The ash could have turned to ashes before my eyes

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The Independent Online
What started out as a most satisfying project almost resulted in disaster, the implications of which were enough to turn this woodcutter's knees to sawdust.

My project for the afternoon seemed quite straight-forward: to fell a dead ash which was looming over our lane. The farmer on whose land the tree stood had agreed that if cut it up, I could have the firewood.

Being only an amateur woodsman, I do not often drop trees across public roads. Still less am I used to doing it on a one-in-four slope, with high banks on either side of an eight-foot fairway. Nevertheless, at the dead hour of 3pm hardly any traffic passes our way, and I could find no good reason to prevaricate.

Luckily the tree' s natural inclination was ideal, and I needed no wedges or ropes to drop it uphill and across the lane at an angle. A couple of minutes with the power-saw at full revs, and crash! - over it went, dead on line.

As always, the trunk looked bigger down than up - a formidable hulk, 18 inches in diameter at the bottom. The need to clear the fairway was urgent, so I started cutting off logs about a foot long and manoeuvring them into the gully at the edge of the tarmac. On a hot afternoon, I was soon pouring with sweat; toiling away, I realised belatedly that I was creating a substantial heap. Nevertheless, I was determined to swag the whole lot away in one go, for good firewood left on the roadside has a habit of disappearing in the night.

I went through one tank of fuel and started on a second. Then a burst of sparks betrayed the fact that I had hit grit, embedded in the bark. In a split second the edge had gone from the chain' s teeth: their output changed from flakes of wood to dust, and I ceased to make headway.

A stoppage for sharpening was inevitable. Then, probably, haste made me careless. As one more round came free, I failed to stabilise it: toppling over, it knocked another log off its flat surface on to its curved circumference, and both rolled away downhill, rapidly accelerating.

Ye gods! In a trice the lane had become an iceless replica of the Cresta Run: steep gradient, blistering curves, high banks, lethal missiles hurtling down. I dumped the saw and lit off in pursuit. When I ripped off my safety helmet, that, too, started to roll, so I kicked it into touch and ran.

Too late! Each of the runaways weighed nearly 80lbs. The last I saw of them, they were going well round a left-hand bend and starting to bound. I had horrific visions of the havoc they could cause. They would smash hell out of the radiator of any up-coming car. If they jumped at a bad moment they might decapitate the driver. They would certainly disable or annihilate any pedestrian they hit.

At such bad moments, the imagination moves like lightning. I thought of the bus full of National Trust grannies which had tried to come up the lane, and got stuck, the week before. I thought of the red Ford Capri, venerable but much loved, which stands parked outside the cottage at the end of the second straight.

As I ran, I listened for the crump of a major impact, or at least a scream, curse or groan. Dreading the worst, I rounded a long, left-hand bend. Nothing - no corpses, no logs. A 100-yard straight, another long bend, the second straight, this one aimed dead at the Capri. No crump, no dent - but still no logs. Had they done a shuttlecock and, at a left-hander, leapt the fence into the field?

Another left-hander, then a right, a third straight. At last, 500 yards down, one of the bounders had come to rest by a stile leading on to a footpath. The other must have carried on, past my own house, past my neighbour. On I went, right to the bottom of the lane, right to the patch of mud by the post box. Half a mile from the scene of the crime, there was still no trace of the second tearaway.

At least nobody was dead. Hustling back uphill, I grabbed saw and helmet and returned to the attack. Three trailer-runs were needed to bring home all the booty, and as I was unloading the last of it, my neighbour, a retired judge, came round to ask if I had lost anything.

Earlier, he had been considerably surprised to see a hefty log turn at right-angles off the lane, roll into his drive and thud gently to rest in his gateway. When he heard where it had come from, he turned pale.

Now I have a ton and a half of prime ash stacked in my woodshed. But every time I bring in a basket of logs during the winter, I shall be haunted by memories of those ghastly seconds when I vainly gave chase to the two that got away.

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