The European Scything Championships held near Shwytz/Brunnen in Switzerland was a first for any British competitors as Kevin Austin and Nigel Adams found themselves rather surprisingly entered.
Here is their story.
With Richard Brown and Simon Damant heading for Estonia this summer the other half of the Romania 2015 crew decided they had better find an alternative destination for a summer scything trip. So we set about doing a bit of research that led them to us contacting an organisation in the Basque country of the Pyrenees. A prompt response told us that their event had already passed but suggested we try the European Championships in Switzerland in mid-August. The competition is held every two years and rotates around the participating European countries. Great idea we thought, spend a bit of time in the area, go along and watch the contest and make some contacts for the future.
An email was duly sent to the organisers asking if we could visit and asking if they knew any local groups working with mountain meadows that we could perhaps visit. A friendly reply arrived saying how they would love to have guests from England but that registrations for the contest had closed. No problem we replied, we had no intention of entering, we just wanted to experience the event and see the area. The email exchange continued with offers of a guide/translator for us and contacts with local farmers who would let us join them. So far so good until one day an email arrived with two attachments, one an image of the Union Jack (Could we tell them if it was correct) and an audio file which contained the National Anthem (was this correct). Well, in fact we had to tell them that the Union Jack was upside down and yes the national anthem was the correct, but why had they sent them?
We guessed it was just because those Swiss are so thorough and organised. A couple of emails later in which they asked for photos and dates of birth, we couldn’t resist asking why they needed such details. The reply, received a few days before we went, was rather surprisingly that they had chosen to allow us to enter after all! ….Gulp!
So on a cold August Thursday we left Luton on our way to warm Zurich and found ourselves on a train down to Brunnen on the shores of Lake Lucerne. We were met at the station by our guide Verena who was to be so much help to us on our trip and who was always so concerned that our visit should be perfect. On our arrival she took us to our accommodation in a private house owned by a lovely elderly couple who greeted us with a couple bottles of Swiss beers waiting in our room.
An early start on Friday to meet Verena at the in the meticulous Brunnen, on the obligatory ‘on time’ train which took us a few stops up the valley where we were met by Toni who then drove us up the mountain to our first practice session with the Swiss scythes. Toni we were told was once a champion scyther himself and we wondered what he thought of these two Brits turning up without their scythes to enter the European Championships.
Our competition scythes were soon in view. Both of us would be using the standard Swiss set up 120cm blades.
The snath wasn’t much longer than the blade at 140cm with a central forward facing grip and a T handle at end of snath for your left hand.
Blade and handles were fixed. Blade edges were absolutely perfect, prepared and ready to go by Toni.
We arrived at a beautiful farm with views to die for overlooking the valley and the lake below. Here we met Kathi who was our host for the morning. She ran the small holding with her husband who also worked as a cattle dealer for extra income. She proudly showed us her cattle which she brought in from the meadows around the house and we simply marvelled at the location of their house and their way of life.
Now it has to be mentioned at this stage that Nigel had a bout of flu which made him a bit of a sniffling mess and as we took our first look at our scythes he did began to wonder quite what he was doing there. Nigel mostly uses a 85cm blade and once even had a quick go on a 110, but we were handed 120cm blades on the end of rather short snath. Even Kevin who is used to a 110 raised an eyebrow when we had the technique of using them demonstrated to us.
The settings were such that in order for the ‘lay’ to be correct you had to hold your left hand grip approximately 15inches off the ground! This meant a combination of legs wide apart with a crouching style and also having to bend forward more than usual,putting a real strain on our bodies compared to our usual more upright stance. Then, as you’ve finished a stroke because your very low position it’s almost a jump to get in position to drive again. The other interesting part of the set up was that in order to minimise the flex in these length blades most were either welded or riveted with a strip of metal that went from corner of heel to tang of the blade.
Because blades are set quite closed and lay very flat, the right hand is driving right through the belly of the blade and with the hafting angle being opened up by the left hand being set more forward, a large bite can be achieved, particularly through the beautiful lush leys we were scything.
In the evening we were informed that there was to be a ‘captains meeting’ in town. Kevin gallantly proposed that Nigel should be captain as he spoke a bit of German! Eight teams including ourselves had entered. The hosts Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovinia, The Basque country, South Tirol (Actually in Italy) The Czech Republic and us. The meeting was made possible by the use of translators for each nation and covered the rules and regulations and programme of the weekend. It was explained to us that the grass we were to cut was in fact the 5th cut of the year and was sown 2 years ago. The practice area close by was only the 4th cut and was therefore longer. Various technical points were discussed such as what happens if a snath breaks or how low the judges wanted the cut. One issue surrounded an incident in the previous European Championships in which a scyther at the end of his mowing did the usual collapse with exhaustion but was later discovered to have deliberately fallen on to a clump of uncut grass! After heated debate it was decided that a mower had 30 seconds in which to leave their plot (or presumably be considered dead and carried off on a stretcher!)
The meeting was followed by our first visit to the site and an inspection of the plots. Some regions of Central Europe suffer from plagues of mice which bury into meadows and devour the grass. It is quite a serious problem and every effort had been made to control them here.
Even so an excess of plots had been marked out so the Captains could decide to remove any that they felt should not be in the contest. The main problem was piles of soil rather like mole hills caused by the mice that still occurred in some plots.
The plots were 10m x 10m for the gents, 5m x 7m for the ladies and 5m x 5m for the youngsters.
As we finished our walkabout a huge storm suddenly engulfed the valley followed by high winds and thunder which forced us to run for cover. The marquees blew and shook and one even had to be evacuated. We had no choice but to shelter in the second tent which happened to be the bar!
Saturday morning we had some free time and decided to take a trip up the mountain in a cable car to see the view. There was no view as the clouds covered the peaks but the fresh air cleared our heads and gave us the chance to discuss what on earth we had let ourselves in for!
Saturday afternoon was practice afternoon and it would give us a chance to hone our racing style a little more or perhaps confirm our worse fears, would we actually finish!
Toni was waiting with our scythes nicely peened and ready to go when we got to the site at around 4pm. The other teams had already started, some doing warm up exercises others cutting the grass in great swathes and at an alarming speed. It has to be said that Toni seemed pleasantly surprised at our skills and was keen to see us cut larger areas. The problem was we seemed incapable of cutting more than a straight 5m without stopping for a break. Now we put Nigel’s lack of stamina down to age and the flu but even Kevin was struggling with thighs that seemed to scream for mercy at every attempt. Toni told us that perhaps it was too dangerous for Nigel to enter. Dangerous? Nigel didn’t think his scything was that bad, but Toni explained that such exertion with the flu at such altitude could be quite dangerous. At that point two light bulbs went on; of course it was the altitude that was making us so tired. Kevin lives at sea level for example and we had only been there a day. Nigel’s flu had certainly come at the wrong time and in the wrong place! Things didn’t bode well.
Saturday evening, was the first formal event with the introduction of the teams and the draw for plots. The large marquee was packed with people and the beer was flowing when Kevin and Nigel were summoned to the back of the tent and handed the Union Jack at the top of a long pole. We were first up to walk down the aisle to the stage and draw our numbers. With God Save the Queen blasting out as we walked on stage we received very warm applause and set about the complicated drawing of our plots. Each country followed with a rapturous reception for each from their supporters with the loudest of course for the Swiss!”
On Sunday morning, bright and breezy following an emergency conference over breakfast between the two of us (at which we decided the thing to do was to ‘go steady!) we went to the town church for the scythe competition service. We listened to beautiful Swiss horn music and a fantastic choir of singers with the obligatory yodelling. The competition was blessed and off we went to take part in the procession through the town and along the 2km road to the competition
On arrival at the site nerves rather kicked in but were also overcome with the harsh reality that this was indeed it. No backing out now!
Kevin went first and did a great job. Nigel was two rounds later and he followed the team orders to the letter. He did indeed ‘go steady’! Both finished alive and were elated and buzzing to have actually finished
Prize giving was an epic evening of singing, dancing and sampling the local beer with hundreds of people in the huge marquee. As the tension mounted the winners were announced. Amongst them Kevin won a special prize for most stylish scyther!
The ladies class was won by Elizabeth Schlicher(Austria) – 53 secs(1min 5secs) and previous champion MagritFohn in second place 1min 2seconds(1min9secs)
The male competition was won by Bernhard Selinger(Austria) in 2mins 13secs(2mins 41secs) second place was GoenagaJexuxmari(Basque) in 2mins 44secs(2mins54secs)
The emphasis on final positions after adjustment for quality was massive.
For example the fastest male competitor finished at 1min 46secs but penalty of nearly 2mins dropped him too (3mins15secs)12th position.
The result for the team competition was a total of the top 5 mensscores(Austria) and for the ladies top 3 (Austria)
Nigel,though slow, had 5th best quality overall and Kevin had made good speed at 4mins 5secs with 40sec time penalty. We were really pleased to perform reasonably well given the altitude, the crouching style, the flu and the being twice the age of the average competitor as well!
Huge emphasis was put on quality, scored by 2 judges from each country with the lowest and highest score removed from each individual and the remaining scores added together and multiplied by 10 to give you the total seconds of penalty added to the time.
As the individual and the team prizes were announced the tent went crazy and a long night of partying started.
It was great to make new friends and be past of such a prestigious event and, having jumped in at the deep end we would whole heartedly recommend that others give it a go in two years’ time in Austria.
We also recommend a bit of training beforehand!
(Photos video and text by Nigel Adams)