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The Reed-Cutter

by W.A. Dutt from A Guide to the Norfolk Broads (1923)

In winter, one of the most familiar sights in Broadland is a reed-cutter at work on a Broad or by the riverside. For the reed-cutter's harvest is a winter one, beginning about Christmas, when the blade is off the reeds, and lasting until March or April, when the appearance of the 'colts' or young reeds puts a stop to the cutting. Eel-catchers, marshmen, millmen, and the men who sail the cruising yachts, take part in this belated harvest, which comes at a time when there is little else for them to do in the daytime, and only wild fowl to be watched for at dusk and dawn. Scythe and meag are used in cutting the reeds, and the cutter works either in a wide, flat bottomed marsh boat, or on a plank projecting from a boat or laid flat in a cleared space among the reeds. If, however, the reeds grow in shallow water, the men put on wading-boots and work in the water. The cut reeds are laid in the boat or where they are to be stacked. There they are tied in bundles or 'shooves', five of which are supposed to have an aggregate circumference of six feet, and they are sold by the fathom, a fathom of reeds being five 'shooves'. They are used for various purposes, such as supporting builders' plasterwork, thatching cottages, park lodges, and ornamental boat-houses, and screening young shrubs and fruit trees; but the demand for them has decreased considerably since the days when there were 'scythe rights' on the reed fens and the reeds were carefully cultivated. But there are still many hundred acres of reeds in Broadland, and the cutting of them means a welcome addition to many scanty incomes. So, too, does the cutting and selling of 'gladden' and a species of rush locally known as 'bolder'; but turf or peat cutting, which formerly found employment for many of the marshmen, can hardly now be called a profitable business. Still, there are a few men who cut and dry the riverside hovers and the boggy surface soil of some of the swampy lands; for peat is a good and cheap substitute for coal in the hearths of the marshmen's cottage homes.


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