“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
– William Blake
“A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”
– Spike Milligan
Hello! My name is Suz and I am a coppicer. Well… not quite yet. But I was lucky enough to be chosen to be part of the National Coppice Apprenticeship Scheme, which is a partnership between Small Woods and the Bill Hogarth MBE Memorial Apprenticeship Trust and funded by The Ernest Cook Trust – you can read more about that here.
This blog is a diary of my journey from London based care worker to fully fledged woman of the woods. It will document the lifestyle of a modern day coppicer and all the techniques and tools that are involved. This is such a great sustainable industry so it’s an honour to be part of the resurgence of the coppicing community. I hope you enjoy this journey with me!
P.S. Please feel free to correct me on any errors I’ve made in the comment sections below the offending post. This is a learning diary and any corrections will be greatly appreciated and will hopefully help others as well.
P.P.S. Please subscribe and pass on to anyone who you think will find this interesting. Cheers!
It’s been a while since my last post. You may or may not have noticed, but there was this big virus thing and then the whole world turned upside down for a moment, so its been a bit chaotic recently. Luckily for me, however, I live on a farm so the time at ‘home’ gave me the chance to really settle onto the land and practice a few new skills.
The farm has a small coppice and they have allowed me to work on it for the last two years. Even though it is heavily overstood (lots of big trees above) there are still some very nice trees to work with.
However, because it’s a restoration project we always end up with big piles of brash.
The question of what to do with the brash is usually answered with a chipper or a fire. However, it has always seemed like a waste of material to me and throughout my apprenticeship I’ve been interested in other uses for it.
This year I thought I’d have a go at making a ‘rustic’* fence with it. Many of the branches were not good enough for pea sticks or bean poles but were still straight enough and long enough to be able to weave with once the side branches had been removed.
Two fences have been made on the farm over the last two months. One to seperate the football pitch from the growing beds and one to help my big white bus blend into the background in its new temporary spot on the field.
The first fence needed to be sturdy so I put stakes in the ground, about 4ft long (1ft in the ground) and 1 1/2 feet apart, then screwed in a rail at the bottom to hold them all together. This rail also holds the weaved material off the ground so that the brambles can be easily cleared around the bottom of the fence. The long bits were weaved and then the fence was finished with some binder quality lengths to create a top rail design.
The second fence didn’t need to be as sturdy but did need to cover the white parts of the bus so in this case I used the more brashy ends of the branches to create a thicker screen. I took two or three branches and squished them so they made an elongated shape and weaved them together, alternating the direction of the weave every two lengths. This made a lovely bushy screen that still had the delicate dried buds attached, making a lovely design feature.
I’m very grateful to one of my sponsor businesses, The Stick Smith, for teaching me the basics of willow weaving on a large scale. We did several garden fences when I was working with Dave and I picked up how to create an even and thick weave and finish off the job nicely with a little pruning.
My next fencing project is for a community project in London where I will be fencing off an area of fruit trees. If your ever down at the Lordship Rec in North London come and check it out!
*Top Tip: ‘Rustic’ can be applied to anything that looks a bit rough but is charming because of its roughness.
One of the more romantic thoughts I’ve had over the years is that one day, after all my travels, after all the things I’ve learnt in the world, that I would be able to return to my home and use my new skills to benefit the community in some way. Its the crux of the hero’s journey.
Most people however, myself included, don’t really fancy moving back home. Especially when that home is in the middle of a big smelly city with extortionate rent and house prices. However, because I’m reliant on my home being able to move – I live in a minibus – I periodically find myself back at my childhood abode in North London while my own home is at the garage.
I’m having one of those homecomings this week and in a wonderfully serendipitous way have come across a lovely little coppicing project in a park near to where I grew up.
The park is called The Lordship Rec and is a city haven for humans and non-humans alike. After a tremendous amount of work and passion from the local people, the Friends Of Lordship Rec managed to get a substantial amount of funding from the National Lottery. This has allowed them to transform the park from the dilapidated green space of my childhood into a thriving centre of activity with a number of different habitats for wildlife, including a small copse.
The hazel trees in this ‘copse’ (the name for an area of coppiced trees) look like they were previously a hedge but have not been managed for a decade or two. This has lead to big bushy trees with dozens of branches and stems crying out to be coppiced. Although the strip only has about 30-40 tree in it they still offer a chance to demonstrate coppicing to the local community and give them a chance to have a go themselves.
Right next door to the park is the infamous Broad Water Farm that was became known nationwide during the riots in the 1980’s. Since then money and energy has been invested in the site and with the effort of the Broad Water Farm community and the local council its become an almost crime free area.
Even so, as with all areas, there are still a number of teenagers knocking about finding entertainment in spraying graffiti and making small fires. As well as these bored teenagers are a number of residents suffering from the mental health problems that often come with modern city life and who could benefit from spending some time outside.
After speaking with a local housing support officer its clear that there is scope for some interesting woodland projects at the park that could really benefit the community at Broad Water Farm and the surrounding area. As well as the hazel trees there is also a small woodland that has lots of work to be done. So this could be a great spot for a little social forestry project. They also have a cafe with spaces that can be hired out for workshops in a straw bale building. While its early days for me, and taking groups out on my own is still a bit daunting, this looks like it could a be great future project to get involved in.
In the mean time I’ll be helping to get these lovely hazel trees back into rotation with a volunteer or two and bringing the skill and knowledge of coppicing back home to my local community.
(Note: Special thanks to The Friends of Lordship Rec, especially to Sally Haywell, who is in charge of the orchard in the park, and has been enthusiastic about getting the hazel back into rotation and letting me have a play.)
It’s been a slow start to the year with lots of time needed for resting and recovering from back to back bugs. But now the end of the month is here I’m back on track and ready to begin the year in earnest.
It’s not all been long naps and lemons and ginger tea, I have also been pottering away and making lots and lots of split hazel baskets.
The technique, historically popular in Wales, was shown to me over the summer and since then I’ve been hooked. Every part of the process is enjoyable and has a unique set of skills to learn.
Using a hazel rod to make a basket can be very efficient. Every part of the stick can be used to make different aspects of the basket such as the frame, the weavers and the ribs, so, apart from a pile of shavings, you’re not left with much waste. This is handy because suitable hazel rods for basket making are fairly old compared to their willow counterparts, which in my opinion, makes them a much more valuable resource.
The best sticks for making hazel baskets are the slow growing sunshoots that grow on overstood hazel (hazel growing under heavy canopy cover from other trees) and so these can be up to 10 years old even though they are the same width as a 4 year old rod grown in the sunlight. The thing to remember is that an overstood hazel tree needs its sunshoots, so to protect the tree from damage only one or two rods can be taken from each tree, and only if they have a few others to keep them going.
I’ve been working in miniture mostly so that I can save even more resources. This often means I can practice making a basket with just one rod. its more fiddly and takes a bit longer to prepare the material but they turn out well and look cute. The one issue with selling this kind of things is that because it is smaller customers assume it will be cheaper. This isn’t the case at all as it takes just as long to make a smaller one because of the fiddliness!
If you would like to know how to make a basket then I can highly recommend Lewis Goldwater and Zed Outdoors youtube video on how to make a split basket. It is a mega video at about 4 hours long but well worth a watch and has a timestamp in the description so you can go to a specific part.
Later this year I will be working with Ruth Pybus who is a master split hazel basket maker and also hope to display some of my baskets at the Oxfordshire Basket Makers annual basketry exhibition.
To pass my apprenticeship this year I am required to set up a stall. Little encouragement is needed however because I love setting up stalls and playing ‘shop’!
I recently had my first opportunity through a new venture called the We Are Women Festival set up by Laura Currie to bring together women who practice various skills, mostly in the healing arts but also in the crafty arts as well.
It was a great opportunity to really shift gears and get things together for the coming year.
Part of setting up a stall is to create something that is visually appealing and shows off the products. I love the colours that split hazel baskets offer. Its creamy beiges with dark brown bark. And this goes lovely with the green of my sign.
Personally, I prefer stalls that are not too over loaded with different items. When there is too much to look at I can find this overwhelming as my brain tries to focus on too many things at the same time and I’ll usually move away from those stalls fairly quickly. So with this in mind I only set out a few different items, enough to make the table look full, but not busy.
Pricing is always a tricky one and I’ve had some great advice from my sponsor business such as adjusting pricing as the day or weekend goes on and listening to the potential customers as they browse – apparently they will be very open about what they think of your prices, even in front of you!
It can be difficult not to undervalue items because, as a crafter, I am competing with imported, mass produced items, and so it is difficult to charge what I should be charging. A basket, for example, that takes 5 hours to make should be at least £50 but when a customer can go to a shop and buy a basket three times as big for a third of the price its difficult for them to understand why my basket is so expensive.
One remedy to this is engaging customers. I have a friend who is very good at engaging customers and selling her products without, it seems, selling them a thing. She explains to them why her product is going to be beneficial for them and the product sells itself. She sells creams and potions. I sell baskets… it a tougher sell. But what I did notice was that talking to the customers and explaining how things are made, why I make them and all about my apprenticeship got them interested in the items much more than just letting them look at the baskets. Another remedy is to be making the item you’re selling. This gives people an idea of the amount of skill and work it takes to make the items you’re selling and encourages engagement.
I did quite well at this market and I think this was because it was a niche audience. Finding the right stalls may be more beneficial than just finding any old market day. Because my products are sustainable, and with regards to the besom brooms, a traditional witchy item that is used in wiccan ceremonies, I will be on the look out for more specialised markets.
The next one coming up for me is a christmas market day at a local shop run by a lady who wants to encourage local crafts people who are using sustainable products. This is a really exciting project to get involved with as it is part of an initiative run by the local council who will be offering free workshop spaces to people like me!
For many human beings the woods were our natural habitat. Our ancestors spent thousands, if not millions, of years in this environment and so our senses are designed to cope with the ever changing sights, sounds, temperature and light that we experience in the woods. Its no wonder we can go a little bit loopy when we’re stuck in the relatively static environment of the office or the school room that contrasts so starkly to our natural habitat. Our senses don’t have enough to do and the energy is often redirected to mental rumination and stress.
Its not big news that a walk in the woods makes us feel better, but now we have the statistics and evidence to back this intuitive knowing and in Japan a practice called Forest Bathing has taken off and spread across the world.
The removal of clothes is not necessary to forest bathe, although what you do in your private woodland is up to you, instead it is an energetic bath, reducing neurochemicals such as cortisol, reducing heart rate and even effecting people with diabetes in a positive way.
So because of this a number of people are taking the baton and organising workshop and events under the banner of Social Forestry.
Social Forestry is a fairly new term and is still deliciously being defined, but the gist of it is to get people back in the woods, not only for the wellbeing of the humans but for the wellbeing of the woodland habitat as well.
This latter part is important. Forest schools and bush craft workshops tend to use the woodland as just an outdoor classroom space and the management of the woodland is sometimes not considered. This can lead to woodlands being damaged.
For example, if a group goes into woodland and it has a mix of conifers and young hardwoods such as oak, birch or cherry, the younger, smaller, hardwood poles will be easier for a group to clear. However, in this case, the management plan might be to return the woodland to a mixed deciduous wood and so it would have been more beneficial to remove the larger, albeit more awkward conifers.
On a recent course at the Centre of Alternative Technology Julia Walling and Rob
Goodsell ran a Social Forestry course and took us through all the ways we can get people back into the woods, engaging with the environment in a meaningful way while benefiting the woodland itself. Julia focused on the mindful aspects, inviting us to think about what makes us happy, how a woodland environment can fulfil these needs and showed us practical tasks to facilitate mindfulness. Rob took us on a more practical journey through the kinds of tasks groups can do to help manage a woodland, such as scything, trimming branches and clearing bramble.
Of course there is an ultimate practical task that groups can do in the woods – coppicing!
Coppicing has the potential to be used by social forestry groups because it is a practice than can be done with hand tools and no previous experience. It is highly beneficial to the biodiversity of the woodland and so you can enjoy a whole range of positive feelings from doing a good deed as well as spending time in a relaxing environment.
It is a sign perhaps of how chaotic and disconnected society has become from nature that we have to periodically flee to the woods to cope with it. Forest bathing is a way to treat the symptom rather than the cause, but maybe if we’re all feeling little less stressed and a bit more centred we’ll be able to come up with better ideas on how to shape our society in the near future to one that suits our woodland natures better.
I am very pleased to announce that this very blog has won an award!
For the last three years Woodlands.co.uk have run a prestigious competition asking woody folk to enter their blogs, photos and any other woodland based activity they may be partaking, including this year the best woodland beard. I’d completely forgotten that I’d entered it so was delighted when I received the email telling me that I was a winner! Thank you Woodlands.co.uk and I look forward to receiving my book and tool!
You can find a list of the other winners and catch all the woodland news in the woodland.co.uk Living Woods Magazine.
The truth must be told… My name is Suz and I am a basket addict. It’s been two weeks since my last basket and I’m already having withdrawal symptoms.
I made my first willow basket a few months ago at the Greenwood Centre with the lovely Rachel Evans of Wheatcroft Willow and the group agreed to start with a more advanced type of basket, an oval shopping basket rather than the easier round basket. At first I didn’t understand the pattern at all. I felt a swell of frustration rise up but persisted and under Rachels’ fine tutelage she got me past the first hurdle and I left the weekend with a beautiful shopping basket.
It is a sign of an excellent teacher to be able to guide eight or nine people in making a full blown oval based basket, especially as some of us were first timers, and then have them go away with something decent. I know this because, since the course, I have had a go at teaching and although I understand the technique and can make a reasonable basket shaped object myself, teaching others to do the same takes some skill.
My first attempt was to run a bramble basket making workshop at the farm where I often visit. Everyone was eager to learn this skill, and cut back the ever encroaching brambles, and with only four others it was fairly easy to get the basic techniques across. However, my second attempt, at the crafty Treehouse Festival, things became a little more tricky. Firstly, we were using pieces of willow from a tree that hadn’t been pollarded in a while so all the lengths were trimmed from this years growth meaning they were short and branchy. Secondly, everyone wanted to make a basket! I kept the group down to seven but that was still a tough amount of people to work with, especially as I was keen to make my own basket as well.
The art to teaching is to keep calm. It requires projecting confidence onto your students and giving them the patience that they need to give themselves as they learn a new skill. It requires empathy as one remembers ones own frustrations and keeping them focused on moving forward. It requires the right language and turning that language into visual instructions. No one will understand what you mean if you say ‘now this bit goes into this bit’ – as I soon discovered. It also required a never ending enthusiasm to answer the same questions over and over again. But with all that said, I loved every second. Some people even went away with something that looked very much like a basket. Both of these opportunities were invaluable and were great steps towards doing something I really love to do – to teach.
At first it seems like an odd combination but there was a common thread, namely our relationships to trees and woodlands and the threat that they currently seem to be under.
From a forestry perspective a tree is a crop. It is grown in large quantities and harvested for economic and resource based reasons. We all rely on wood and wood based products in our homes and going forward we may rely on them even more as we reduce our plastic usage and find other ways to create energy through biomass. The seemly chaotic climate along with the increased threats from pests and diseases are a serious issue to this industry and organisations such as Forestry England are thinking hard about alternative trees and ways to grow them that will cope in an uncertain future.
The artistic perspective brought in the emotional aspect of our relationships with trees and woodlands. It’s undeniable that we have been enamoured with trees for a very long time. They are present in our myths and our stories and hold a special place in the hearts of many cultures.
It is this emotional response to trees that can be helpful, and sometimes unhelpful. My own perspective has changed dramatically since I became a coppice worker. Before, as a city dweller, I’d bristle at the thought of any tree being cut down. But now I understand that a woodland is a living entity, and the individual tree is a part of that entity along with thousands of other lifeforms. Even so, respect is due to the individual tree and allowing a certain amount of emotion and reverence for the life of that tree influences the decisions that are made about it.
The question of the conference seemed to be; how do we bring both of these perspectives together to create a culture of respect when managing woodlands and harvesting timber? To encourage Each of the delegates were invited to step outside of their comfort zones and go to a lecture they may not be familiar with and that represented the ‘other side’. There was a delightful moment when a grey haired gentlemen working for Forestry England gushed at how much he had enjoyed a particular lecture and that it wasn’t something he’d usually engage with. Later on I saw the same gentleman enjoying a performance piece by Tom Marshman – We Need to Talk About Bambi, and I over heard him afterwards reflecting emotionally on the deer that he’d had to cull, a necessary but clearly not heartless act. In another conversation an artist lamented over the need to kill deer at all and the forest manager student next to her explained why it was necessary to protect our woodlands from over browsing.
These were the moments that made this a very special and unique event, an event that will hopefully be repeated again in the future and perhaps include a speaker on the benefits of supporting coppice workers and the woodlands they manage.
It’s almost summer so it must be time for charcoal making! This week I was at Westonbirt Aboretum where Brian Williamson has been restoring their coppice and making, among many other things, charcoal.
Charcoal making has this air of romance. I don’t know if its the plumes of smoke – that is actually mostly moisture – the site of people covered in black dust or the anticipation and skill in actually cooking the wood and not burning it all… or leaving it half baked, but it harks back to something earthy and oldy worldy.
In those olden days people would use earth mounds to cook their wood and this can still be seen at events such as Char Fest, which is hopefully being held again this year for new enthusisasts such as myself. Up until recently the ring kiln was the charcoal makers tool of choice. This involved lighting a fire inside the kiln and adjusting chimneys and vents to control the air flow and temperature. It also involved climbing in the kiln to shovel out the charcoal… which, I am told, is a very messy job indeed!
These days we have a marvellous instrument called a retort. Not only does it have an almost 100% converstion rate, (we only had two or three ‘brown ends’ – the name of undercooked wood – out of the entire burn) it also resuses the gases expelled by the wood as it cooks. A fire is needed to start the whole thing off but when it reaches 420 celcius the retort will use the methane gas from the cooking wood and it becomes self-perpetuating until the gas has been used up. And you don’t have to climb in the thing to get all the charcoal out.
I didn’t get a chance to try out the ring kiln but I did see how a retort, an oil drum and even a tin can will turn wood into charcoal and I’m looking forward to practicing the latter two when I get home.
“Why use charcoal?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t about to shoot myself in the business foot. But Brian gave some good answers… charcoal burns at a hotter temperature, turns into embers quickly and has no smoke. The charcoal that is made by local woodland and coppice workers also has the added benefit of being additive free, has reduced transport miles and of course it supports us woodland folk to support our woodlands. Sounds good to me!
At this time of year woodland lovers marvel at the beauty of bluebells woods. Suddenly the usual green hue is carpetted in a luminous blue and sweet aroma. People tread carefully, if at all, so as to not trample all over these very welcomed inhabitants.
But its not just the bluebells that inhabit our woodlands at this time of year. When given some light through woodland management, such as coppicing, many other species of flower adorn the woodland floor. As I took a stroll through last years coup I was astonished to see the variety of woodland flowers and it really hit home how important woodland management is for the biodiversty of this ecosystem.
I have no idea what most of these flowers are so please enlightenment if you see any you recognise!