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Can You Swing A Scythe Boy?

Anatomy Of A Scythe

When we first rented half an acre from Lord Tollemache behind our cottage in Suffolk I decided to buy a scythe and a rake to keep it in order until we got some creatures to graze it. With some difficulty I found my way to the Rake Factory in an obscure part of the county. Then I found a team of people beavering away at making hand tools using local small wood produce, not like the weekend craftsmen you see at Chopwell but men making their living as their grandfathers did.

I bought a rake and got a brief lesson on how not to use it (at arms length; instead the handle should be over your shoulder). When I asked for a scythe the old boy (all males in Suffolk are old boys but this one was old) agreed to sell me a bentwood stick but sent me to an old fashioned hardware shop in Ipswich for the blade. The Suffolk style of scythe stick or snaith is of ash steamed into an elegant S curve, with handles adjustable for length and angle, very different from the Y shaped implement used in the North and Scotland. Apparently the ancient steamer at the Rake Factory was so dangerous that only the proprietor was allowed to operate it.

With a lot of effort I mowed our half acre but felt something was wrong so I signed up when Suffolk Wildlife Trust put on a course on how to use a scythe, one of many excellent practical courses they ran on country skills. I learned how to sharpen it, how to adjust the handles to fit me, and how to swing it. But the first thing I learned is that I had to take my scythe to a blacksmith who knew how to adjust the angle of the blade to me and my stick, for a scythe is one of those tools which you can legitimately decline to lend on the grounds that it is adjusted to fit only you. In a village near Felixstowe, then rapidly turning into a suburban dormitory settlement, I found a smith who as an apprentice had had the job of setting hundreds of scythes. He did mine and also made a nice grass hook the metal rod that forms a third side of the triangle between stick and blade to support the joint and to stop it clogging with cut grass. Much later I remembered my father buying a scotch scythe in Bridge Street in Morpeth in the 50’s; I could not understand why he could not take it away then and there but had to go back a week later, no doubt after the blacksmih had set it properly.

It only remained for me to learn how to use the thing. It seems obvious but to do it well is far from easy. I recalled as a teenager seeing a man in the French Alps mowing a lawn with a scythe almost as close as you could get with a cylinder mower and I set that as my ideal. These days I can do a fair approximation. The key is to think of a golf swing then do everything you can to not replicate it. The scythe does not leave the ground at the start or end of the stroke, nor at any time at all. You swing back, the heel of the scythe staying on the ground right to the end of the backswing. You swing slowly forward, cutting all the way, in a long arc of almost 180°, ending with the blade still on the ground before shuffling forward as the backswing starts again. At least that is how I do it. I may cut close and even but I advance only inch by inch and the slow forward swing takes continuous power as there is little momentum. I would hate to have to tackle a hayfield as our ancestors had to do. And when the going is difficult, the grass tussocky, the goosegrass grabbing the blade and the bindweed binding, then I still instinctively revert to that chopping golf swing and make an awful mess.

J Philipson