As the tree-felling season once again approaches, and in Part 2 of his 1960 autobiographical notes (Well laid Hedges and Cider) Jim Pratt moves on from Osbaston to another piece of ancient woodland in Monmouth Forest
It is spring 1961. We prepared and planted Osbaston with larch in rows kept straight with Hazel wands pushed into the ground at five foot intervals in a line across the top of the slope. Below the top line, a second line was fixed. There were six of us, all under twenty, and Tom Johns. Planting uphill from the bottom, we lined up the two top wands and planted the trees roughly 4 1/2 feet apart. The earth was moist, warm, red and deep, and it was also nice and clayey. Perfect for making into missiles, to be aimed at laggards coming up the row by those who had reached the top. The first missile elicited a response and soon mud was flying in all directions. The only person planting steadily away, like British infantry ignoring the bullets at the Somme, was Tom Johns: perhaps he was an old soldier from the trenches. In productive forestry, a man might be expected to plant 600-800 trees a day on sites like Osbaston. Only Tom got near those figures.
The Assistant Forester, Mr MacKinnon, from Skye, arrived on his ex-army motorbike whose characteristic exhaust we could hear approaching from some distance. The missiles were stamped into the ground, and planting proceeded at a furious rate. Mr MacKinnon approached me.
……‘Well, Jim,’ he said, ‘this is your first day planting: did you enjoy it?’
……‘Oh, yes thank you, Mr MacKinnon.’
……He walked down my row, pinching the tops of the plants and pulling them gently to see that they were properly healed into the ground. They were. Furthermore, they were upright.
……‘Good,’ he said. ‘How many have you planted?’
……‘Forty-seven, Mr MacKinnon,’ I said with great pride.
His face looked bruised. He drew breath. In his gentle lilting Scot’s burr: ‘Would you kindly repeat that.’
……‘I see,’ he said. ‘Well, tomorrow, I want not forty-seven but four-hundred-and-seventy.’
……‘Yes Mr MacKinnon. Thank you.’
We finished planting. The toolbox was uplifted onto the back of the forest lorry, and we moved to Tal-y-Coed, a wood even further from Monmouth. We had to be in our place at work with a tool in our hands at 7:15, after a thirty-minute walk from the main road. I left home at 05.30, since of the eight miles from Monmouth to Tal-y-Coed, at least three had to be walked. En route, we passed the Head Forester’s house at The Hendry. TG Saunders, a tough, wiry diminutive Borderer stood at his gate, watch in hand. As we passed, he seemingly took pleasure in reminding us how little time we had. Later, he would pass us in his van but with no offer of a lift. We wondered how much he could hear.
Tiring though it was, shouldering the tools through what was and must have always been a beautiful ancient woodland had its compensation, especially in spring. Primroses, violets and bluebells burnished our route under the trees among the cacophony of the morning chorus. The path was bathed in a mosaic of light, constantly changing and filtered through the leaves of the trees. But we were felling it all to replant it with a more ‘valuable’ species, namely, Norway spruce. It carried beautiful mature Oak straight as gun barrels, Ash, Elm, Lime, an understory of Hazel and thorn and even had a giant wild service tree. Pride was a large spreading yew under which we sheltered from both rain and sun. Now, sixty years later, I look back on what we felled as sacrilege, and I think there was no excuse for it, for it was rich in habitat. And because in those days the countryside was quiet, what we could hear was the sound and music of old woodland. Every bit of forest has its own noise signature as the wind moves between stems, branches, leaves, and needles. Indeed, by the time I retired, forty years later, if blindfolded I could telI you what tree I was under by sound of the wind. It was the muting of this symphony and the dulling of the church-like shafts of light that we were destroying by felling this ancient wood, just as brazenly as Cromwell savaged church windows in earlier times.
I was put to work with a Londoner called Scott. He had been evacuated during the war and had stayed on. He retained his wit and all his cockney cadence, modified perhaps with a light Welsh lilt. We were to build a rabbit-proof fence. Right round the perimeter of the wood. A distance of two miles. The forest lorry dumped rolls of wire (woven rabbit netting, plain wire, barbed wire), along with staples and netting clips at the entrance. That was it: no factory-cut stakes, posts, or strainers. There were some tools: two axes, a 4’6” long two-man cross-cut saw, an iron pinch-bar, two claw hammers, fencing pliers and an ancient set of wire strainers (of the butterfly type). To make a good fence, the rabbit netting is strung on the plain wire which was strained tight between posts dug into the ground. Stakes (stobs in Scotland) were driven into the ground every 8-10ft to give added support. For a fence this long we needed perhaps 1000 stakes and 100 posts. We had to make them ourselves. Convenient oaks were felled with axe and saw, cut into lengths and split with wooden wedges (made from yew branches) using a heavy wooden mall (mallet) we made ourselves from the knotty bottom of an old apple tree and a long Ash handle. A local blacksmith drilled the apple for the handle and shod it in red-hot iron hoops both to stop it splitting and add weight. So heavy, I doubt I could lift it now, but then, when I was barely twenty, I could swing it over my head to thump in the sharpened stakes that were held upright by a pensive Scott. Because of the uneven nature of the ground along the fence line, Mr Saunders was insistent that the top wire which held the rabbit netting should be kept to a level, the netting hung from it in a gracious curve. That meant fitting aprons where the fence crossed a gulley or taking tucks into it on high ground. This is a very slow way of fencing, and we were rightly pleased by the precision with which the fence swept over its obstacles. At one point in the line, however, the route plunged almost into the brook, and we needed a particularly heavy post to be sunk in the soft ground there to take the strain of the wire. We had reached this point in the line when Scott took his holidays. Mr Saunders came up with a plan to keep me occupied while he was away: to provide a heavy post for the stream.
A new worker arrived. John. My age or slightly older, fit and bronzed and wearing a cloth coat he called his Swanee. By this time the seasoned hand, I was to teach him how to fell a tree. But not any old tree: the yew under which we sheltered. It would not be inappropriate to call it a veteran. Not terribly tall, but with a massive trunk knotted with thick, tough branches under which we sheltered. The butt was the prize. The timber as hard as iron, the grain contorted with knots. It was 4ft in diameter. The saw was six inches longer. It took the two of us a week pulling the saw back and forth to sever the butt from the stump, and an hour each day to sharpen and set the teeth and clean the blade with diesel. All week the sun shone, but not on us, crouched below the branches. Usually when severed, a tree falls on its side. Not this one. It stood on its head, supported on its branches its 1 ton butt pointing skywards. To get it flat, we nicked the branches, bent almost double by the suspended weight above them. One nick with the axe, the branch would shatter, and the butt would tremble above our heads. We had seconds to scarper, so took it in turns: the ‘suicide’ cuts. I had no responsibilities beyond myself. John, however, was different. He had returned from culling red deer in New Zealand to marry his Forest of Dean sweetheart, and had more to lose. But he was a nice, brave man and we shared the risk. We called him John, but he was (we later found) Baronet and heir to an Earldom. ‘Fuck me,’ said Scott when he heard, ‘He’ll have me put in the tower for what I said about the Royals.’ (Forest workers were a bolshie lot.)
Once felled and trimmed (cutting branches off a hefty yew with an axe is an unbelievably boring and seemingly endless job), the butt was cut to a 9ft length. It weighed at least a ton. Mr Saunders ordered it to be dragged to the ‘depot’: a misnomer for an open-sided shelter down by the woodland entrance. Eddie was called for. And his horse. By any measure, Eddie was the happiest person I ever met, and it showed in his face. I remember a small slight elderly man with a mass of salt-and-pepper hair, threadbare Army battledress jacket, turned-down wellies and string round his legs. His hands were never still: when not leading his nag, he rolled his fags. He seemed inseparable from his horse: I never saw it without him, or he without it. They were united as a graft. Whence Eddie came with his horse I know not: he just appeared when needed. And he was needed now. It took Eddie and his horse a day to pull this megalith log to the depot and roll it onto bearers. Mr Saunders told me what to do. I was to carve it into a post for the fence. Reduce it to a nine-inch square for the top 6 feet, and leave the bottom three feet untouched. Sunk into the ground by the brook, it would resist the upwards pull of the wire. And, for my education, I was to do it with an axe.
Yew timber is uncompromising. It is no one’s friend. It is hard. It is tough. Its grain is recklessly variable and obtuse. It shines: creamy white sapwood, a rich reddish-brown heart and black flecks in the centre of branches. It resisted every blow I made, and it took me a week, breaking three axe handles in the process. And why not? It had stood there, almost from the Battle of Agincourt. And we destroyed it, the father and mother of the wood. Why? To hold down a boundary that no one else over centuries thought necessary.
Once cut and shaped, it needed a hole. By this time, Scott was back, and on the Friday, we dug a pit 4ft x 4ft x 4ft. By Monday morning, when we had planned to drop the post into the hole, it was full of water and a drowned rabbit. Given the distance of the wood from ‘civilisation’, getting the water out of the hole represented a problem, since we had no buckets, no oil drums to act as scoop. Instead, we removed part of the cowling of the resident crawler tractor (of which more below) to bale. Manoeuvring the post over the lip of the hole, using pinch-bar and rollers, must have resembled the raising of the Stonehenge megaliths. We backfilled it with all the earth dug from the hole, tamping it down every six inches or so. Once in place, and vertical, it was clear that this was a post going nowhere. During the next few days, the sun shone and the ground dried.
On the Friday, Mr Saunders made his weekly inspection. These visits were not popular with the men, since he seemed to feel the need to find fault, no matter how small. Perhaps it was his way of asserting authority. He came to inspect the post. The sun had dried the surface of the backfilled soil: it had shrunk, leaving a narrow gap ½” around the post.
……‘Hey,’ he said, pointing to me. ‘Not good enough.’
……‘What do you mean, Mr Saunders?’
……‘This post is loose. Look, you can see the crack where it moved.’
……‘We’ll soon see about that.’ My anger was rising. I needed to be careful, else he would sack me on the spot. ‘I’m going for Eddie.’ I found him quite close: Eddie hitched the traces onto the post and persuaded the horse to pull. Rock solid.
……‘Hmm,’ said Mr Saunders and strode off. Not long afterwards, I was posted to another forest.
But before I went, I was able to witness the dying gasps of our resident tractor. It was perhaps war-vintage: a single-cylinder Fowler crawler-tractor fitted with a Boughton winch we used for pulling ‘tushes’ of felled timber to the depot, where they were converted into logs and collected by lorry.
It was a two-man operation: driver and chokerman. The driver’s name was Will: he was neat, small and came to work in a van into which he would cram us and give us a lift. A sensitive man, out of earshot he admitted to me that he read poetry. The chokerman was different. His surname was Bowen, and that was what he was called. He came from outside Monmouth and was reputed to live rough in the woods. He had one particularly unpleasant habit, of defecating in the crotches of trees (usually, and by choice, Ash) which, sooner or later, we would have to fell with an axe. ‘Bowen, you little shite: you’ve done it again,’ and he would make a sly smile which we interpreted as an admission. It was his way of making a point. As chokerman, he was responsible for fixing the logs onto the wire winch-cable on the tractor, following the load and removing any snags from its path, and then releasing the cable at the depot.
The tractor would run all day, since starting it hot was a real problem. Cold, it was simple. First, the flywheel was moved until it aligned with top-dead centre. Then the cylinder head was heated with a lighted paper or wooden spill, thrust burning into an orifice in the engine. After a few seconds, a blank twelve-bore cartridge was pushed into yet another orifice and hit with a ball-pein hammer. If all worked well, the explosion of the cartridge would send the cylinder in motion and a black cloud would burst from the exhaust.
It was wet and had been raining for days, the ground in front of the depot (where we sheltered) was a lake of glutinous mud. The rain was drumming on the roof, but we could hear the beat of the tractor engine as it came slithering down the slope pulling a big load of logs. The driver stopped it in the mud. Bowen moved behind to un-choker the logs. The winch stuck, so Will put the tractor into reverse and moved backwards, imagining Bowen would have got out of the way. Instead, he was making silly faces at us. And then he disappeared into the mud and under the metal tracks. Realising what he had done, Will turned off the engine. For a moment there was silence, broken by a torrent of abuse, in Welsh, from under the mud. Bowen was in danger as much from drowning as crushing. The fact that the engine could not be started again probably saved his life, and using our bare hands and the shovel from the tractor, we dug him out, none the worse beyond a series of parallel bruises up his left leg and arm. Someone called for an ambulance from the local public telephone, and Bowen was taken away for observation. I never saw him again. The tractor was abandoned in some scrub. When I returned to the site thirty-six years later, it had gone. However, the post hewn from yew still stood, defiantly, in the brook.
Fig 1. Tal-y-Coed, April 1997. The brook ran along the bottom of the plantations of Norway Spruce, which were planted in 1961 and 62.
Fig 2. 500-yr Yew bole (Kingley Vale, Sussex) and yew timber.
Jim Pratt is nephew to the Welsh border poet Margiad Evans, and has written extensively about her. In 1960, he started his training as a forester working in Monmouth Forest, only a few miles from where Margiad lived and wrote for most of her life. His subsequent career as a forester and forest officer took him to all parts of the British Isles, Europe and North America. He retired in 2002, and now lives with his wife in the Scottish Borders.