February is a month of lighter mornings and lengthening days, bringing an innate sense that, though we have not seen the last of the frost and snow, a new cycle of renewal is beginning. Some days have that fresh smell of sunlight warming the cold earth, where hints of spring emerge, raising flashes of yellow celandine and spears of green bluebell leaves that break through last year’s leaf litter. Nature’s inevitable cycle starts an annual awakening of wildlife but carries with it a creativity in those that work in the woods of Dartmoor.
John Williamson is a Dartmoor woodland worker and woodcraft innovator who uses this ancient time clock that has engraved traditional patterns of seasonal work into the lost rural crafts. His passion is to bring the old skills back to life for the 21st Century. He is one of the few that, triggered by the changing seasons, uses traditional skills to restore a sustainable industry to meet a growing future. With the curved blade of a billhook in hand, at work on a steep coppiced woodland bank standing over the river Bovey, John explained the aim of his task for the day. “We are selecting a batch hazel rods for a special commission, we have been asked by Dartmoor National Park to make a set of hurdles for the medieval farmhouse at Higher Uppacott. We will make four hurdles, all five feet high. Two at 6 feet wide and two at 4 feet wide.” This restored Grade 1 listed longhouse is an important piece of Dartmoor’s heritage, but the more recent addition of a heating oil tank is a suitable place for a hazel hurdle screen of a style from a more contemporary age.
John explained, “We are finding what hazel we can though this coppice has grown a bit old for this job but there will be enough here, and we can take material for all sorts of other products too. Charcoal is in growing demand, and our locally produced stuff is better quality than most of the charcoal in the UK. Most is imported but people like what we make, it burns clean which is important for food to taste good.”
John is also keen to train young people and support them into this line of work. With him on site was Jordan, busy stacking and selecting material. Lifting one of the poles to inspect it, he explained, “I can get two products out of that. The bottom section will be a hedging stake and the top will become something else. As well as straight hurdle rods, we can make bean poles and pea sticks from the rougher stuff. I have always lived on Dartmoor, so it is satisfying to find ways to be able to look to the future here while working with old skills.”
Looking around the woods, John picked out different materials. “There is some sweet chestnut here but this ash is really good and is becoming scarce.” Ash die back has arrived in Devon and is taking its toll on many trees. He said, “coppiced ash is what I use to make stave baskets which are classed as ‘critically endangered’ by the Heritage Craft Association. There are only three makers in the country and I am the only one in Devon. They are made in a range of sizes that relate to a certain weight of apples or potatoes.”
Traditionally, woodlands like this are cut in a regular cycle. The new growth then produces material for hurdles, baskets, tool handles, charcoal and many other items but it needs to be looked after and brought into cycle with other local woods to maintain a supply of material. Wildlife has always benefitted from this sensitive style of woodland management too. Wildflowers get a boost from the additional sunlight and the whole woodland food chain thrives with all the new growth.
In a few weeks’ time John and Jordan will be out on the moor again to deliver the finished set of hurdles to Higher Uppacott house.
by Matt Parkins
Higher Uppacott house – you can read more about this Dartmoor Longhouse here
Another product made by John is a soil conditioner that sequesters carbon, known as ‘Biochar’
UK Biochar Research Centre | Welcome to the UKBRC