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Harvests and a Starring role


In September the annual harvest gathers pace with many late nights spent preparing fruit and veg for the freezer. It really is bonanza time – with plums, runner beans, apples, peas, beetroot, onions, broccoli, grapes, tomatoes......all beautifully big, ripe and ready for harvest.

For the last 10 days I've been away from the garden for a family wedding in Henley and a special 'cello playing outing at the Annual Party for the Friends of the Oxford Botanical Garden. So only a few pictures – one of the lovely blue butterflies attracted by our wonderful wild flowers, another of the HUGE pumpkin which I discovered hiding under the mass of great leaves, one of the beach at Newton on one of those thundery summer evenings and finally some of the scythes I brought back from my Oban scything experience.

Scythes near Oban!

So it came to pass as I put 210 miles of tarmac behind me and, after nearly 6 hours finally approached the postcode bearing my GPS had loaded. The camper van was loaded with 12 scythes – mostly beautiful new tools made from ash plus my own trusty tool (of 60 years use!). Wild open moorland surrounded me on a single-track road deep in green bracken and the occasional small croft. There was no film crew to be seen! A quick check on my emails followed by a phone call revealed a typo in the postcode. 5 miles later I saw the blue LOC sign on a gravel turn-off and 2 minutes later I was in the tent village surrounded by generators, mobile kitchens, bearded security guards and a small bevy of pretty young ladies. The Director, it seemed, was to be found down “on the set” where a small temporary 18th century village had been constructed together with a few chickens, pigs and horses supplied by specialist film animal providers. Here's one photo of the film tent village!

We strolled down a rough lane across an over-grown meadow and examined their temporary medieval village. An efficient assistant director informed us that the inspection of the harvest field would take place at 6 pm that evening. I duly returned to the town and found a place in their enormous campsite. Returning to the film set later I found the Director and a small group of miscellaneous assistants, and we walked down to inspect the critical crop of rye which would be at the centre of the harvest scene. This was not quite what I was expecting. Luckily the crop, such as it was, was all standing (hurrah) but its dimensions were limited and problematic – about 60 yards long but only about 5 yards wide! If 10 mowers were to tackle this the whole thing would be cut in a matter of minutes!

I explained that mowers always had to work in a diagonal row where each mower would scythe the crop onto the space to the left which had just been cut by the mower in front. It would be necessary to start at the left end of the crop (scythes cut from right to left) and mow at about 45 degrees to the edge of the crop. This was essentially a mathematical necessity. They looked puzzled........ but the problem would become clearer once I started to teach the crew.

The training session was to take place early on the following morning at an adjacent field of rough grass near the tented village base camp. Two busloads of actors and extras duly arrived disgorging 26 potential mowers. My task was to teach them to scythe in 2 hours and choose the best 10 who would appear in the eventual harvest scene. Assisted by one of the assistant directors we took groups of 6 at a time. The rough grass was not the easiest material for beginners! After I demonstrated the best technique – slicing not chopping and taking just a narrow swathe about 5 cm deep on each stroke – they all tried their hands. The scythes had all been properly sharpened by myself – I never let beginners sharpen until they have really decided they want to learn the skill. It was interesting to see how varied each individual attempt might be. Bullish young men love to chop away vigorously (acquiring hopeless bad habits) whilst the young beauties might struggle initially but often discover how easy the scythe cuts if you use its sharpness effectively. One or two had used a scythe before.

It is always exciting and rewarding to see how pleased most beginners are when they start making a few successful strokes. Most were quickly impressed with what a sharp scythe could do (since the show several have bought scythes from me!).

With the training day over, I returned to Northumberland to finish turning the salad bowl which would be centre stage at the Henley wedding.

My camper van wheels were soon turning north again in the following week as I returned to help supervise the critical filming of the harvest scene. Once again, the Gods were kind and the sun shone over acres of wild moorland. Mercifully the crop of rye was still standing, and the art department had done a good job to “age” the new scythes with brown stain and sack cloth adornments. The cameras were ready to roll.

My hopes of avoiding becoming another “extra” in the great scheme of things were frustrated as several of the pretty young actresses insisted I be “costumed up” and take part in the film! Within a few minutes I was stripping off and being dressed up in 18th century peasant clothing by another group of pretty young ladies. The next 6 hours were spent plodding backwards and forwards as one of the extras/background while the Director shot and re-shot the first part of the harvest scene. You need the patience of Job for this kind of thing!! Finally, we came to the shoot of the scything itself. 10 mowers lined up with their scythes at the ready to mime their cutting strokes whilst the cameras rolled – again and again. Of course they could only cut the rye once! Most of the actors were itching to actually use their scythes – with the standing crop just a few feet in front of them!

Fair play to the actors and extras – they launched into their mowing with energy and enthusiasm. I can only hope the Director got the shots she wanted! My turn to “star” came an hour or so later when the Director and camera man wanted to film an action close-up of the scythe blade actually cutting the crop. I was paired up with a mobile camera crew and we spent half an hour or so trying to find the best camera angles as I scythed away the crop. The crew were patient, involved and skilful so I hope we get a good result.

The whole enterprise was a great adventure – certainly a great way to promote the wonderful skill of scything. I've sent in my invoices for expenses etc. so maybe I'll get paid and maybe I won't. I've got half my new scythes back in the shed and the lovely Imogen from the arts department is hoping to send back the rest at the end of filming in 2 weeks’ time. They were great people to work with. I learned a lot and I'm full of admiration for the sheer dogged determination and patience of the whole crew in putting together this beautiful story.


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