Steam, grease and apples
When the cat’s away, the mice will play….at all sorts of things it appears. With Simon taking a more than well-earned rest, the greenwood group returned to Burwash Manor for their Apple day. This charity event has been going from strength to strength and growing in the size and range of stalls and displays year on year.
Many of the regulars were there – Jim turned some fantastic bowls from Wimpole sycamore while still managing to talk to visitors explaining what he was doing. Tony displayed a range of sickeningly fantastic wooden creations, while nonchalantly knocking out more of the same on his pole lathe. Matt made delicate spoons with his enormous paws and huge axe blows and the rest of us ‘did stuff’ from turning Christmas decorations and pot handles to making rakes and Viking pattern stools. We were fortunate to be joined by Val Curwen from Fowlmere who weaves willow baskets and animals. She had a recently made Bodger’s basket that we hope that she will be able to teach us how to make in return for things wooden and of course tea and bacon sandwiches.
The weather was kind and it was a wonderful day out with many hundreds of visitors and a great atmosphere created by the mix of food, entertainment and craft stalls, many with an apple theme. All told, this year the event raised £5500 for the sick children’s Trust and hopefully we will be back there again next year for an even bigger and better festival of “all things apple”
A bodger’s basket is a simple frame basket, typically made by amateur weavers rather than professional basketmakers and using the most basic weaving techniques. They are light and strong and can be made from any locally available hedgerow material and more twigs can be woven in at a later date if the weave becomes loose as the wood dries. They were traditionally made as working baskets for fruit picking or fishing by the user or by gypsies who would sell them bas they travelled. Although such baskets originated in Europe they quickly spread to North America where they have become increasingly more complex and varied in design.
After all that hard work, Jim and I, in the company of my eight year old daughter Elspeth, decided to treat ourselves to a visit to the final “steam and grease” day of the year at The Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket. This was another chance to see their many steam traction engines they have and especially for me to check that the 1912 10ton Empress of Britain was still working after I spent a wonderful Sunday in September learning to drive it on a “driver training” day. This was a dream come true for somebody who has been an unfulfilled “steam-head” since the age of 5! After discovering that such days were available purely by chance when Matt and I called in at the museum to buy me a much-needed coffee en route to learning some round-frame timber building at the Orchard Barn project, I decided that instead of birthday presents this year I asked for donations to learn to drive a traction engine.
Incidently, Orchard Barn is a fantastic social enterprise project at Ringshall in Mid Suffolk. It organises and runs traditional building courses that promote the use of locally sourced materials and low-tech techniques that are sensitive to the environment.
Since its establishment in 2007 over 1,400 trainees and volunteers have tried their hands at natural and traditional building projects focused on the restoration of a 17th Century timber-framed barn. The barn has a wonderful hand cleft half purlin roof made from local trees and now, thanks to the volunteers, 20,000 hand made oak shingles on the roof. If you want any more information have a look at www.orchardbarn.org.uk/
So back to my driver training. At 8am on a chilly but sunny Sunday morning I and my fellow learner driver Paul, arrived at the Museum to be greeted by Paul Palmer, the Participation and Skills Manager and the senior driver from the museum’s steam team Jonathan Pattle. Over mugs of tea we were given a brief safety talk and then it was straight to work cleaning out the firebox, lighting the fire, cleaning the brass and oiling just about everything that moved it seemed…..”if it moves oil it, if it doesn’t whack it until it does and then oil it!” and while waiting for steam pressure, drinking more tea.
Getting the Empress ready outside the 1920 Frank Mortlock & Sons engineering workshop. The Mortlock family from near Lavenham used this workshop to repair the traction engines and other agricultural equipment. They were contractors who hired engines and gangs of workers to local farms doing work such as steam ploughing and grain threshing .…and we’re off albeit very slowly and not in a very straight line!
Traction engines were usually driven by two people, a driver who took care of the speed and minded the fire and water and a steersman. The latter must have had one arm ridiculously larger than the other as to go from full lock to full lock took a huge amount of winding (I lost count after 30 turns of the big wheel) – I ached the next day. Although it was tricky to steer, especially when going backwards, with Jonathan’s unflappable help we were soon doing a reasonable job I think (no flat pedestrians, no flat buildings, no flat pets). We filled up with water and reversed back to the workshop for more tea and were soon driving the Empress all over the museum site stopping only for tea and the resulting ‘calls of nature’.
However, when we came to the narrow gap between a barn housing gypsy wagons and the educational setup I presumed it was time for a three point turn…..NO!…..just take her through there you’ll be fine said Jonathan. After a few goes at lining her up we got through seemingly unscathed although on our next visit I did notice a few ominous bits of chipped concrete around the barn’s post’s bases.
You have got to be kidding!……………….made it……………….just!!!!
Standing on the footplate next to the huge rotating fly wheel and being I charge of 10 tons of clanking hot iron was a fantastic experience that I will never forget and has really only wetted my appetite even more. I can thoroughly recommend it…..what more can you want on a glorious sunny day than driving a piece of history around a fantastic site with wonderful people and lots and lots of tea!……I wonder if someone at Wimpole has one they will let me have a go on? (John!)
And so back to our current visit. The Museum of East Anglian life is a social enterprise sharing the compelling story of East Anglian lives through historic buildings, collections set in a 75 acre landscape. For more information see http://www.eastanglianlife.org.uk.
The first building you enter is an amazing 13th Century tithe barn, where the local Stowmarket people brought their taxes (tithes) to pay to the landowner, (the Priory of St Osyth in Essex) which amounted to 10% of anything grown, made, bred or produced. Over the centuries there have been numerous repairs and additions and the conversion from a thatched to tiled roof and from wattle and daub walls to weatherboarding……not sure what the white pompoms are for though?….a wedding that would be watched by the green man above the door?…….installation art?…..but they looked quite nice! Maybe Simon’s barn at Cobbs farm could do with some?
Next up was Edgar’s House that was ‘discovered’ in Combs, just south of Stowmarket where it was incorporated into a much larger Victorian farmhouse. In 1970 it was saved from demolition and was the first historic building to be re-erected on the museum site.
The building was probably built shortly after the Black Death in 1350 to allow the Adgor family to live within their land of nearly 40 acres of arable land, 1.5 acres of meadow, 1 acre of pasture, a rood of wood and 3 acres of alderwood, which they rented for the princely sum of 12 shillings a year and an agreement to help dispense parish laws. Only the main hall survives with the two storey private accommodation and service outbuildings long gone. The crown post roof is spectacular and as it would only have been sparsely furnished in a quiet moment it isn’t hard to imagine what it would have been like back in the 14 Century. There were also several chunky wooden interactive model versions of the roof to rebuild that were clearly designed for children to do as Jim and I failed completely and the situation had to be rescued by Elspeth!
By now, however, we could hear the ‘chuffing’ noises emanating from what we had really come to see – the Empress powering a 1940’s Ransome’s thrashing box (in Suffolk and Norfolk thrashing = threshing) and so further architecture and history were ignored and we marched towards the source of the sound and the smell. We were there just in time to see them backing the Empress into position and connecting the big belt to the thrashing box and then a the smaller one from the engine’s motion to the governor. The engine needs to be “governed” while driving the mill so that it keeps constant speed whether running empty or under a full load.
Before the invention of the combine harvester, wheat was cut and bundled into sheaves and stored in stacks in the farmyard (stackyard) to await the arrival of the thrashing team. It was an amazing site and even Elspeth sat mesmerized watching the team of 8 or so men loading wheat from the cart into the top of the thrashing box, collecting the grain and feeding the straw that poured out of the far end into a baler. The evocative but soporific whirring, clunking and rumbling of the huge machine was mesmerising. When they stopped for lunch (and tea!) so did we – we can definitely recommend the local ham, eggs and chips from the Osier café.
One chap forks the sheaves up to the man on top of the mill who, with one smooth motion, picks up each sheave, cuts the stringthat binds it and feeds the wheat into the thrashing drum. The remainder of the team collect the straw, the grain, keep an eye on the engine and of course drink tea!
After lunch a leisurely walk long some of the woodland footpaths beside the river brought us past the wind pump and then to the Victorian water mill that was relocated to the museum in 1973 prior to the construction of Alton water reservoir, under whose waters they would otherwise now rest. The buildings stand in the same layout as they were in the village of Holbrook.
These days to work it water is pumped from the River Rattlesden to the Mill pond. Sadly it was not running as some big cogs required new wooden teeth (job for the Wimpole greenwoodworkers?). The bonus was that we were able to get a good look at the machinery and another trip will clearly be required to see itrunning. As well as powering the mill, the water wheel was also used to power other kit both outside and inside like this serious grinding wheel.
By now the alluring sounds of the Empress were once more audible so we hurried back to watch some more thrashing, this time taking the wheat from the round iron hayrick base. We were fortunate to run into Lisa Harris, the Collections Manager who was having a ‘day off’ at work (must be related to Simon). Much to Jim’s delight, he discovered that the machinery form the defunct rake and scythe handle factory at Little Whelnetham, which used ash from Bradfield Woods, was held at the museum. It is not on public display but Jim hopes to arrange a visit to the store– post scything festival 2016 trip anybody?
Once the thrashing was done, part of a field was sown with some of the thrashed grain using a Smyth drill now sadly pulled by a modern tractor : they don’t waste any time this Suffolk lot!
Finally, the Empress pushed her thrashing box back to its home in the building that houses many of the Museum’s other engines including the only known pair of Burrell steam ploughing engines believed to exist, built in 1879 and a pair of Walsh & Clark paraffin ploughing engines from 1919
Sadly, the Burrells need new fireboxes and an big appeal is about to begin so if you happen to have suitcases of used fivers hanging around unused, then why not take them on a trip to a Steam and Grease Sunday, when the Steam Team volunteers bring put as many of their engines as they can through their paces and give those £5 notes something to do!
So with the light beginning to fade and the staff wanting to lock up and drink a final mug of tea, we took a quick walk past a weather vane made from old tractor parts that quite to Jim’s fancy, through the Boby building, which houses many examples of craftsmen’s workshops, vintage machines and fire wagons and past the working 18th Century forge that was rescued from Grundisburgh.
Och ae and hoo do you start this wee thing then?
An excellent day out reliving some of East Anglia’s agricultural heritage and well worth several visits (when the steam team are brewing up of course) and hopefully the entire Wimpole rural crafts group will get to go and demo there before too long..….Come home Simon there’s work to be done on your thrashing box and somehow we have to find a steam engine to couple it to! John why did you buy a road roller without a govenor?….can you make one?