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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Pho­to­graphs by Mil­lie Pilk­ing­ton

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

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