Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Chestnut Hurdles

This is the current view from my back door...

It all started with a need to keep the sheep from running amok and what better way to do it? Well, with two of my favourite things: a greenwood project, with a regional theme (I'll explain in a bit...).

Chestnut hurdles were used throughout the country for penning stock. 'Down on the Marsh' (Romney Marsh for those not in the know), chestnut hurdles were used as the sole fencing method for many years before wire fencing came about (conditions not being conducive to hedges or other boundaries) young lads would cart several hurdles on their backs over the marsh to fold their wards on fresh grazing. Obviously they had many uses on the farm and came in many different styles: "I had a chap ask me to make some bullock hurdles once," Colin Town, a local woodsman (and my chestnut supplier) told me when I picked up my timber. "six foot to the top they were, 'course you knew it when you had to shift one of those things" he laughed. Colin is an old time woodsman, one of the last few of his era and a wealth of knowledge to anyone who takes the time to listen.

Chestnut was the obvious choice for hurdles, chestnut coppice being prevelant in the South East. Colin sells thousands of chestnut spiles for fencing each year "The local farmers know chestnut's the only thing for fencing, that cheap soft wood only lasts 4 or 5 years before it falls over, the chestnut'll last 25 years before it even looks worn, they used to last even longer when we were allowed to use creosote. Before that we used to boil them standing in tar til the tar bubbled out the tops... Not much chance of them rotting then..."

Under Colin's guidance I split the timber he had selected for me using his scratch (that's a brake if your not a Man of Kent) and his Doll Axe (froe - again if your not from round 'ere). Measuring an old hurdle in a section of hedge he told me it was probably over 50 years old, "used to make a lot of these, time ago - I used to enjoy it, no one wants to pay the money these days... Still, young Tom, you should be making eight of these a day - I'll give you a ring tomorrow to see how you got on...). Maybe not eight but I'll be giving it a go none the less.

Apparently, Kentish hurdles are particular in their use of a metal ferrule on the top of the heads (uprights). "stops 'em splitting out and means you can drive 'em a bit, mind they don't want much pounding, just put your foot on the bottom rung to set 'em in..."

The nails are 2.5" driven straight in, I pilot dilled a few but gave up (too lazy) it was initially abit nerve wracking as we all know how chestnut likes to split... Luckily everything behaved. The nail heads are not driven flush (on Colin's advice) to allow for removal in the event of repair.

The metal ferrules are made from sections of car exhaust pipe, squashed in a vice, drilled and nailed with a short tack to the top of each head. the purple discoloration is a reaction of the metal with the tannins of the wood.

The overall construction was quite quick, mortices drilled and chiseled out and tenons cut on the shave horse. I have made 4 with the pile of timber I started with, I'll be after some more soon as shearing will be coming up and I'll need some more for penning up. Next time I'll take some action shots to up the excitement levels...

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