Country Matters: Raise high the roof beam

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The Independent Culture
A COLLECTION of wood-workers - what would it be called? A knot? A faggot? A thicket? Whatever the correct collective noun, it would be hard to imagine a jollier gang than the one that assembled last weekend to raise a new timber-framed barn as a workshop for Mike Abbott, leading apostle of the use of "green-wood".

The action took place in the long, sloping garden behind the cottage, high on a hillside in Herefordshire, owned by Mike and his wife Tamsin.

I arrived a few minutes too late to witness the preliminary carpenters' dance, performed on the clay floor of the barn; but I was assured that a minor injury suffered by one of the participants - who was hit on the back of the neck by a flying hammer-head - had nothing at all to do with that caper.

The footings of the building were already in place: eight hefty lengths of oak trunk, sunk three feet into the ground. All round lay neatly arranged ranks of prepared and numbered timbers, sweet chestnut and oak, cut during the past three weeks in Clissett Wood, a few miles down the road, where Mike holds training courses in the middle of his private forest. The main components came from a single oak.

Master of the raising ceremony was Michail Schuette, a 30-year-old journeyman timber-framer from Germany, who had designed the buildingmainly in his head, using metric and imperial measures.

He explained his journeyman status: "In Germany we have an old tradition, going back to 1340, that when you finish your apprenticeship in any kind of craft, you go out into the world for three years and a day, to live and practise in different places.

You have to start off with only five marks in your pocket and come back with the same. You're not allowed a vehicle, you're supposed to walk."

Michail's own Wandergesellewalz has taken him for two summers to Scandinavia, where he travelled with his "basic kit of an adze, a big chisel, some carving tools and honing-stones, and a Japanese saw". In Germany he came across a copy of Mike Abbott's book Green Woodwork and was fascinated, "because that whole tradition has died out at home". So he enrolled and joined the team.

For the raising, Michail's right-hand man was Hauke Jessen, from Friesland. Hauke is also a journeyman and a carver, who has travelled in France, Switzerland and southern Germany, using oak, lime-wood and sycamore to make masks, figures for churches and pieces for private clients.

Reinforcing them were two more timber-framers, Gordon and Steve, who had brought along a second Mick; Paul Flemmings; a third Mick, who had also been on a pole-lathe course; Clare Walter, another master carpenter; and Colin Lodge, described as "resident philosopher, photographer and puncture-repairer".

In blazing sunshine eight men, all stripped to the waist, lifted the main cruck frame, made of oak, carried it horizontally into position, then hoisted it carefully into a vertical attitude. The first essential was that the tenon on the foot of each upright should seat itself accurately in the mortice socket carved for it out of the base-beam.

Quickly, Michail slung a length of string and a plumb-bob beneath the cruck, to make sure it was perfectly upright. Helpers tacked temporary stays in position.

The speed with which the frame took shape was amazing - and so was the accuracy. One after another, the joints came together. Uprights, horizontals and angle braces, all hand-hewn, slotted together with a precision that left everyone grinning - and nobody smiled wider than our host when it was revealed that Hauke had decorated the central collar of the cruck with animal carvings.

In little more than three hours the frame was complete, locked together with hand-cut oak pegs driven into pre-bored holes. Never mind that as yet the building had no roof or walls. For Mike Abbott, the barn will be a dream come true, for until recently, in the best tradition of old- time pole-lathe operators, he has led a largely itinerant existence. During the past eight years he and Tamsin between them have lived in 24 different places.

Mike reckons that the total cost of building the barn will be between pounds 1,000 and pounds 1,500 - a third of which has gone on feeding volunteer assistants.

The most remarkable feature of the whole exercise was the enthusiasm with which fellow green-wood enthusiasts flocked from lands afar to help, and the way in which the ancient crafts he rediscovered have taken a strong hold.

'Green Woodwork' by Mike Abbott, price pounds 14.95, can be ordered from Greenwood Cottage, Bishops Frome, Worcester WR6 5AS