COUNTRY MATTERS What a wizard he is with wood

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The Independent Online
Imagine a sun-dappled clearing in a forest of mature ash and oak. Straight trunks soar out of the brick-red Herefordshire soil, and among them in the glade stand two sizeable shelters made of tarpaulins stretched over simple wooden frameworks.

One roof is pale yellow, the other green. Someone in romantic mood might call the structures pavilions; others might describe them as outsize benders. Beneath them are set out a variety of wooden artefacts, almost all made by hand.

There are pole-lathes, shaving-horses, saw-benches and a variety of rustic furniture. A Belfast sink is poised on a vertical section of tree- trunk, and a hearth, packed with red clay, is supported at waist-height by yet another framework of branches, recently cut and barked. Fragrant woodsmoke drifts across the clearing, and the only sounds - apart from the ubiquitous birdsong - are the murmur of human voices, the hiss of chisels on spinning wood, and the flutter of pole-lathes turning.

Some distance off, an elegant little lavatory pavilion has gone up among the hazels, which screen it from view. This building is made entirely of wood, with a roof of tiles cut from oak.

All this is the creation of Mike Abbott, bodger extraordinary, maker of beautiful chairs, and apostle of the use of green wood, cut straight from the tree and worked without seasoning. Here in a greenwood near Ledbury he has realised a 10-year ambition and set up a training camp in which he can pass on his skills and enthusiasm to other generations.

Rarely do man and milieu match so perfectly. Last year, after a long search, Abbott found exactly what he had been looking for: a wood which would not only give him a working base, but would also supply him with the raw materials of his trade for the rest of his working life. Together with three friends, he heard that the 10-acre block of ancient woodland was for sale, visited it, put in an offer and closed the deal - all within four days.

By what seemed an uncanny stroke of good fortune, one edge of the wood runs barely a hundred yards from the cottage once occupied by the celebrated Victorian chair-maker Philip Clissett. It was Clissett's simple approach to his work and to life in general that had a strong influence on Ernest Gimson and the Arts and Crafts movement, which flourished in the early years of this century.

Now it is the aim of Abbott and his group to revive the skills - as well as something of the way of life - which those pioneers espoused. Thus the latter-day bodgers have renamed their purchase Clissett's Wood, and their aim is to manage it sympathetically on a long-term basis, so that it continues to thrive and supply timber indefinitely.

They do use a chainsaw for felling trees and cutting the trunks into lengths - but after this initial dismemberment, they do all splitting and shaping by hand. Their key device is the pole-lathe, which is powered by the operator working a treadle with one foot, while tension on the turning spindle is maintained by a cord rising to a springy pole arched overhead.

With his relaxed manner, his grizzled beard, his lumberjack shirt, his shorts and heavy boots, Mike Abbott fits perfectly into his sylvan surroundings. His own touch on a pole-lathe is hypnotic: as a fountain of white shavings flies upwards from the point of his chisel, graceful shapes emerge like magic from the piece of sweet, green ash that he is working; but he also has the knack of imparting his skill to others, and I can imagine few more agreeable experiences than to spend three or four days on one of his courses, learning basic turning skills, and the elements of chair- making.

Until now, in his itinerant way of life, he has imitated the bodgers of yesteryear, moving around the country at different seasons. Now Clissett's Wood will keep him more securely anchored in the West.

With his partner, Tamsin, he is living in a rented cottage a few miles down the road and even though, by most people's standards, his income is tiny, he has the air not just of a man who has landed on his feet, but of one who suddenly finds himself in paradise.

He has discovered what he wanted, in a lovely setting. He has raw materials to supply him for a lifetime. He has firewood left behind by a previous owner that will keep him going for years.

Above all, he has a calling which perfectly suits the spirit of the age, taking people away from noise and rush and mass-production, and bringing them back into closer harmony with nature.

Details of courses from: Mike Abbott, Gate Cottage, Bromsberrow, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 1 RZ (01531 650001).