In April, members of Woodland Heritage were privileged to be able to join the Institute of Wood Science on their visit to the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, a fascinating 50 acre site on the South Downs.
We were given an informative tour of the many buildings (15th century through to 19th century) which had all been donated to the Museum and then restored to their original state on site, many furnished with authentic copies of furniture made by the Museum carpenter using the very same raw materials that were used years ago.
"Wood is everything to us - right from the preparation of the wood for a building".
The Museum educates, conserves and entertains; universities and schools are included in the 140,000 annual visitors who are introduced to the materials used, history and social history of our country. As far as is possible, the Museum keeps traditional crafts and methods alive using age-old skills, for example horses are used at every opportunity in moving timbers/materials, harrowing etc... We were able to see candle making, harrowing, milling and the blacksmith in operation. There are often other displays to be seen, such as pole lathe turning, period food preparation, use of the heavy horse, medieval jewellery making and medicinal/herbal remedies to name a few. Even old-fashioned hand clippers are used to shear the resident flock of sheep ! Regular courses in all aspects of timber-framed building and rural crafts are held throughout the year, together with numerous special events.
In one building, Court Barn - circa 1536, it was shown that one tree had been used to provide the 4 "straight" principal posts - is this proof that timber all those years ago was largely of better quality, or that because of extensive wood/forested areas the choice of quality timber was more readily available ?
Personally, I feel sure that this evidence of good straight stems can only prove that High Pruning was in use many years ago and that our efforts to promote such management today are not new.
We were shown two little 19th century houses, recently rescued from Ashtead, Surrey, in which 12-15 different types of wood were to be found used in the vertical timbers. The finest house was one that was dated 1410 with the most amazing beams/large timbers and separate kitchen building which has been moved from the slope above this farmhouse.
We were introduced to Roger Champion, the Museum carpenter, who had been at Weald & Downland since the beginning in the 1960s. Roger has been described as "the one who built the place" - although he does not feel that this is correct. His workshop is in a green tent (for the want of a better word) tucked away behind the Market Square and it was here that we were treated to the knowledge of this true "hands-on, no-nonsense" man - clearly more at ease with wood than a crowd of people. He explained the problems encountered in the repair and reconstruction of the buildings, together with the old tools that would have been used and many interesting aspects of wood/timber were discussed. Students are regularly under his wing to study "log to plank" with the construction of small timber frames. I would have loved to have been able to show him our "Garthwaite Shelter" at Castle Howard.
We are most grateful to the IWSc Southern Region for letting us join them. In particular, Stuart Faulkner of Covers, Chichester for organising the actual day. I do hope that some of you might find the time to visit, or attend some of the many courses and lectures the Museum offers right through the year. Our thanks also to the Museum’s dedicated staff and many volunteers, which help preserve our past and pass on skills/crafts and traditional methods to our future generations.