Raise high the roof beams

Country Matters
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The Independent Culture
Many people would quail at the idea of having to construct an open-plan building 70ft long and 24ft wide out of freshly cut oak, using nothing but their hands and traditional tools. But to a master-craftsman like Henry Russell, the task of creating the Great Oak Hall at Westonbirt, the Forestry Commission's arboretum in Gloucestershire, is no more than an agreeable challenge.

A tousle-haired beanpole of 32, Henry is a versatile fellow, and for the past few years has been at the forefront of the revival in green woodworking. The last time I saw him, together with his twin brother John, he was making the biggest pin-hole camera in the world - a huge, rectangular box in which an artist stood naked for six hours at a stretch while her image was being exposed on photographic cloth.

Since then he has built several oak-frame houses and, as he recalls with delight, two replicas of trebuchets - medieval siege-engines designed to hurl heavy stones at the walls of enemy castles or lob putrefying cattle over the battlements to spread disease inside. The one he constructed at Castle Urquhart, beside Loch Ness, was so powerful that it took 30 people working block and tackle to haul down the pivoted arm, which proved capable of throwing 300lb missiles over 300 yards, and smashing down stone walls.

Nothing so violent is envisaged at Westonbirt, where the aim is to build an oak-framed hall which will act as meeting point, conference centre and lecture theatre. Even though many of the materials have been given, and much of the work will be done by trainees, the building will cost over pounds 300,000; so that work can start at once, a third of this sum has been underwritten by the charity Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum, and a fund-raising campaign will open later this year.

When the project was launched at a reception in a marquee hard by the site of the hall, a number of oaks, contributed by Gloucestershire woodland owners, already lay on the ground outside, and 50 more mature trees had been felled in the Silk Wood, one area of the arboretum. In a celebratory speech, the Chairman of the Forestry Commission, Sir Peter Hutchison, emphasised that nobody should see the cutting-down of ancient trees as an act of destruction or vandalism. On the contrary, he said: the harvesting was merely the latest move in centuries of careful woodland management, and the flora on the forest floor was already responding to the light which the felling had let in.

His words were very much to the point; but he rather gave away his own lack of practical skill when Henry Russell, handing him a sledge-hammer and wedges, invited him to split a round of oak as a token start. He managed the job in the end, but the way he held the big hammer rigidly in both hands, not letting his upper hand slide down the shaft to increase the momentum of each hit, suggested that he had never spent much time attacking timber.

For Henry, in contrast, cutting, splitting and shaping green wood is second nature. For years he has dreamt of building a big hall at Westonbirt, and now he has his chance. One of his first tasks will be to select trees whose natural bend makes them the right shape for the curved cruck beams which will arch in to support the roof.

He is well capable of tackling an entire oak on his own, cutting it to size with handsaws and axes; but in this case, to save time, the initial preparation of the trunks will be done mechanically, by a portable power- saw, and the cedar tiles for the roof will also be cut by machine; but thereafter, hand-tools will be the order of the day. One of the smaller but most time-consuming tasks will be to split and shape the 500 oak pegs which will lock the beams in position.

The aim is that much of the preliminary work will be done by volunteers, whether skilled workers or novices. Starting on 29 May, five week-long courses, for 12 trainees at a time, will be held under the supervision of Gudrun Leitz, another pioneer of the green wood revival. Normally during the summer, she teaches at a camp in Clisset Wood, near Ledbury, where she initiated the construction of a hand-hewn cruck barn; but she also worked for three winters as master pole-lathe turner on the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London, producing all its oak balusters to original specifications.

Taught by her and Henry, students will learn the techniques of hewing, side-axing, seesawing, scribe-rule marking of mortise-and-tenon and half- lap joints, as well as the scarfing of long timbers end to end. All they need bring with them, she says, is energy, enthusiasm, suitable clothes, and a pair of boots with steel toecaps. If they behave like most latter- day woodworkers, they will live on site in tents or benders.

They will also need to be fairly impervious to scrutiny, for the site is in a commanding position, near the entrance, and visitors to the arboretum - around 300,000 a year - will doubtless flock round to watch them working. Everyone who takes part will be invited to a "grand raising party" when all the components are ready and the building finally goes up at the end of August.

From models and drawings, it looks as though the hall will be a striking blend of ancient and modern. Like all its main members, the furniture will be made of oak, but the windows will be of high-tech glass. As to which will last longer - the wood in the building, or the oaks growing outside it - no one can say; but there is no doubt that the hall will be the most striking innovation at Westonbirt since the arboretum was founded in 1829.

For details of courses, contact Gudrun Leitz, Hill Farm, Stanley Hill, Bosbury, Herefordshire HR8 1HE (tel and fax: 01531 640125).

Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum can be contacted on 01666 880148