Asked to summarise my six months with Mike Abbott in Brookhouse Wood, I would say it was a near-vertical learning curve that I nearly fell off on a couple of occasions. But it was also a hugely worthwhile period and one I believe has propelled me from being an interested amateur green woodworker to someone with a decent chance of making a living from it.
From a comfortable but unfulfilling career as a freelance journalist, last year I made the decision to leap into something new. I’d had a long-standing interest in woodwork generally and a love of English woodlands, so green woodworking seemed an obvious choice. Perhaps, then, when I signed up for a chair-making course with Mike last summer it was inevitable that I would become hooked – so much so that when the opportunity of working as Mike’s summer-long assistant arose this year, I didn’t think twice about accepting.
For anyone unfamiliar with Mike, he’s a leading green woodwork exponent and from May to September runs chair-making courses in a woodland workshop in Herefordshire. He’s recently moved from his long-time stronghold in Clissett Wood near Ledbury to Brookhouse Wood on a farm in the beautiful Frome Valley.
The job I signed up for was to help Mike run these courses – and at the same time, of course, drain him of 30 years’ worth of hard earned woody lore and learn something myself. The added bonus was that thanks to a grant from Woodland Heritage, I had financial sponsorship to get me through my months at Brookhouse Wood.
Things kicked off in early April when I went to the wood to help out on one of the development weeks which Mike holds to prepare the workshop and camping facilities for the season ahead. It was quite an introduction to woodland living ! A late cold snap meant heavy frosts each night – fine when you’re round the fire or hard at work, but less fun when you’re shivering inside a thin tent. Nonetheless the small team of volunteers I was with made good progress, helping to finish off Mike’s newly built workshop and weave a Willow and Hazel wall for the wood’s impressive Oak-framed toilet.
Courses got underway in early May with a six-day bark-seat chairmaking course. It was then that I realised how out of my depth I was. Being but a mortal, there were only so many people Mike could help at once; understandably – though wrongly – course participants therefore saw me as the other fount of all knowledge to come to for assistance. I gave it where I could, but it made me realise how much I had to learn myself.
Part of this first course involved a day out in a nearby wood harvesting bark from Wych Elm trees for chair seating. Sadly, I missed this as Mike had arranged for me to go up to Cumbria to attend a three-day conference on the role of coppicing and coppice crafts in the twenty-first century. More positively, though, it was a fascinating event. Speakers ranged from leading woodland and rural historian Oliver Rackham to a variety of policy makers and coppice workers. Much of it was beyond my level of understanding, but the message that came through was clear: even in this hi-tech age of machines that can fell and shred a tree in seconds, the craft of coppicing remains enormously valuable. It provides habitat, brings numerous health and supports the rural economy at a time when other sectors are in decline.
This, of course, comes with the caveat that coppicing enjoys only a relatively low profile in this country and is not given the respect it deserves. But it was heartening to see so much interest and a new generation of would-be craftspeople – including, I hope, myself – coming through to give it a shot in the arm.
Back in the wood, courses continued apace. May was a washout, and the paths in the wood all turned to ankle-deep mud. Confinement to the workshop, though, gave me the opportunity to consolidate some of my greenwood skills and by the end of the month I’d made my first chair of the season, a four-slat ladder-back in Ash with an Elm bark seat. Completing this was a big boost to my confidence and really helped with my assisting Mike on the courses. And assisting, itself, I found to be a virtuous circle; having to explain the various processes and techniques of chairmaking several times to several different people helped them stick in my mind thus increasing my own level of proficiency in the craft.
In June things started to hot up and the horseflies reached biblical proportions. Barring a few minor mishaps, though, the courses went smoothly – I managed to complete my second chair. In fact, I took it as a sign that I had begun to earn my spurs when Mike offered me the opportunity of going off to demonstrate pole-lathe turning and other greenwood skills at a wood fair in Derbyshire in August. Preparation for this took place over the long, hot spell in July when Mike was on holiday. It involved making my own shave horse and lathe, both jobs I very much enjoyed. When courses resumed again in August, I pretty much had together all the kit needed for the show later that month.
It would probably make for a more interesting read if some major mishap had befallen me on my first show, but I have to report that all went well. Poor weather lead to a small turnout on the first day, but by the second the crowds were flooding in and I frequently found myself performing to an audience agog at the site of a spinning piece of log being magically transformed into a useful object. Once the show was out of the way, I headed back to Herefordshire for the final round of courses. These culminated in late September with the World Pole Lathe championships at the Association of Professional Foresters show near Stratford.
It was a comical scene – a vast site packed full of some of the most state-of-the-art forest machinery on the market, gadgets that spent all day reducing piles of treetrunks to sawdust. And then us: a bunch of bodgers tucked away in a corner of a muddy field trying desperately to compete with the machines.
In spite of assurance from the show organisers that we were an important part of the event, a living link between two very different eras of forest-based industry, there was nonetheless a sense of disappointment among the pole-lathe turners who’d given up their weekends at the position we’d been given. We made up for things on the final day of the show, though, when we staged the world pole lathe championships.
The objective of this was to turn two identical Windsor chair legs out of a single log in as short a space of time as possible. Eleven of us lined up, including two women, which was good to see in a predominantly male-based domain. The starting bell rang and off we went, each of us desperate for the fame and fortune that doubtless would come with the title.
In the end, and to no-one’s surprise, the winner was Ben Orford, Mike’s former protégé and a veteran log-to-leg racer. I came a lowly seventh. The real victory of the day though was that the spectacle had drawn a substantial crowd, and for a glorious half an hour or so it was us, not the machines, who were the focus of attention.
With my time at Brookhouse now over, I’ve got to work out what to do with all the valuable knowledge I have acquired this summer. With a trip planned to West Africa this winter, I’ve got a few months’ reprieve before I have to come to any final decisions.
When I get back, though, I’ve no doubt I’ll be hungry to put my skills to good use. There’s a lot I still have to learn – I’m realistic about that. But I’m sure that six months of intensive learning with Mike Abbott have given me the best start I could have hoped for