, it does help to explain the principles of burning with a retort kiln. It cooks rather than burns the wood, so we filled it with willow sticks on the premise that willow sticks could be made into willow charcoal drawing sticks with a higher value.
When the retort vessel was full the lid was put on and rockwool placed around the drum to insulate it. James Hookway designed the retort around a rocket stove and the main working part of the rocket stove was placed inside the 45 gallon drum (made of stainless steel so it does not rust). You then light some wood shavings and push them into the rocket stove’s horizontal tube, as this catches fire you then add more wood fuel through the vertical tube.
After about an hour smoke starts to come out of the top tube ( mostly this will be steamy smoke with water in it); oddly, after the wood in the retort (not the fuel in the rocket stove) dries out, the smoke stops for a short time, then it really starts to smoke and now you put a little lid on top of the tube where the smoke comes from. This redirects the smoke back down to the base of the rocket stove and the smoke gases get burnt in the rocket stove tube- thus the whole process begins to run on its own with the occasional bit of firewood added into the slot of the rocket stove. Just for a bit of fun and, as the smoke gases were getting extremely hot, we let the smoke out of the top tube and lit it- pretty neat. 🙂
After about four hours or so the smoke stops and thus indicates that the burn has finished… wonder what the charcoal will be like? Will have a look in the morning. During the process of burning the retort we were able to empty the charcoal ring kiln and cut and split all the smaller diameter 3m long wood (not used for logging last year) to fill the kiln. Boy that just took ages- about five cubic metres of wood had to go into the kiln. Once everything was ready for the next day we settled down for supper cooked alfresco on a homemade BBQ range- a nice bit of Norfolk Horn sheep and some vegetables from the allotment. Nothing like a fire and some good company… talking of which, Mr Anderson must have sniffed a free meal as he turned up right on cue!
A very early start was needed to be able to burn and shut down the kiln at around 6pm- a very smoky affair to begin with. We had left a central hole in the stacked wood and this is where we started the fire ( used a load of wood shavings which instantly burnt). The fire has to be left for about an hour to allow the kiln to get really hot ( in fact you wait until a good set of flames bursts out and twists, swirls and dances amongst the billowing smoke). Once you see flames you know the fire has a hot heart; leave it to really start to roar then dampen its spirit by putting the lid on it. Shame, fires are magical- stored up pure sunlight (how lucky we are that nature can store pure sunlight!).
What a lot of smoke- the fire was protesting, sending clouds of smoke into the air. At this point it takes another half hour or so to allow the wood to burn and settle down and then the lid can be sealed and the fire is well and truly tamed. Four chimneys are added to four of the eight ports which act as inlets and outlets ( air in, smoke out), but, every few hours the chimneys are moved to the inlets and the outlets become inlets ( that way you control the burn evenly). As it was a dummy course we had the Kelly Kettle rocket out, a small cooking rocket stove and, of course, the homemade gas cylinder BBQ- all wood fired. Opened the retort and found some excellent willow charcoal and, obviously, we had to try it out- drawing on any surface we could find. As we had time we emptied the retort and re filled it with logs to see what that would produce.
By late afternoon the ring kiln was beginning to show signs of finishing . We’d had a few problems with the wind; you can tell by the smoke what the fire is doing inside – white smoke means the water in the wood has turned into steam and, when the smoke goes a dirty yellow, all the water has gone; at this point, if you get blue smoke coming out like a steam train, you have a raging fire inside- time to dampen its spirit by shutting down the inlets a little… no oxygen= no fire. As time goes along the smoke starts to burn a blue colour but doesn’t rage, now the charcoal is nearly ready. The retort was also nearly done- this one bakes the wood while the ring kiln actually has the fire burning the wood. The smoke here is wasted so six tons of wood make one ton of charcoal in the ring kiln while the retort only uses four tons ( but to get a large retort costs a fortune and the ring kiln is so much cheaper).
While waiting to finally seal up the ring kiln we went over to the forge to see Magnus… had a little project for him… we wanted a device to make pimps (little bundles of sticks for starting fires). He was using some of the charcoal we had emptied from the day before- burns so hot you can actually forge within five minutes of starting the fire.
So, what did we learn on the dummy charcoal course? Actually… an awful lot. The next course will be more of a weekend of fire, wood and charcoal. We will teach people how to make fires (using Stone Age methods right up to modern day ones); make pimps, faggots, range wood and billets; how to store wood to keep it dry; use moisture metres to show the difference between wet and dry wood; and use as many different stoves and ovens as we can, especially the ROCKET STOVE – so many ways of keeping warm and cooking. 🙂 🙂 🙂
Back to work- hot and sunny and the electric fence in front of the Hall had to be taken down and stored away ready for next year (Quite an easy job, though it did take quite a bit of time). After that it was more mowing, clearing up the front lawn and tidying around the new tree guards.
We now have a mowing session every Monday evening in Victoria Avenue and it’s becoming well attended. I think people like it because it has a purpose- we mow and then cart the green hay to a boring worn out grass meadow on another part of the estate. (This year we are green haying the South Avenue but that’s done during the work day). The evening session is just about mowing, getting fit and enjoying good company. The mowers can mow in a lovely meadow full of flowers and humming bees while butterflies flitter amongst the grasses and flowers. Swish swish- so easy and still green (unlike the boring grass meadows elsewhere on the estate). One reason this is a good meadow is that it has never been drained (makes a big difference to a hay meadow); better wetter than drier as it lasts longer than the drained meadows elsewhere – these are now almost just straw, so no nutritional value in them, while our own little flower meadow is still a green gem and will last until the end of July. Mind you, a good flower-rich chalk grassland works too and that is a real pleasure to mow.
Only trouble with mowing (and, of course, with all those students on the scythe course) is that I have to peen a rather lot of blades- takes quite a while to do the job properly. Hopefully some of the volunteers like Shane and Jayne will become proficient as, when I was doing the blades, they had some mild steel to practice on; they started poorly but, by the time I had finished all the blades, they had progressed enormously. Next they will have to use some harder steel with a bit more carbon in it- really makes a difference to the steel when you have 0.2% more carbon in it, harder to peen and see what is happening (which is why the mild steel is much easier to learn on and to see what the hammering does).
Spent some more time clearing up the front lawn and also lifting the trees so that people could get underneath them to seek shelter from the sunshine in the heat of the day. We also raked up the hay left behind after the baler had gone – fed the cattle in the yard with this- while the branches went elsewhere on the estate under some canopies of trees in the Park ( mind you, the sheep and cattle loved these especially the juicy lime tree leaves).
More mowing and green haying in the South Avenue- it’s usually very successful but last year we did the meadow behind Cobbs Wood Farm and this year there was not much there in the way of flowers. That got me thinking as to why it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t! I think what needs to happen is that the meadows have to be winter grazed so that the flower seedlings can grow without excessive grass competition (however the grazing would have to be reasonably light and the animals would then be taken off in March). The South Avenue was grazed in the winter last year, for the first time for many years, and it was very evident that the flower seed we had collected last year from Folly Field had worked. So, all we need to do now to produce good flower meadows is to have them mowed and grazed in the winter. (By the way – a meadow is for hay and pasture is for constant grazing, no hay harvest)
Had Wednesday off but left the forestry team mowing and green hay carting. John and Peter were in with Paul- they have become very proficient with the scythe and I was impressed the next day to see how much they had done. Well done.
Doesn’t time fly by? Before you know it those little girls get all grown up. Had a lovely day in Reading at Siula’s graduation; gave her a walnut bowl I had carved (I did wonder if that might not go down too well but she seemed very pleased with it 🙂 )
Went to the pub later at Sonning and came across this churchyard next to the pub which, I seem to remember, was called the Blue Lion. Anyway, I quite like looking around churchyards as you can find quite a lot of wildlife from lichen and mosses to flowers and bats etc.
What struck me most about this churchyard was the sheer amount of gravestones and of all types of stone and design. The really posh ones were very close to the front porch of the church – must have been for well-to-do people from the community. The designs seem to go in phases from the very sombre feel of the Celtic crosses to the rather grand, smooth, granite monoliths. This area was closely mown and managed which suited certain sorts of wildlife.
However, the further away you got from the church it became less managed and suited a different set of wildlife; the designs changed too- mostly a sort of very plain Victorian slab but mixed in with oddities like the marble angel and a very impressive headstone which had a set of different lichens on it. A more modern area was clearly managed, and had mostly plain gravestones, but the large, rough, granite headstones were of interest because of their sheer statement- sort of the ‘Uncarved Block’. I liked these, very bold.
Then there was one brilliant white marble cross which I had to look at- all on its own and with a lovely inscription. This was just one but there were others- some very sad and some that made you smile. I want one to make you smile on mine, but not yet! Back to the pub!
The rest of the week was much the same… mowing then green haying. Using the scythe for this job works extremely well- we cut enough to move before the hay dries and the seed is lost. Also if you bale green hay, or make too big a trailer load and don’t get it off quickly enough, it overheats and destroys the seed (could do with a bigger trailer but, there you go, you have what you have). Just think of how that meadow will change.. many years ago it was a rank grassland full of creeping thistle (pretty rubbish actually), now it is becoming flower-rich and we are green haying for the last year here. Wonder what it’ll look like next year?