The roller coaster ride that is a small business has seen some particularly hairy moments during the last month. [a seven foot paling]
Its mostly due to one order for a cleft oak paling fence that while being a good job had to be completed before Christmas.
The fence had particulary long 1.6m palings and everything had to go perfectly to ever achieve the deadline. As it happened nothing went right. We had heavy snow that slowed everything down and restricted us getting in the woods. Actually James and Sam managed to extract some wood out in a heroic attempt to keep the job on course but this ended up being a futile exercise as the trees we had cut weren't good cleavers. Having spent two weeks with all three of us beating our heads against the weather and the material trying to keep job on course the client then cancelled the job. Some people don't realise the amount of physical effort that goes into making a bespoke cleft oak fence. At least with the job getting cancelled we could get back to the enormous back log of firewood orders that built up while we were otherwise engaged.
With the incredibly cold weather people are getting through firewood at a remarkable rate. Luckily with the ground being frozen hard we can get wood out of Dalton Crags where our pile of beech is coming up to two years old and fantastic firewood. On the subject of cold weather more moaning. The heater in a landrover is virtually non existent and the –9 temperatures we are having is making driving excruciatingly painful at times even with two pairs of gloves on. Also its so cold that the lid on the teapot froze shut along with the water carriers. Oh and Windermere is freezing over. Sorry for the moaning, I feel better now , happy Christmas.
In the blink of an eye another six weeks goes past and I'm trying to remember what I've been doing. Well its actually been quite busy, I went down to the South East coppice Conference near Petworth which was very enjoyable, particularly looking around the coppice that Alan Waters' is working. Alan has been coppicing since Roman times and has a set of products that use just about everything produced. Alan is a compulsive communicator and is selling traditional products for thatching , hurdles and resurrecting some such as pimps and faggots. Pimps are a collection of 25 individual firelighters made of hazel and birch tied with tarred string. This is a picture of Alan's 'boy' (the trough holding the birch tops) and his table where the individual bundles are compressed and tied with tarred string. You can also see Alan's enormous 'pimp cleaver' a heavyweight cleaver for chopping through the birch tops. ['boy' and table] And this is my take on the boy with the chopping block built in. [boy and boy and table] We also saw Alan's faggot compressing jig which worked well. Faggots are two metre bundles of tops tied in three places with baler twine and used for riverbank restoration, the faggots capturing silt and rebuilding the bank. I was rather taken with the pimps which look really nice while working well, and decided to demonstrate them at the Greenwood fair at Leighton Hall ( I didn't quite have the bottle to display a sign like Alan does 'pimps, faggots and benders'). I still think the main benefit of the conferences is just getting together and networking with fellow woods people. They are quite a diverse bunch with some great characters amongst them. The weather in the lakes is now quite cold and murky and we've had the first snow, so it looks likely to be another hard winter. I got to tramp around Stoney Hazel with Alex Todd during the heaviest rain we've had since last year looking at which section to cut next. It will probably be the last remaining section inside the deer fence that was actually cut by Bill Hogarth when it wasn't deer fenced. This section is quite different to the others inside as there is little regeneration from being browsed by goats and deer. The hope is a bit of thinning, desturbing the soil will get some new growth going. Failing that Alex is getting some pigs in to clear out the bracken. We have been getting a good stream of cleft oak jobs that are keeping us busy and Sam has the pleasing talent of getting fast making something very quickly. Here he is knocking out mortise holes in fence posts, I don't like to tell him I'm thinking of getting a chain morticer. [Sam morticing]
I have also finally managed to get to Dan Sumner's wood to give him a charcoal burning masterclass (tractor burning bit left out). So there is now a new charcoal burner in the central lakes which should be a good spot for campsite sales.
[Dan and Richard lighting their kiln]
'Forever' was the answer I got when I asked Andrew Parr how long the tannery had been where it was in Colyton, Devon. [Andrew Parr inspecting some tanning leather]
I managed to persuade the family to have a trip over there while I was on holiday in Dorset and was really glad I did. I've been meaning to try and see where the oak bark ends up for a long time and wasn't disappointed. Surprisingly the tannery doesn't smell as it just uses steeped oak bark and Veronia acorn cups. It takes a year to pass through the process and various after processes where the leather is dried, rolled scraped and dubbined to produce a piece of leather suitable for the household cavalry. [leather after tanning]
While you think of a tannery as being a producer of lots of noxious bi-products, Bakers can pour the spent liquor into the river and the used bark goes for compost. The building does have the air of being there forever, the floors are covered with old leather in places and the oak bark is ground by water wheel, windows yellowed by the tannin cast a subdued light. That was the highlight of my week in Dorset as the weather was a bit rubbish. September ended up very busy with first aid refresher, county show and Woodland Pioneers all coming at once. Woodland Pioneers was once again sold out and a great week despite windy weather. I was teaching how to make a rustic stool out of a single block of wood and had to go around with a name tag saying 'stool tutor' which sounds a bit like Gillian Mckeith to me. On the Friday afternoon I decided to join in with a taster course communing with trees. This had me walking very slowly through the wood noticing five things with every step. I looked a bit daft but its quite an interesting exercise as you start taking in small details around and trying to use more than just vision. [Sam demonstrating at the County show ] [Woodland pioneers]
[Sam cleaving a log ]
Its been an exciting month as I've now got Sam the new BHMAT apprentice started with me. There is always some worry about how you will get on with someone new, but Sam is easy going and is picking things up quickly (then putting them down over there).He has some good ideas for what he wants to do with the apprenticeship. His big problem will be finding somewhere to live in Kendal on a pretty small income. My big worry will be keeping us all busy and paid as work seems to be dropping off a bit at the moment. Luckily Sam's arrival coincided with a big order for cleft oak palings, so Sam has been straight in to learning a useful skill.
[The finished palings ]
A lot of our skills have been learnt through hard experience and so Sam will have a short cut on some of that. Considering its been such a dry start to the summer charcoal sales have been pretty flat, is everyone moving onto gas barbecues? The new firewood processor is now installed on the back of Tomski tractor and its very nice to use a tight sharp machine again. The drought did come to a sudden stop and I am now regretting not extracting the firewood from some of the wetter woods.
[Tomski tractor ]
It's taken a few weeks to get back to anything like normal after the fire. It's a combination of the sheer waste of time talking to insurance companies,tracking down a replacement tractor and processor and a certain amount of naval gazing as I ponder the best way forward. Tom tractor has now been replaced by Tomski tractor, a yukoslavian version of a Massey 135 and about 20 years younger than Tom. Our major task of the last few weeks has been making an oak arbour for Holehird gardens. The finished structure is looking good but it has seemed like I'm rubbing against the grain trying to get the thing finished as event after event conspires stop its completion. One of the happy events was the birth of James and Victoria's second child (George).They are all doing well, congratulations to them both.
[arbour at holehird]
Its been a remarkable dry spell in the area, and driving past Thirlmere there are beaches I've never seen before. [Thirlmere]
[tractor and processor burnt out ]
Disaster has struck the kiln site at Dalton Crags. I got a phone call from the area forester and then the chief fire officer at 11.00pm on Wednesday night telling me that a fire had broken out near the kilns spreading down a line of brash and eventually reaching the tractor and firewood processor about 25 yards away. When the tractor got going the heat was so intense that the timber stack set alight and started running along that. When the fire brigade got there the stack was well alight. The local farmer Mike Smith was called with his loader to get the rest of the stack out of the way and another farmer brought a silage tanker with water up to the site to put out the fire. I went to a meeting with the fire officer and Martin Colledge the next morning, and we were somewhat baffled where the source of the fire had come from. I had closed the kilns down earlier that day and they were cooling rapidly when I left them. There wasn't any sign of fire by the kilns but it is possible that some tar in the chimneys had been fanned by the strong winds that came up in the afternoon. Anyway a very unpleasant situation and it leaves me without a tractor and firewood processor for the moment. Thats the facts but I'm finding something akin to bereavement for the loss of Tommy the tractor who has been a reliable and willing servant for nine years and survived mishap since 1966.
I must say thankyou to the fire service of Arnside, Sedbergh and Kendal who turned up to the fire and to the two farmers whose help has saved a large proportion of the timber stack and to the local forest craftsmen and area forester for their help. [tractor and processor burnt out ]
[moving the kilns from Witherslack] Socks! If anyone wants to get rid of a few old socks I'll have them. We've moved the kilns finally from Witherslack to the new pile of wood at Dalton Crags ( near Burton in Kendal). The only problem being, that the socks we use stuffed with sand to close the kilns down are looking a bit ropey. Having raided the sock draws for any holey socks I am still short of a few. The pair I get every Christmas isn't really keeping up with demand. [annoiting the kilns with Lakeland Red for good luck]
We are still working at full speed at the moment flitting about the area finishing off the two coups we have been working at Staveley and Silverdale and clocking up a lot of miles.
[Yew and oak bench for Town End]
But there are some high points. I have been making a pair of peeled yew benches for the National Trust at Townend. They requested copies of some old yew benches that were becoming rickety and having looked at them decided they were peeled yew. I'm not actually sure now, the bark may have just dropped off. But the interesting thing was that I found yew peels very well, which I wasn't expecting. You would think that with it being evergreen and slow growing that the bark would stop attached. A bit of research on the web came up with an essay by a man in the USA who was cutting yew trees that were then peeled by a gang of assorted oddballs for the bark, which was being used in a pharmaceutical experiment looking for a cancer cure. This essay was from 1995, as there doesn't seem to be high demand for yew bark it must have been a failure. A strange coincidence came to light when Sam Ansell (Rebecca Oaks' apprentice) was having a family get together which included his cousin and girlfriend. When Sam talked to cousins girlfriend it turned out she was the woman who has been leading the biochar experiment in Italy. The swallows have been three days late this year, possibly due to the northerly winds but they have finally arrived. The first burns at Dalton Crags have been very successful with 21 fertiliser bags coming out of each of them, but the one kiln re-ignited when we took the lid off and had to be shut down another day. This bodes well for the future as the kilns usually take 2-3 burns to settle in.
[lamb on Scout Scar]
Spring is in full swing, my son Patrick took this picture of a lamb on Scout Scar
[cows at Eaves Wood]
Officially its been the coldest winter for thirty years but I would take a winter like this any time over the usual wet and miserable offerings we usually get. To finish off the winter we have had the most incredible spell of fine weather and we have managed to get on well with the two woods we are working at the moment.
Eaves wood has some very cute cows roaming round the patch we are working but they are getting quite adventurous now they have realised that we are cutting sycamores down and soon as the tree is down pile in to eat the twigs off the tops. This could become a new coppicing method "cow snedding" I will have to save up for the NPTC certificate that's sure to follow. While dragging one bunch of tops off to the fire I thought it had got snagged and looked round to find a cow attached to the other end of the bundle. The other wood we are working is Dorothy Farrars wood at the back of Staveley and having finished cutting the coppice section we have been felling the section of larger trees, which will end up as mostly firewood, but there are some nice oaks amongst it and also some nice straight ash which should be worth planking. In amongst this we also had a quick diversion to cut the willow patch which didn't seem to produce as much this year.
[Steep Dorothy Farrars wood] [Another section at Dorothy Farrars Wood] [the willow patch being cut]
January has been hard work in the snow. We've been trying to extract wood at Stoney Hazel
[extracting at Stoney Hazel] [delivering firewood at Selside]
but the tracks have been frozen and we ended up with lots of double handling of wood as we used the little tractor to extract to the ride. We then had to put it on James' Hilux as this was the only thing that would go up a short icy slope to where we stacked the wood. Firewood deliveries have also been difficult with back roads being iced over. I was imagining myself in an episode of 'ice road truckers' going up the Rusland valley over roads thickly covered in ice. We have also been cutting at Eaves Wood in Silverdale for the National Trust.
They have a large grant for renovating coppice and are doing lots of work via a small army of coppice workers in the area. The message that commercial coppicing is good for wildlife and more sustainable is beginning to have some effect with the idea being to get the coppice back into a state that people will cut the wood for nothing or even pay if the quality is good enough. This is going to be a better idea than just constantly paying for coppice to be cut for butterfly conservation , which is done in a way that keeps the stools stunted and browsed and ultimately worthless. The commercial route was how the habitat appeared in the first place when there wasn't any grants. A good example of this is Dorothy Farres's Spring wood near Staveley which we have been cutting again (see 2002 for the last time we were there). Colin Simpson's vision was in-rotation commercial coppice that would be great for wildlife and would be cheap to maintain.
A drier day at the start of December let us get Rebecca Oaks' new barn extension up.
The process turned out to be painless as she had got a forwarder in to lift the 10metre logs into position. Except for one joint that was the wrong way round so we had to start building past the joint with no pin in to join it all together, it all sat very nicely together. The couple of weeks before Christmas are usually a bit hectic for firewood, luckily most of my regular customers are used to my ways and have got the firewood in well before. Driving round the lakes after the deluge has been interesting with streams diverting down roads and dry stone walls punched through by water running off the fields and piles of gravel across the roads.
[Greenside in Kendal]
The new weather problem has been snow. The pattern I've noticed this year is that whatever the weather its usually the wettest, deepest, hottest, coldest or windiest since records began. I think no one bothered keeping records till last year. Anyway snow upon snow has come down to make the final deliveries tricky. On the coppicing front we have finished cutting our latest coup at Stoney Hazel, so after a week extracting masses of wood we will be off to pastures new. Well new ish because after a quick bit of paid coppicing for the National Trust at Silverdale we are back to Dorothy Farrer's spring wood in Staveley. Happy new year to you.