On Sunday four of us from our group joined others enrolled on a day course to learn skep-making – a traditional straw beehive either for keeping bees in or just for collecting swarms. Apparently the earliest known skep dates from Neolithic times! We followed directions to a place near Swindon, walked along a hawthorn hedge by a field, followed the sound of bagpipes through a gate into a copse, and found a clearing round a camp fire and a circle of skeps old, new and half-made, where a young man greeted us – Chris Park, our tutor for the day.
The compound had a couple of circular buildings, one was his family house, more substantial than the other which was a “classroom” – wild flower roof and earthen floor – as well as chicken pens and an apiary nearby with maybe 30 hives of various types.
We sat round the camp fire and learnt how to make our skeps. Around lunchtime a pot was put on the fire and some leaves cut into the basic stock – lunch! – with bread and cheese, “Mr Park’s honey” and all kinds of tea/coffee to follow. It was completely idyllic with lovely sunshine, birds singing, chickens scratching, us all working away together, with a break in the afternoon to see Chris’ beehives between the compound and the neighbouring farmer’s field.
Chris was a careful teacher and took us through each stage, from the beginning with a “keeper” filled with a bunch of straw stems, twisting that until it curled into the central nub, and then gradually forming it into a round, lapping it with cane and filling the keeper all the while. It took some time to get the hang of pulling really tightly, and making sure the shape was as we would want, so we were not expected to make more than about a third during this day course.
At around 4pm it was time to leave with our unfinished straw efforts along with a half sheaf of corn stems, some cane “lapping” and a tool, to finish off at home. It was a really enjoyable day and warmly recommended.