About the woodlands I will go
Bodgers, coppicers and charcoal burners once spent weeks living in the woods in order to ply their trade. John Wright meets the new generation of woodland dwellers
Would we wish to pursue a life filled with the back-threatening work of woods?
We are creatures of woodland, grassland and seashore and, before the distractions and temptations of civilisation, these were the places where once we lived and made our living. Most people still delight in a walk in the woods. The sweet earthy smells, dappling light and sounds of bird and leaf washing over us, we are returned for a moment to our natural home.
But would we really like to go back? Would we wish to pursue a life filled with the back-threatening, all-weather work of woods? And how many want to live in primitive woodland huts lacking in modern necessities, as once did our ancestors? Few yearn for either, but those who do often seem alive in a way seldom seen in those who take a more conventional path.
One such is Alan Waters in West Sussex. Now 70, he’s worked as a coppicer all his life and as a charcoal burner for 40 years. ‘They all call me a master collier, which I suppose I must be after all this time,’ he tells me, slightly embarrassed. ‘A couple of times, I’ve met people who claim to have learnt the trade from the master himself— me! Their faces are a picture when I tell them who I am.’
Although Alan has used the traditional ‘earth-burn’ method, in which small timbers are stacked in a rough hemisphere and covered with soil, he now uses an exeter retort. This cylinder of steel plus chimney is vastly more efficient, producing a ton of charcoal for every four tons of wood. His season runs from easter to August— August 11, incidentally, is St Alexander’s Day, the patron saint of charcoal burners, who came to precisely the crispy end one would imagine.
The rest of the year, Alan weaves hurdles and splendid panels and makes besoms (witch’s brooms) and pimps (neat bundles of twigs for lighting fires). He now produces only five tons of charcoal a year, a fifth of what he once burned in his younger days. ‘Are you going to retire?’ I ask. ‘Well, I still need the income,’ he replies with more cheer than one might expect. ‘Anyway, what would I do with myself if I stopped?’
Alan shows me how to rive (split) a length of hazel. I make a terrible job of it, despite having been a cabinet-maker for 30 years. I can still make a perfect dovetail in five minutes, but most greenwood skills are foreign to me.
Nevertheless, I’ve made Windsor chairs and therefore have a great deal of fellow feeling with east Sussex bodger Richard ely. He also uses riving techniques, this time to cut his spindles and legs, mostly from green ash, then turns them on his pole lathe—a rustic contraption operated by foot power.
This primitive machine is all but impossible to use, but Richard can produce four identical greenwood chair legs in 15 minutes. ‘Then, I dry the spindles for a bit, leaving the legs mostly green so they shrink and grip the spindles that I push into the leg sockets.’
We spend a lot of time talking about such niceties as concealed wedges and through-tenons. Mostly, however, we lament how people have been spoiled by cheap, massproduced furniture. ‘A machine-made Windsor chair will cost about £35, but mine will take a day or two to make and cost 10 times that,’ Richard explains. ‘It’s individuality
that you lose. I select for beauty of grain and choose pieces of wood that have naturally grown to just the right shape. My chairs have personality and they last.’
Alan and Richard are in love with their craft, but Philip Solt is in love with his wood. Just south of Olney in Buckinghamshire lies a bright jewel of life, set in a barren agricultural landscape, in the shape of Philip’s 40-acre Hollington Wood. This ancient ash coppice was last cut 100 years ago and is destined, slowly, to become a standard ash forest. The scattered maples, hazels and elms are mostly left alone, but the ash trees are a worry.
Every ash tree wears its history in the multiple winding trunks that rise from its stool. A standard tree has but one trunk and Philip has to choose, agonisingly, which one to save. The losers he cuts for firewood, his main income, or to make shingles or building timbers using riving (splitting) techniques.
His greatest concern, however, is ash dieback. Like all who tend woodland, Philip’s eye is on the future. Not his own, but that of his wood. Since his early retirement, Philip has spent every daylight hour tending what was once his childhood playground: ‘My father bought it more than 50 years ago and gave it to me as a wedding present.’ Marriage alone is a big enough responsibility, but the romantic in me sees Philip embracing the two loves of his life on the same day.
He’s gracious in sharing his wood with others, hosting events such as bluebell days and open days, encouraging people, especially children, to see the wood as he sees it—a place full of adventure, full of magic, full of life.
Just 20 miles north-west of Hollington, fellow woodlander Richard Mawby’s concern is not so much with his 40 acres of wood and field, but with what he eats. Worried about the western diet, which he considers to be various levels of toxic (fair point), he sees milk as the answer and, each day, consumes 31∕2 pints of unpasteurised goat’s milk from his own small flock. Nothing else. Well, almost nothing else.
Richard’s wood is a mixed bag of deciduous trees, the most conspicuous being the
Taste, evidently, is not a consideration, given the hot pineneedle smoothie
venerable elders festooned with the edible wood-ear fungus. A stream runs through the wood from which Richard collects all the water he needs, passing it through a Heathrobinson micro-filter of his own devising.
Is the 26 year old’s healthy glow despite or because of his diet? ‘For extra nutrients, I often make smoothies with any plant I know not to be poisonous.’ Taste, evidently, is not a consideration, given the hot pine-needle water ‘smoothie’ Richard makes me, which tastes, mysteriously, of cooked mussels.
Richard does eat meat—occasionally. ‘Last year, I found a muntjac in my field. They’re good on the sprint, but tire easily, so I chased it until it gave up, then wrestled it to the ground and cut its throat,’ he recalls. I don’t enquire how he cooked it, in case he didn’t. This sort of hunter-gathering might sound barbaric, yet, it’s more natural than nipping to Waitrose for a steak or ordering a pepperoni pizza.
‘I don’t need much money,’ Richard admits. ‘I spend less than £5,000 a year, mostly on essential tech and my van, and the goats need a bit of extra food in the winter when there isn’t much for them in the woods.’ This is a man who’s content.
The bodgers, coppicers and charcoal burners of old would once have spent the occasional week or two living in woods and Alan and Richard Mawby camp out on the odd night. However, there are about 30 groups in Britain—including Tinkers Bubble in Somerset—which make the woods both workplace and home. When I eventually arrive—via the local pub, where the landlady helpfully drew maps—a young woman called Sophia leads me up the steep path through firs to what promises to be a high-elven bower, but turns out to be a cluster of dwellings of Iron Age aspect, albeit with the anachronistic inclusions of bright plastic containers, the occasional tarpaulin and obligatory rusting sheets of corrugated iron.
The most eye-catching building is, effectively, an Iron Age roundhouse. It’s here that the six permanent residents and stream of enthusiastic volunteers meet to eat, talk, make democratic decisions and play board games. The separate bathhouse is an impressive construction, although I would not exchange it for my power-shower under torture.
There are several actual dwellings including the L-shaped, timber home Sophia shares with her partner, Ed. Charming on the outside, exquisite on the inside and perhaps the most lovely room I’ve ever seen, it seems to be less designed than grown.
‘We volunteer for 21 ⁄2 days’ work and get paid £5 an hour for any more we do,’ Sophia clarifies. ‘Every month, there’s £106 for expenses, such as food we can’t grow and the phone bill. We all have small businesses— I weave baskets and Ed makes yurts—so we do earn money.’
There are two Jersey cows for milk, a hay meadow that requires scythes and a 5am start to cut, pigs, chickens and a large vegetable garden. The community cash crops are apples, from which they make juice, and construction timber taken from the Douglas fir, which covers two-thirds of their 40 acres. The trees are felled with a crosscut saw, dragged down the hill by Charlie or Jim (horses, not people) and milled in a sawmill powered by a monstrous, woodfired steam engine.
As I sit on some very second-hand chairs in the foggy shadow of this dragon of a machine, talking and drinking tea that’s been heated inside the firebox, I have to ask the obvious question: ‘Why do you live like this?’ Pedro, who, judging by his high proportion of woollen clothing, is the most dedicated, answers for all: ‘We wouldn’t want it any other way.’ A sentiment, I think, they share with fellow woodlanders.
The skillfully thatched ‘Iron Age roundhouse’, where the members of Tinkers Bubble meet, eat and play board games. The woodland community has six permanent residents
Top left: Sophia and Ed’s handbuilt timber-frame house. Top right: Pedro at the sawmill. Above left: Sophia in the kitchen. Above right: Teatime outdoors, as usual. Below: Apple juice is one of the community’s products. Facing page: Timber is harvested from Douglas firs
Philip Solt has spent almost every daylight hour since his early retirement caring for his 40-acre wood. He organises a variety of open days to encourage children to discover Nature
Alan Waters has been a coppicer his whole life and a charcoal burner for 40 years