From 1990 to the end of 1996, I had the honour to be Curator at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, West Sussex under the Directorship of Chris Zeuner. The Museum is now known as the Weald and Downland Living Museum.
The Museum’s annual activities included the growing of long straw wheat. The principal wheat grown was “Maris Widgeon”, a commercially available long straw variety. Some heritage varieties such as “Red Standard” and once local “Chidham” were tried but were unsuccessful. The “Maris Widgeon” wheat grain was suitable for stone ground milling into flour in the Museum’s Lurgashall Watermill. However, the wheat straw was the principal objective: a valuable resource for both thatching and raising income for the Museum. In 1996 the Museum grew 23 acres of wheat for thatching straw. Some was grown on the Museum’s site with the assistance of the adjacent West Dean Estate and some locally with the assistance of Museum supporter Lady Elizabeth Benson at “Cucumber Farm”, Singleton.
The following comprises photographs that I mainly took in 1995 and 1996 of harvesting of the wheat onwards through to stacking, threshing and thatching.
PLOUGHING and SOWING
Some of the Museum’s preparatory ploughing was done during the autumn threshing and horse ploughing event. However, although the Museum had its own horses, much of its ploughing was done by tractor, principally by John Mills, the West Dean Estate’s farm manager, who also sowed the wheat. On Lady Elizabeth Benson’s “Cucumber Farm” tractor assistance was given by David Penny.
The Museum had its own working Shire horses, but they were not always used on the reaper-binder or “Binder” which was used to both cut and tie the wheat into sheaves.
CUTTING and BINDING the SHEAVES
As the bound sheaves were ejected from the reaper-binder, they were manually stood up in “A” shaped “stooks” or “shocks” of usually eight sheaves; where they would be left to dry and mature until it was time to cart them off the field for stacking.
‘STOOKING’ or ‘SHOCKING’
STACKING This is the systematic method of placing sheaves to build a “stack” that will store and protect them until threshing.
PREPARING the stack’s THATCHING STRAW
MAKING THATCHING SPARS
In the main picture (following), Albert is sitting on bundles of finished spars as well as a bundle of hazel rods waiting to be cleft. In front of Albert is a pile of cleft spars that he has yet to point.
In use, the pointed spars had to be bent into a “U” shaped staple. However, they could not be just bent without breaking. Instead, they had to be manually twisted in the middle to loosen the hazel’s fibres which allowed them to be bent without breaking which also increased their strength.
THATCHING the STACK
A WEATHERCOCK WEATHERVANE
In circa 1980 I learned how to make weathervanes from wheat straw for adorning the top of stacks from one of my mentors, Andrew Green from Benwick, Cambridgeshire who was born in 1902. As in the previous photo, I made one for one of the stacks. This is a cockerel but it could be a fox or any ornament that would turn in the wind.
Threshing is the process of removing the grain from the “ears” at the top end of the straw. In October, coinciding with the annual horse ploughing event, the threshing of the wheat was a major Museum event. For the event, the threshing “drum” (machine) was driven by steam.
“COMBED WHEAT REED” STRAW
Instead of the straw coming randomly out of the threshing drum, it had a “comber” added which combed or straightened the threshed straw into tied bundles. This premium straw was called “wheat reed” because like naturally harvested thatching reed, it was straight and ready to be applied to a roof. The combed wheat reed had extra longevity compared to straw that had to be manually pulled. Combed wheat reed might last for 25 years.
© Bob Powell, November 2021