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Rockingham Forest Blog

  • Writer's picturePeter Lloyd Bennett

Making rope from trees

Updated: May 10

by Peter Lloyd Bennett

Dr Peter Lloyd Bennett dropped out of school in 1967, he attended Plymouth Art College and Camberwell School of Art. He became a teacher and then an educational psychologist during which time he achieved a Doctorate in Education. He has exhibited paintings and drawings over a number of years and has published articles extensively in the field of education. Now retired, he loves being in woodlands and doing anything with wood. He restored a farm house in the Charente over nearly 20 years of school holidays and he is keen to show the natural environment the respect it merits.

 

I am a member of the Easton Hornstocks Coppicing Group that works for Natural England in the National Nature Reserve, coppicing an area of the Ancient Woodland. We had been working the area for several years before we realized the possibilities of “bast” - the fibrous inner bark of the Small-leaved Lime – Tilia cordata. This particular part of the woodland, or “coupe”, is mainly Small-leaved Lime and Silver Birch. It has been coppiced for hundreds of years allowing regrowth from the stump, or “stool” to provide further harvests in the future.


A stool of Small-leaved Lime showing the new growth from when it was last coppiced many years ago




In parts of Scandinavia lime bast is still used in traditional boats and until recently was used for all sorts of domestic and farm purposes. Some sources indicate export of lime rope to England in medieval times. There are a number of references explaining how to achieve lime basting in largely natural woodland and we found that these approaches could be adapted to our own particular circumstances, for example using a water butt for soaking the lime bark.

The best time to fell the lime trees is in spring although this year we were given permission to cut the trees as late as the beginning of June with good results. The length of the logs is dictated by the container that will be used for soaking the lime, so if using a river it can be as long as you like, but a large container also works well. In spring the lime trees are sending up sap to the branches and this assists peeling off the layers of bark from the wood. I used a knife to cut the bark into strips along the length of the logs and then the bark was peeled back in one piece by inserting a blade between the wood and the layers of bark.


Stripping bark from the logs


The bark was then submerged in water, a controlled rotting process called retting, for approximately 6 to 8 weeks or until the inner layer can be readily separated from the outer layer. Do not be put off by the strong smell at this stage! The lime bast looks like an off white silk ribbon when separated from the outer dark brown bark.


I gave the bast a good rinsing in flowing water and hung it up to dry in the greenhouse which has a good flow of air through it. When dry there is a soft natural aroma to it which is not unpleasant


Lime bast after retting and drying in the green house




The next stage will be making the rope or simply using it as it is for tying up plants and jobs around the garden. Rope can be made by twisting two or more cords of bast together, in the same way as for many other plant fibres such as hemp and sisal. Lime rope is reported to be not quite as strong as hemp, but it is lighter and more resistant to water absorption, so it’s really good for some applications. The fibres can also be spun to make cloth.






I understand that this method for making cordage has been used for centuries dating back to the Vikings and probably earlier. We are hoping to find early recorded evidence of lime bast being extracted from Rockingham Forest and sold to ships chandlers. Clearly making rope which is strong enough to support a mariner would require considerable skill and knowledge.


Lime bast below and cord above


References


History, manufacture and properties of lime bast cordage in northern Europe


Examples of lime bast used in ancient times may be found at Sutton Hoo the Anglo-Saxon royal burial site in Suffolk.


Nearer to Rockingham Forest is the Bronze Age site at Must Farm near Peterborough. This site on the edge of the current fenland, is in a habitat that was wetland in the Bronze age.

“During the 2006 evaluation of the site we discovered several pieces of textile including one particularly large fragment that had been folded. After these were examined by specialists it emerged that they were made from plant fibres, most likely from lime trees. This was especially surprising as there is a fairly common assumption that most archaeological textiles would have been made using animal fibres, such as wool.”

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