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Woodlanders New Life in Britain’s Forests

ian edwards

From apples, baskets & community woods to wild food, xylophones, yews & zzzzz dreaming beneath the trees.....

Published by Saraband Suite 202, 98 Woodlands Road Glasgow, G3 6HB, Scotland Copyright © 2010 Saraband (Scotland) Ltd. Text for the individual contributions and all photographs are copyright of the author or photographer in each case

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without first obtaining the written permission aof the copyright owner. The outline for this book was developed by Anna Levin, with Ian Edwards and the board of environmental charity Reforesting Scotland.

The publisher acknowledges subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council towards the publication of this volume. Grateful thanks are due also to The Mark Leonard Trust and The JJ Charitable Trust for their generous sponsorship, without which this book would not have been possible. Project editor: Sara Hunt • Art editor: Deborah White ISBN-13: 978-1-887354-69-1 This book was printed in the UK by Butler Tanner and Dennis. The printing facility has all its operations under one roof and employs mainly local people, many cycling to work. It is certified to ISO 14001 and is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality in the near future. It was printed using 100% vegetable-based inks on Amber Graphic chlorine-free paper sourced from carefully managed and renewed forests. 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 Page 2 and opposite: Birch leaves in spring. This book is not intended to be used for plant-identifying purposes. Mushrooms and other plants may be toxic so only gather with the help of an experienced guide. Before collecting any wild plants, refer to the code shown on page 104. Some of the recipes are traditional; quantities are approximate and methods assume some familiarity with outdoor ingredients, so use a Woodlander’s discretion.

Contents Part One: In Praise of the Woods Chapter 1: The New Woodlanders

Part Two: In the Woods A Homegrown Renaissance Chapter 2: Timber Buildings Chapter 3: Community Enterprise Chapter 4: Living in the Round

Part Three: From the Woods Wild Harvest Chapter 5: Foraging Chapter 6: Gathering Chapter 7: Made of Wood Chapter 8: Fuel from Wood

Part Four: With the Woods

6 8

24 26 30 62 82

100 102 104 128 142 182


Inspiration from Trees and Woods Chapter 9: Woodland Artists Chapter 10: Changing Lives

194 196 234

Part Five: Into the Woods


Woodlands Past, Present and Future Chapter 11: Managing Our Woods for What They are Worth Chapter 12: Managing Woodlands for the Community Afterword Glossary Index Acknowledgments

276 277 290 314 316 318 320

Chapter 1 The New Woodlanders A

rock guitarist may not seem like the most likely woodlander, but urban dwellers Dave and Di adore their little bit of wilderness. They share their stand of ancient oak woodland, complete with hazel, honeysuckle and a rich selection of native ground plants, moss and fungi, with a family of roe deer and some lively red squirrels. There is also evidence of a badger population, although they haven’t met them yet, and a continual stream of hungry birds, from woodpeckers to longtailed tits, coming to feed from the feeder on their tree platform.


In Praise of the Woods

Dave and Di are New Woodlanders, a growing group of ordinary people who are returning to the woods to work, to play or to refresh their spirit. They don’t have any great ambitions for their wood and they are keen for it to remain as natural as possible. They are concerned about a small group of dead and dying oaks on the edge of their property, but it is probably nothing to worry about, just part of the cycle of life, death and regeneration that is played out in every woodland the world over. They are keeping a proprietary watch over the affected trees nevertheless. The creation of a substantial tree platform around the large, lone beech tree that stands in the middle of their land was one of their first acts as new woodland owners. Some would say that the desire to get up in the trees, to be able to survey the surrounding trees from the canopy level, is a deep- and long-seated human instinct going back to the origins of the human race in the savannahs of Africa. Dave and Di no longer need to keep a wary eye for lions or leopards, and their neighbours have been peaceful enough so far, but it still feels good and secure to be able to view the full five acres from a vantage point five metres in the air.

Di is becoming familiar with the Caption plants and fungi that grow on the site. She wants to know if planting some blueberries (the commercial type, not the native one) would be a good or bad thing, and she is learning to distinguish the less common fern species – lady, male and buckler ferns – from the vigorous swathes of bracken that dominate most of the site. She would like to gather wild mushrooms for her own use, but wants to be sure she is not going to poison her grandchildren. There is also the question of how high she should let her new hedge grow to allow the sloes to flower and fruit? Dave is all action – whether lighting fires, brewing tea or cutting paths through the bracken with his new brush-cutter. His bracken cutting has revealed interesting and inexplicable landscape features that suggest a previous occupation of the site, giving this place a history which fuels this artist’s imagination. He has visions of producing an epic drama within the wood, featuring ancient forest deities like Herne the Hunter, surrounded by a bevy of woodland nymphs. He actually started writing his sylvan play before he had even thought of buying the wood, but now, standing in the crows’ nest that forms the highest part of the tree platform, he can imagine the promenade unfolding among the trees beneath him. The wood feeds his creative spirit as well as providing both Dave and Di with an escape to relax and just be themselves.

Not that they are averse to sharing their space. Countless family and friends have all been welcomed to the wood. Four generations have been entertained there: Di showed me where her grandson had his own adventures hunting for beasties among a soft carpet of woodland mosses; Dave produced photographs of the whole family dining up on the tree platform, presided over by his dapper, octogenarian father. Fearless of ticks, horseflies and even the dreaded midges, they sit around the campfire telling stories as families have since the beginning of time.

Dave and Di’s woodland in spring (above). Their tree platform (opposite), and a recent family party when four generations dined there together.

Scots pine (previous pages). There are no native Scots pinewoods in England and Wales, but in Scotland where the climate is better suited to the species, more than thirty native Scots pinewoods have been recognised. Some of them are extensive.

Chapter 1: The New Woodlanders



Part Two •

In the Woods


In 2003 I won the brief to design the David Douglas Pavilion for the Explorers Garden at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perthshire. Appropriately, we selected Douglas fir (which is named in honour of naturalist David Douglas) as the principal structural timber; it was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the versatility of homegrown timber. I was able to source several large sections of Douglas fir, but the main ridge beam, which is cantilevered, had to be spliced because we were not able to get sections longer than 10 metres. I worked closely with Gordon Macdonald of Carpenter Oak and was deeply impressed with his skill in working with large sections of timber in such a precise manner. Such large sections are very heavy. The geometry of the building is quite complex, but the Douglas fir proved to be up to the task.

Gordon Macdonald was one of many skilled craftsmen I’ve been fortunate to work with, not just from the United Kingdom. I have also worked with Sven Skatun and Betsy van der Lee of NorBuild on projects; it was Skatun who collaborated on the Tree House project in at Kinlochlaich House, Argyll. All the remarkable joinery and carpentry work at the Tree House was done by Skatun and his team. The name of the project comes from the fact that it is propped up on piles, so it is a tree house in that sense; it also has a tree as its central post, but it is not a living tree rooted in the ground. The owners were looking for a special sort of holiday house. Going with such a novel design was a brave move for them, but the end result is stunning and they are more than happy with their unusual house. Robin Baker’s forest lookout shelter in Perthshire, above and opposite. Robin Baker’s Argyll Tree House (left) is let as a holiday home and is the perfect location for a romantic honeymoon.

Chapter 2: Timber Buildings


Environmental Learning Centre Margaret Colquhoun describes how the life-science buildings at Pishwanton emerged from the landscape through consensus design with architect Christopher Day. I may not have known exactly what I wanted the buildings at Pishwanton to look like, but I knew that whatever the design, it had to blend naturally with the environment. The construction at Pishwanton would not be imposed on the environment, it would be a seamless extension of the natural setting. Twenty miles east of Edinburgh, Pishwanton is set in 60 acres of semi-wild woodland on the edge of the Lammermuir Hills. The site is very much on the edge of something (or the middle of nothing, depending on your view – even GoogleMaps™ can’t find it; try the group’s website instead). Visitors have a feeling of being embraced by the hills to the south, while the view to the north is stunning. Pishwanton is right on the edge of what was an ancient sea, and looks toward distant mountains to the north. On a clear day one can see the Ochils, the Lomonds, the Pentlands, Arthur’s Seat and then Berwick Law, the Bass Rock, Traprain Law – all of them ancient volcanic plugs. With the sea coming into the Firth of Forth, the northern view is very dramatic; the 64

In the Woods

panoramic view gives visitors the feeling of being on a hilltop, even though Pishwanton is actually lower than the surrounding hills. To create a building that would be at home in this stunning site, we held a design workshop in 1991 with architect and consensus-design expert Christopher Day. We were inspired by the German poet Goethe (1749– 1832), who worked to integrate science and art, to find the relationship between conscious landscape study and consensus design. At Pishwanton there is only one central area that is flat enough to build on. We made a map of this central area and then modelled in clay all the buildings necessary to have a centre of Goethean Science and Art. We discovered that all our models had a similar motif; immersing ourselves in the landscape, we became a part of it, and that connection with the land came out in the models. We all experienced this gesture of being embraced on one side to the south and having a central part that stands upright and looks out to the north. We had intuitively copied this same gesture into the models, and this became Pishwanton’s building motif. The first building to go up was the craft workshop. The initial plan had been to build entirely with timber, but as plans progressed that choice did not seem quite right, so we turned to clay, as Pishwanton sits on an area of solid clay. Stone foundations were laid, and these looked so strong that we decided to build the


entire structure in stone. There was a neighbouring farmer with a collapsed wall who allowed us to collect the stone to use for the workshop – a form of recycling that has been done for centuries. The foundations are all built from unwanted stone from fallen down walls. Inside the building there is a gridshell roof, a smaller scale version of the one in the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex. First very thin laths were riveted together and very thin pine boarding placed on top. The wood had to be green so that it could be bent into shape. It has many layers placed on top of each other,

which gives the roof its strength. We dragged this flat wooden lattice up a ramp until it covered the building, with the edges hanging down like a net. By tightening the corners, the roof rose into a dome, propped up with acro props; more wood was then placed on top to finish the roof structure. Volunteers also formed a human chain to pass the turf for the roof from the roadside up to the roof. With its curved shape and turf covering, the finished craft workshop truly does look like a part of the surrounding fields; it is only when you go inside that you discover a beautiful interior that looks like a church.

The Pishwanton craft building (above); volunteers are shown turfing the roof on the previous pages. Beehives in the birchwood (opposite).

Chapter 3: Community Enterprise


Wild Mushrooms Ed Iglehart is an artist and glass-blower and an amateur wild mushroom picker. What could be more natural than to take note of the many fungi who share this sodden climate with us? When I came to live in Britain from the United States in 1972, my knowledge of fungi was limited to Serpula lacrymans (dry rot), universally feared and despised both by those of property and those with wooden leg, along with the impression that the mushrooms with which the Chinese cooked were somehow more flavourful than the supermarket sort. 116

From the Woods

Like most products of modern, shrink-wrapped society, I distrusted things picked up in the woods. After all, toadstools were poisonous, and those which weren’t could make one think it natural to fly, thereby causing folk to walk off mountains! Then my wife, Welsh country girl that she is, introduced me to field mushrooms – oh! Unbelievably delicious at breakfast, and equally important, free! Little did she know what she was starting, for now alarm often spreads across her face as I present new specimens for the table. But the seed (or spore) was planted and the list of local wild fungi enhancing our diet has grown steadily, and now numbers at least thirty varieties.

Edible mushrooms found in British woodlands include the Lactarius (left); Leccinium (top); Blewit (above); and birch boletus (opposite). Note that even close-up photographs like these are no substitute for an experienced guide when identifying species; many look very similar, and some toxic fungi resemble popular edible ones.


Chapter 5: Foraging


Chapter 6 Gathering The woodlands of northern Britain, Wales and Ireland provide the perfect habitat for mosses (below), which thrive in cool, moist conditions. Mosses are gathered sustainably for a variety of uses (see page 133).


From the Woods


t some time or other most of us have used the wild as a source of materials – as children picking up acorns to make doll furniture, or as adults, sneaking boughs of evergreen from plantations and estates to decorate our

homes in winter. In the strictest terms of the collecting codes, this is probably out of order. In practice, when very small amounts of cones, twigs, leaves and seeds are taken for personal use and enjoyment, few landowners would object. When it comes to more serious harvest, of lichen for dye stuffs, holly for Christmas, or moss to sell commercially, then it is a different story. Following the collecting codes is essential. And when the issue is raw materials for a business or a trade then they must be grown or managed to provide a sustainable supply. Craftspeople and businesses (apart from reports of a few cowboys stealing moss and robbing woods of bulbs) take these issues seriously. On the whole our wild places, although they may be harvested, are not being pillaged for commercial gain. Dave Eastabrook’s company, Totally Herby, is a good example of responsible harvest. Bog myrtle has been known for centuries in Scotland as an insect repellent. They now harvest it with great care for its long-term preservation. Lesley Kilbride has exactly the same attitude and concerns in her enterprise, always taking material to make dye-stuffs with an eye for the future of the shrubs or lichens she utilises. Victoria Chanin similarly takes

care of her patch. She knows her plants well enough to make sure that her collecting will be entirely sustainable. Simon Bland and Jane Barker at Dalefoot Composts are doing something even more clever. Bracken is rampaging across our hillsides, becoming a pest that is, all too often, controlled with strong herbicide. By harvesting their bracken on a sustainable rotation, they restore habitats that were going under the tide, and make a useful compost out of the fronds. Like many of the others in this chapter, the Dalefoot people have used the knowledge of the past combined with modern research to make a really useful commodity. Gathering meadowsweet flowers to make wine (above). Whether for food and drinks, crafts or medicinal uses, the activity of collecting blossoms, nuts, leaves and fruits can be a joy in itself. Amongst other uses, bogbean (left) was once eaten to stave off scurvy.

Chapter 6: Gathering


The two-handled draw knife (above), one of the most useful of the green woodworker’s tools, is being used to trim the hazel bool, or rim. Owen Jones adds the second set of oak lathes, the taws, to the ribs or spelks of his oak swill basket (opposite).

people employed in the swill-making industry in that village alone. John Barker, the swiller who taught me, was apprenticed to the trade in the 1930s. He continued making swills after the Second World War, but in the post-war years swill making steadily declined as mechanisation and the use of plastic and wire reduced demand. Although older people continued with their work, no young men came into the trade. The coppice woods stopped being worked, and gradually this craft began to die out. I feel quite privileged to have been taught by someone of that generation and proud to be continuing within their tradition. Swills are strong baskets. I really like the form and shape of them. People get very fond of their baskets

and become quite attached to them. Swills differ from willow baskets in the amount of preparation of the materials that is necessary before they are made. By the time you come to weave the basket itself, you have been on something of a journey already: you began with a day in the wood to select and fell the tree, moved on to the sawing, and then cleaving, boiling, riving, and dressing the oak, and eventually dressing and steam-bending the hazel. When I first started swilling I was put in touch with one of the last working coppicemen, Bill Hogarth from Spark Bridge, near Ulverston. He was a bit surprised to hear of someone wanting swill wood, but knew what I wanted, and for seven or eight years he supplied all my materials. As he Chapter 7: Working with Wood


Oak • Quercus robur/Quercus petraea

With their wavy-edged leaves, oak trees are unmistakable. There are two species in Britain: pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), with acorns on long stalks, and sessile oak (Quercus petraea), which has acorns close to the stem. Oak is an important tree in the mythology of most European cultures, representing strength and power. The Druids, the priests of the Celts, believed it to be sacred. As is often the case, the high regard for this tree evidenced in our folklore is matched by its usefulness. In the past oak coppice was harvested for charcoal production and bark for tanning leather, and the strong timber remains popular for making wooden furniture.

‘Autumnal Woodland’ (above), one of Carry Akroyd’s most vibrant, colourful prints. ‘Holme Fen Birches’ (opposite), with ducks, water and foliage visible behind the white birch trunks; ‘Holme Fen Holly’ (page 198) and ‘Fen Birches’ (page 199) reveal different interpretations of the same setting, and different wildlife in the same habitat. Just as ‘Each wood has its own atmosphere and character’, so does each of her prints. Her work is inspired by the trees, animals and birds of Northamptonshire and Norfolk – and by the words of poet John Clare.


With the Woods

Painting and Printmaking Carry Akroyd is an artist who has exhibited her prints, paintings and drawings widely. Her recent project has focused on the landscapes – including trees, woods and hedgerows – that she has shared with the nineteenth-century poet John Clare. This has resulted in a sumptuous new book of her art and prose inspired by Clare entitled Of Natures Powers and Spells (the missing apostrophe is Clare’s!) Woodlands for me are about solitude – a positive and strengthening kind of solitude. Although I make most of my work in the studio, it always

derives from walking and wandering out of doors. Some days I am scanning distant horizons across open fields, making visual notes in various drawing books. Distant traffic noise or human calls intrude into my consciousness, awareness of the working world. Other days, within woodlands, the effect is different, one of removal from the everyday world, a slowing down, closing in, quietening, listening. I am less likely to wander haphazardly; instead I stop completely and sit somewhere listening, watching. Each wood has its own atmosphere and character. There is no woodland close to my home, but within 10 miles in any direction there are patches of vestigial ancient forest or deep-

Words in the Woods Blowing the cobwebs (and ferns) from an old, old book filled with magical tales: a day spent learning, creating and enacting drama with Theatr Iolo is bound to be exciting!

Words in the Woods was a unique drama project for pre-school children set in the Forestry Commission’s Hensol Forest, in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. It was created by Sarah Argent of

Theatr Iolo, a professional company who have developed an original story-making approach to working with this age group. The children encounter interesting objects (like giant pencils hanging from the trees) and fascinating characters (Jack in a tree; and a duffle-coated, winged lady – or is she a fairy?). These and the wild setting inspire them to create their own drama. The success of the project relied on the children’s natural inquisitiveness (‘How did she magic herself here?’) combined with their rich imaginations (‘I saw a fairy – I don’t know her name’) and, of course, a tremendous sense of fun. This is theatre for all the senses: tasting fruits, smelling flowers, making music and the inevitable showers of rain all come into play. There is also a real sense of adventure. The Theatr Iolo team (theatr is Welsh for ‘theatre’) were able to use trained Forest School workers to include the special ingredients of fire, water and mud that make drama in the woods an entirely different experience from a classroom or theatre production. The company assesses risks and takes precautions to avoid them, but this doesn’t necessarily eliminate fear! Let us give one of the young participants the final word: ‘I saw a tail wibbling, a crocodile’s tail. It was tiny. It was a baby crocodile, called ‘Baby Crocodile’ – it was really, really tiny… There was a big crocodile across the pond – a cave, like a bear cave. Maybe it was sleeping. We were very quiet and it couldn’t hear us. Maybe it was snoring.’


With the Woods

Holly • Ilex aquifolium

With its distinctive prickly leaves, holly is probably the most widely recognised British tree. Less well known is the fact that the upper leaves of this evergreen, which grow out of reach of grazing animals, can be quite smooth-sided. Like several other red-berried trees, holly was traditionally regarded as providing protection against evil spirits. In common with many other pagan beliefs and traditions, the use of holly to mark the winter was adopted by early Christians. The relatively recent tradition of bringing holly into houses and churches at Christmas is thought to have its origins in ancient practices. The white, close-grained wood of holly is ideal for printing blocks.

Chapter 9: The Artists


Fairy Folk Sarah Wise and her partner Chris Rose set up the highly successful Fairylands Trust, based in Norfolk, to provide children with a magical experience that connects them more closely to woodlands and real nature than the glittery world of commercial entertainment. I was an extremely lucky child. I had a small ancient woodland next to my house, and that was my extended playground. Not that I knew it was anything special: it was just the woods where my mum used to send me with my brother to collect leaf mould for her garden. We’d collect a sack and then play for hours up there until she’d call us in from the steps of the cottage.


With the Woods

Those woods were full of bluebells, the smell of which is my favourite to this day, but I also remember the rare treat of catching the apricot scent of primroses, which I could only pick out on certain days. Most of all I remember a particular favourite place next to the rabbit warren, deep in the woods. Here a hazel tree had grown its branches almost horizontally, so that the big, plate-like leaves formed an umbrella, and I would lie down in the bluebells and look up through those unmistakable vivid green leaves of early May and imagine all the rabbits hiding underneath me nearby. If I close my eyes now, I am there again, and to me this will always be where I belong.

Previous Caption pages: ancient Scots pines, with dead trees providing a rich habitat for insects and birdlife.

Real fairies gazing down at water soldiers (opposite). European folklore is full of legends, myths and fairy stories that feature trees, woodlands and woodland spirits like these two wood sprites (below).

In Nant-y-Cwm Community Woodland, Pembrokeshire, Princes Trust volunteers build a shelter (above) and take lunch with a visiting Care in the Community group (below). The woodland aims to be selfsustainable, and encourages volunteers from a variety of backgrounds to work together in woodland management.

Managing and Owning Woodland for Community Use Piers Voysey has worked for the Forestry Commission and as a community forester in Papua New Guinea. He has served as the chair of the Community Woodlands Association and has played a leading role in helping groups manage their woodlands for the benefit of the local community. I’m passionate about forestry, that woodlands and trees are accessible to everyone. I think they are lovely places, lovely beings, and whether we are city people or country folk, we can work in the woods and work with the trees. Some of my best times


Into the Woods

have been working with people, helping them to enjoy the outdoors – playing outdoors – seeing the beauty of trees, or working with wood, and realising that woodlands are not incredibly hard places to look after and manage. They just take a little bit of observation, looking ahead, working out what’s happening. It’s not rocket science; it’s a bit like gardening. I enjoy encouraging people to get involved and get stuck in. I’m also involved in a ‘community’ woodland in my personal life. Together with four other families I bought a corner of woodland in Perthshire – 19 hectares – and more than anything, it’s the friendships we’ve made through the woodland that make it such a wonderful experience. It’s a beautiful little woods, but what makes it wonderful is all the people who have got involved; it’s great fun. The


woodland provides somewhere for kids to play and grow up in. There has been a little bit of Forest School activity there from the local school – this means that all the kids can come, but it is a bit of a luxury, as it is a lot of capital tied away. We have quite a mix of people on our team: two foresters, a doctor, a footpath engineer, a development graduate, a humanist weddings celebrant, a saw miller, an ambulance driver, and a top-class cabinet maker and furniture designer. A community woodland can be any size, really, depending on who is involved. Ten hectares is a good size for a small group; small enough to get around in a day, to check all the bits and pieces. But I also think that communities shouldn’t necessarily aspire to anything less than all the woodlands on their doorstep! Some woodlands are big – hundreds of hectares.

That’s big for a team of voluntary directors to look after; a site that large really requires full-time management. Most woodlands need outside help to pay for all the costs. You would be lucky for a community woodland to pay for itself; it would require highvalue timber or selling other services, and some creative thinking. The timber might well pay for itself – the costs of basic maintenance, felling and replanting – a community could probably break even by putting the timber on the market. But most landowners need grants to help deliver public benefit – access provision, footpaths and other public facilities. Currently most forestry work in Britain is carried out with grant support; hopefully, as more people see the value of our woodlands, there will be increased grants or even private sources of funds.

One of the great benefits of a community woodland is the opportunity for kids to play together in active, healthy and creative ways (above).

Chapter 12: Managing Woodlands for the Community



Celebrating the resurgence of a British forest culture, from community woodlands to arts and crafts, timber buildings, bushcraft, wild food...


Celebrating the resurgence of a British forest culture, from community woodlands to arts and crafts, timber buildings, bushcraft, wild food...