The little barn in the big wood

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The Globe Theatre in Southwark will not be the only building of medieval design completed this year. Another - a small but stylish barn, also fashioned from green, unseasoned timber - is about to be topped out in Leigh Woods, on the southern outskirts of Bristol.

Shakespeare would certainly have been familiar with structures of this kind, which abounded in his day. But why put one up now, in the middle of a forest? Ask Clare Walter, the carpentry instructor who designed it.

Her inspiration, she says, was the Earth Summit conference at Rio in 1992, when Britain promised to plant 12 new community forests as a contribution to the environment. Fired with determination to produce a building "which really sang about the woods", she searched high and low for a site, until she struck lucky with Ben Lennon, the Forestry Commission's beat forester for Bristol and the Mendips.

He it was who offered an open glade in the middle of Leigh Woods, which have been producing timber for at least a thousand years, and now are to form the core of the new Avon Community Forest. The area Lennon chose was one of trees which had been coppiced but had then grown on beyond their normal rotation and were big enough to produce timbers for the barn, so that the raw material came from the immediate environs of the site.

The trees were cut last winter, and work on the structure began this spring. Helped by Henry Russell, a professional timber framer, and by sundry volunteers, several of whom simply joined in the work as they walked past, Clare shaped and laid out the main beams on the ground - a process that took three weeks. Then, over one weekend, the whole frame was raised and set in place on a foundation of dry-stone walls. The beams were fixed together with hand-cut pegs of oak and ash; the wall spaces between uprights were filled with thin slivers of oak woven into a lattice, and the roof was clad with oak shingles, or tiles.

As many different woods as possible were used for the main frame - chestnut, lime, ash, oak, cherry, yew - and now, as the green timbers start to season, the building is tensioning itself and locking everything in place. Everyone who has helped with the project is pleased by its success. Clare speaks lyrically of the joys of cutting green wood, and of using the natural curve of tree-trunks, escaping from the tyranny of all-straight timber. For the Forestry Commission, the barn is not just a pleasant shelter for walkers and a centre for future workshops or study groups: it is also a demonstration of the fact that wood from a sustainable source - coppicing - can be used to good effect.

Further, the project offers a revealing glimpse of the way in which, over the past few years, the Commission has changed its methods. When it acquired 300 acres of Leigh Woods in the Fifties, its sole aim was to earn money from timber, and it planted every available space with conifers and beech. Today its policy has been imaginatively widened to include conservation of the environment and large-scale entertainment of the public.

Ironically enough, in the area where the barn now stands, nature defeated the Commission's worst efforts at smothering the landscape with alien trees. The long-term residents - mainly small-leafed limes - were so vigorous that they sprouted from the age-old stools, or stumps, and outgrew the planted species. Now the Commission, acknowledging the material and visual value of coppice, plans to keep the surrounding land under the traditional system of management.

Half a mile away to the east, close to Leigh Court (once the home of the Miles family, now a business centre), Lennon discovered what appeared to be the remains of an arboretum: a few giant redwoods and Lucombe (or evergreen) oaks still rose out of the sea of spruce and overgrown laurel. Sure enough, research revealed that Humphry Repton had laid out a woodland landscape here early in the 19th century, and that in the 1860s his successors had planted sequoia and noble fir, which had recently been brought over from America.

Now Lennon has drawn up a management plan to restore the area to some of its former glory by clearing unwanted growth. Leigh Woods are already immensely popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. Most of these people do not realise how much is being done for them; but if they take refuge in the barn during a storm, or marvel at the size of a mighty redwood, they may get some inkling of how active the woodland managers have become on their behalf.

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