On an early spring morning at Pullabrook Woods the sights, sounds and smells of traditional woodland crafts filled the riverside meadow. After a winter of thinning work removed the shadier areas of dense woodland and let the light in, some residual timber stacks remained and April is a perfect month to demonstrate the woodland skills needed to convert this into valuable woodland produce. While softwood thinnings are taken away for timber and wood fuel, the hardwood thinnings can make good charcoal and traditional hazel hurdles.
Starting early on Saturday the charcoal making team got warmed up by stacking the cut lengths of timber, using two different styles of stacks from two different eras. The first was an earth clamp; a conical stack covered in soil and turf. The second used a steel kiln but both were built around a central core left open till the last minute when buckets of hot ash were dropped in to ignite the wood.
As the sun climbed, the morning heated up and the atmosphere warmed with more people arriving in the meadow to see the activities in progress. Interesting skill displays for all ages included a forest school, hazel hurdle making and a heavy horse hauling logs from the woods. They all used material cut from the valley to show the techniques developed over the centuries. Children round the campfire made artists’ charcoal in a biscuit tin and crafty people had a go at riving hazel rods and weaving a hurdle. But the star of the show had to be the heavy horse with studded iron shoes, making easy work of dragging full length Scots Pine logs from the forest floor. The partnership between man and his beast of burden left people in awe of the combination of power and control.
After a busy day a small group of charcoal burners sat beside the campfire, monitoring the stacks of smoke and steam into the night while watching satellites traversing the starry sky. A cold and clear April night in the woods was no challenge for the river Bovey otter heard making his way up stream but for the few who stayed in the woods all night the frost on the tents meant a chilly start to Sunday. A bacon and egg roll provided the breakfast boost for the workforce to continue monitoring the charcoal burn; waiting for the smoke to change from white to distinctive blue. A spring morning was captured by the damp and still air which trapped the smoke at tree top level until it was released by the sun’s warm thermals.
Later, people returned to the meadow as the ground warmed and the birds and beasts emerged. This meadow is a refuge for various species of insects including the rare violet oil beetle. With all the activities in full swing once again the warm ambience complemented the bright spring day.
After more horses, hurdles and charcoal the visitors left the valley with happy memories of woodland skills and the aromatic wood smoke in the air. Only the charcoal burners remained to shut down the smoke stacks to cool in time for their return in two days to collect the fruits of their labours; sack loads of good quality clean-burning fuel. Spring time in the meadow will now be left for the Bovey valley otters, wildflowers and butterflies to provide the next show. It looks like it could be a barbecue summer.
by Matt Parkins