Country Matters: Under the greenwood trees

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
One question, above all others, seemed to perplex the gathering. Out loud, and on sheets of paper stuck to the walls of the hall, people kept asking: "Who are we?" The superficial answer was that they were all enthusiasts for working with green wood, brought together by a love of forests and the desire to manage woodland in a low-key, sustainable fashion.

Yet everyone seemed to be looking for a more precise definition. Who should be included? Pole-lathe operators, certainly. Coppice workers, of course - people who crop relatively small species of tree, such as hazel, on a regular rotation. But what about chair-makers and basket-weavers? What about managers of older woods, who are thinning rather than coppicing? The main wish of the meeting seemed to be to establish some corporate identity.

The Marches Greenwood Convention, held last weekend in the Hereford and Worcester village of Vowchurch, was the first event of its kind, and the response it evoked surprised the organisers. Expecting 70 or 80 people, they attracted more than 100, and had to turn many away.

The moving spirit was Mike Abbott, apostle of the green-wood movement, and highly regarded as a teacher of traditional skills. His disciples are shy creatures. Their ideal is to live and work among the trees, evanescent as deer, and for this reason nobody is sure how many exist.

Those who came out into the open at Vowchurch were of every age and class. Many of the men had beards; several wore ponytails, and quite a few sported ear-rings. The women, like the men, tended to wear working clothes and heavy boots. Appearances, however, soon proved unimportant; what mattered was the general friendliness and eagerness to exchange information.

All present were conscious that their image is not what it might be. They know that landowners still tend to regard coppicing as a marginal activity, a kind of performing art, carried out by hippies.

"It's partly the way we look, and partly the fact we live in benders [makeshift shelters]," said one man. "Landowners have a tremendous problem with benders."

How, then, to get the fast-growing green-wood movement accepted as a serious industry, and how to fit it into the formal structure of the state forestry programme? That was the subject of the weekend's deliberations - and even if no grand resolutions were passed, many contacts were made and ideas exchanged. One couple, Hugh Ross and Carolyn Church, demonstrated that it is possible to get planning permission to live in a wood, provided you go about it the right way.

Discussions took place in the village hall, practical sessions on a flat strip of land that used to be Vowchurch station. There, for the past six weeks, a dozen students have been on a course, learning green-wood basics, living in a variety of benders, yurts and tepees.

For the students, the course was free, subsidised by grants from Europe and various local sources. Participants in the convention paid about pounds 20 a head for the weekend. But both events owed much to the generosity of David and Ellie Parker, on whose land the action took place.

A formidable organiser - a theatrical producer with her own company in Hereford - Ellie takes an interest in the welfare of the students. Not only does she mastermind the catering and do much of the cooking in her own kitchen, she also allows the trainees to come up to the farmhouse for showers.

"Part of learning to work outside is learning to look after yourself and feed yourself properly. People think they can survive on cornflakes and sandwiches, but they can't if they're doing manual work. We're teaching them how to live in yurts and benders during winter, not just to prance about in leafy glades during June."

On the first course which she organised, last year, most of the students were what she called "New Age crusties", who found it difficult to get up in the morning. This year the emphasis has been much more on young people with degrees, the aim being to teach them skills which may enable them to earn a living.

Among them was Lorna Pearcey, who has an MA in "values and environment"; her special study has been of the ecology practised by Buddhists, who "see people, animals and nature as interdependent, and so take much more care about using natural resources". Whatever else Lorna gained, she finished the course with "some great arm muscles", built up by "wielding an axe for eight hours a day".

A few of the people who came to the convention already run businesses. Annie MacDougall and her husband Clive manage 80 acres of woodland, having won the confidence of the owner. "When I started, eight years ago, he let me cut coppice as a favour," she says. "Now he's realised it's not a hobby and not a joke, but a serious business."

No money changes hands bet-ween owner and operator. "We don't buy the wood, and he doesn't pay us," she says. Nevertheless, having re-established a coppicing cycle, she is making nearly as much from the hazel as she is from thinning the older trees, making hurdles, gates, trellis panels and other artefacts.

What Annie has done, many others long to do - and imaginations were fired by one speaker's estimate that there are 175,000 hectares of unmanaged woods in Britain. What a challenge! No wonder people shifted in their seats, goaded by the urge to get out there and start cutting right away.