by Richard Ely
After my summer spent with Mike Abbott in Herefordshire last year, I was very grateful to Woodland Heritage for giving me some funding to spend the winter training with coppice worker, Ben Law, in West Sussex.
I arrived in November and was immediately surprised by the quiet beauty of this area, situated between London and the south coast, with its extensive, well stocked woodlands of Sweet Chestnut coppice. Previously I had only seen Hazel coppice, 99% of which had been neglected and become badly overstood by standards and natural regeneration, making it sparsely stocked as a result.
Sweet Chestnut coppice (above), however, is more robust and capable of withstanding longer periods without management. It is faster growing, has a denser leaf cover and can also grow to a much larger height and diameter than Hazel to become good timber for milling. It will therefore not be so easily overshadowed by unthinned standards and natural regeneration of other species within the coppice. It is a very durable timber too, lending itself well to use outdoors in fencing, building, weatherboarding and garden furniture. It smells very similar to Oak when cut green, being full of tannins which gives it its durability. The advantage of Sweet Chestnut, however, is that it only has two to three years of sapwood, thus making its volume more ‘productive’ than Oak when milling and making it suitable for use, unprocessed, in the round.
Ben’s woodland and surrounding woodlands of which he manages about 100 acres in total, was planted about 150 years ago in the Sussex Weald on well drained greensand and with the south east being the warmest, driest part of the country, these are excellent conditions for Sweet Chestnut.
The winter’s work consisted mostly of practical coppice management. We worked in two main sites, one of which was a well kept “cant” (area of coppice), which had last been cut about 18 years ago. A well stocked cant such as this yields a lot of long, straight, knot free poles which after 18 years of growth had reached a good size for such things as fence posts, garden rose arches and pergolas.
The first lesson, however, and a very important one, was how to sharpen a billhook, a tool with which I became very familiar during that time. It was used on the thinner branched tops which were cut off, chopped up and burned except when they yielded straight whips which could be used in making woven fence panels. The timber was then cut into lengths and stacked in piles, awaiting selection for orders as a raw material or for us to make finished products to order.
The other main site we worked on was an area in a neighbouring woodland, which had been unmanaged since sometime before the 1987 storm. There are still many reminders in the woodlands around the south east of the ’87 hurricane. This cant had many wind blown, half uprooted stools with leaning stems. Added to this, it had also, until a few years earlier, been victim to a mass invasion of Rhododendron. With help, Ben had cut back the vigorous tangle and taken to spraying the young re-growth as the only viable option of controlling an invasion of that scale. Although it had been successful, a neighbour’s woodland had not been controlled and so it was an ongoing battle trying to prevent the Rhododendron spreading back in from the boundary. This site was very much a restoration project compared to the other site of pristine coppice. It was an interesting contrast. The diameter of the wood in this cant was much larger, so it was more suitable for cleaving into rails to be used for the characteristic cleft Chestnut post and rail fencing seen commonly throughout the south east. I was pleased to put some of the skills I had learned with Mike to good use in splitting these 10ft lengths into quarters. Joined by fellow coppice worker, Mitch Hurst, we put up several long runs of this post and rail fencing on the Blackdown Estate for the High Sheriff of Sussex.
It was very satisfying and important for me to see the whole process through from being directly involved in managing the woodland, felling the timber and preparing the materials to making a high quality finished product and something to be proud of! It led to a greater appreciation of where the wood had come from and the work involved in producing it. It also gave me a better understanding of the wood as a material to work with. All this added up to my having confidence in the wood and a genuine desire to promote it, which is a massive benefit to any business.
Any wood not used from this cant was stacked up awaiting further selection. Due to its growing conditions over the last 19 years however, much of it was knotty and too curved for much use. This would be used for charcoal production, thus making full use of the wood, leaving very little wasted. The winter was long but dry, giving us good time to finish cutting the designated areas before spring had sprung and the sap started rising. I must say that it was a relief when we finished the last patch and burned the last pile of brash. I felt a bit of rest was due and it was a fine way to mark the change in seasons. Already many small red buds could be seen, which would soon become fast growing shoots, often up to 100 on each stool.
At this time the work changed to construction and we were joined by Arran and Lucy and a few more people who came to help build Ben’s new workshop (below). Ben chose to build a traditional timber frame pattern structure but used softwood in the round instead of sawn timber. He used mostly Larch and Red Cedar thinnings with the bark stripped off, making a good example of how these easily obtainable durable soft woods, which are often seen to have little value, can be put to good use and replace the need for expensive or imported Oak beams. The walls were clad with a mixture of Oak and Sweet Chestnut weatherboarding.
Having completed most of the building of Ben’s workshop, it was time for me to leave “Prickly Nut Wood” after an interesting winter and a good learning experience. My summer was spent travelling the country doing pole-lathe demonstrations at shows and events. My first show was the popular and well organised South West Wood Fair, this year held at Roadford Lake in Devon. I was very pleased to win several prizes in competitions including 1st prize in the ‘Fine Furniture Category’. I also attended the Weald Wood Fair in East Sussex, the CLA Game Fair, this year held in Romsey, the APF show at Ragley Hall and the Dunster Castle Wood Fair. The APF show saw the ‘Log to Leg’ Race, Pole-Lathe World Championships 2006 in which I came 4th behind Ben Orford, Mike Abbott and Dave Jackson.
I am pleased to have been offered more coppice cutting work this winter near Battle in East Sussex where I hope to further my learning skills and inspire some young minds by becoming involved in working with school groups.
Thanks for your support, Woodland Heritage, in helping me to achieve some of my aims. I hope to continue to move forwards.