My earliest memory is of sitting on the Chayne watching my parents cut peat. I must have been around three or four years old, and I remember the way the peats used to smell when I sat with them in the back of an old Land Rover on the way off the hill. Bit by bit, my family gave up taking peat off the hill, and I think that the last time we did it must have been almost twenty years ago. Not only was it getting easier to get hold of fuel elsewhere, but a collapsing drainage system on some of the inbye fields means that getting a vehicle onto the hill to bring down the peats is now almost impossible except during the driest of dry periods.
It’s only in the past few months that I’ve started to get interested in peat again, after a minor research project with the Heather Trust brought back some memories. I wanted to try and see how I’d get on cutting my own peat, and given that I’ve got two very hungry open fires in my house, there were other incentives. It turns out that it’s extremely easy to dig peat. All you have to do is dig a hole.
The difficult part is cutting peat into uniform blocks so that it dries through and can be easily stacked. If you’re going to do a proper job, you need some specialised digging equipment – most important being the right angle spade, which cuts two sides of a block of peat at once.
As it turns out, I have a curved spade which comes to a point. It is next to impossible to dig neatly squared off bricks of peat with a rounded spade, and some of the peats I dug out over the course of half an hour ended up being extraordinary shapes. I don’t suppose it matters much what shape the peats are, provided that they are not so thick as to be eternally waterlogged, but it would suit the aesthetics of the job to have neat little stacks like they would have built two hundred years ago. It’s extremely satisfying work, scalping off the turf and then carving blocks out of the black, buttery mud. It was made all the more rewarding to look up after the first batch of peat was cut to see a short eared owl sailing curiously past just a few yards away.
It remains to be seen what will become of my experimental batch of peat. I should have cut it in May or June, but since both months were disgustingly wet, risking a test batch in August seems just as likely to succeed as anything. If I can dry them out and they do well for me over the winter, I may well invest in a proper spade for next spring. After all, there are 1,000 acres of peat bog on the Chayne, and yet I spend a fortune on coal each year.