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Kent's new woodsmen keeping traditional crafts alive

PUBLISHED: 12:56 10 April 2017 | UPDATED: 14:24 10 April 2017

Underwoodsman John Waller at work at Bore Place, near Chiddingstone

Underwoodsman John Waller at work at Bore Place, near Chiddingstone

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

In our fast-moving modern world, it's good to remember that some aspects of traditional country life have changed very little over the past centuries. We meet the new woodsmen who are making their livings from coppicing Kent's ancient woodland and keeping traditional crafts alive and kicking. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque

John makes traditional crafts such as these sturdy log basketsJohn makes traditional crafts such as these sturdy log baskets

Before 1900 most of Kent’s plentiful woods would have been intensively coppiced. An ancient woodland management system, it provides a constant supply of materials used for everything from firewood to making gates, fences, baskets and furniture.

A perfect lesson in sustainability, the cutting of trees is carried out in rotation and the particular species suitable for coppicing grow back, producing a number of thin stems ready to be cut again in a few years.

By the mid-20th century this traditional method was in sharp decline. But if you look hard enough you can still find sections of our county’s woods that are tended like this by a new breed of woodsmen keeping both the system and its associated crafts alive.

Mike Mills, from Wateringbury, is a chestnut coppicer and craftsman and, like the woodsmen of old, this was something he was born into. “My family has been coppicing in the same area for more than five generations,” says Mike. “The difference then was that coppicing was a seasonal job, with fruit picking and farm work in the summer months. Now we tend to coppice throughout the year.”

The land Mike tends is owned by large estates or small private owners and he buys the trees as a crop. He handcrafts a range of bespoke chestnut fencing and posts, all hand split for strength, as well as rose arches, pergolas, obelisks, bean sticks and benches. His wife, Emily, makes smaller artistic pieces – her handcrafted Christmas decorations sold internationally last year.

Chestnut coppicer Mike Mills and his wife Emily from WateringburyChestnut coppicer Mike Mills and his wife Emily from Wateringbury

“In autumn and winter we tend to cut the bigger trees, 18 to 20 years old, to supply our farming customers. Then in spring we look to the smaller stock, around 14 years, to supply gardening products. Come the summer, things quieten off a bit.”

And as drastic as a freshly cut area of woodland can look, Mike explains it is hugely beneficial to the local wildlife. In fact, the fall in numbers of native dormice is thought to be directly related to the decline in coppicing practices.

“Freshly coppiced woodland gives the woodland floor sunlight and room to come to life. It generates regrowth of flora, benefiting our native species of butterflies, bees, lizards and all manner of other wildlife with shelter and food. Within 14 years, the trees have grown up again, ready for the next harvest and the cycle to begin.”

There is something undeniably romantic about working in the woods, but it’s hard, physical work with much of the year spent outdoors in temperamental weather. However, those who have fallen in love with this way of life wouldn’t have it any other way.

Another passionate woodsman is Alan Sage, from Ashford. “I’ve always had a strong interest in traditional crafts, especially hand crafts,” he says. “I also have a keen interest in archaeology, our heritage and history, sustainable land management and creative arts. Somehow coppicing encompasses all of these things in its various forms.”

Emily Mills at workEmily Mills at work

Alan is keen to stress the environmental benefits of proper woodland management. “The sustainable nature of coppicing is one of the things that drew me into the industry,” he says.

“Coppicing benefits biodiversity due to the rotation of cutting. It creates a mosaic of different canopy heights and areas of varying light and shade. These ‘coupes’ are always in transition, which will benefit different plants, insects and animals at different points in the cycle. Coppicing protects and prolongs the woodland’s life as well as its ecology. It provides carbon neutral products that are biodegradable and benefit the rural economy, while also acting as a carbon sink. All this without the need for replanting on a big scale.”

Alan offers a wide range of bespoke coppice products. He uses a number of different materials: willow for baskets, hurdles, trellis, living willow structures and sculptures; hazel for woven fencing, frame baskets and bean poles; sweet chestnut for fencing, pergolas, gates and garden furniture. He uses other species, such as hornbeam, field maple, ash and beech, for firewood, charcoal, indoor furniture and turned items.

He also runs a number of courses throughout the year, teaching coppicing skills and traditional crafts like making trugs, baskets and spoons. Many are held at Ashford’s Godinton House and Gardens.

“The various different coppice crafts use many traditional skills such as weaving, cleaving, shaving, steam bending and carving. These hand skills are fairly easy to learn but may take time to perfect. The great thing about them is that you can still be contemporary with these traditional skills.”

One of Mike's garden pergolasOne of Mike's garden pergolas

Another Kentish woodsman who focuses on passing on the traditional crafts is John Waller. Based at Bore Place, near Chiddingstone, John refers to himself as a traditional ‘underwoodsman’.

“Although I do cut and use medium to large size trees, I mainly use small diameter poles and rods,” he says. “Known as ‘underwood’, coppice is cut by a woodsman or an underwoodsman, whereas bigger trees, timber, are cut by foresters.”

John’s passion for the woods and traditional crafts comes from his wife, Amanda. “When we met as students, she dragged me along to conservation tasks with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, now TCV.  That got me interested in trees and woodland, particularly coppicing.

“I did a year’s practical voluntary work with various environmental charities, and eventually this led to an opportunity at Bore Place. It appeals to me because of the simple, efficient nature of craft work with wood. There is little reliance on power tools and machinery, and an enormous satisfaction in converting heaps of damp sticks into strong, functional, beautiful objects, using little more than hand and eye.”

Bore Place, a sprawling country estate with 500 acres of farmland, has been the home of the Commonwork Trust, which focuses on sustainability, for the past 40 years. It boasts a working organic farm and offers education programmes for visiting students. With more than 60 acres of woodland, John is never short on materials for his work or students for the popular courses he runs.

Bespoke chestnut fencingBespoke chestnut fencing

“Bore Place is a great location,” he says. “It’s a busy place, easy to make contacts and it has a long-term investment: restoring the woods and seeing the improvements. The ethics are very similar to my own, the people who work there are nice. So I’ve stayed for 24 years so far!”

John makes items using traditional crafts with a strong current market, such as hurdles and baskets. He demonstrates his work at craft fairs across the country each year, getting new generations interested in ages-old techniques.

“Interest in the woods is higher now than ever in the short period I’ve been involved.  Woodsmen are cutting for wood-burning stoves and open fires again. On the back of this, the woods will coppice and grow anew and begin the cycle again. 

“The ‘new’ woodsmen are often creative, educated and business savvy.  Although still few in number, we’re growing in numbers and with these modern skills and traditional techniques, old crafts will find an innovative new chapter in a niche but busy market.”

“I love the changing seasons and the changing landscape,” says Alan. “I enjoy being part of nature’s cycle, every year, season to season. Working with nature and not against it. For me, I don’t think any other trade or industry has such great rewards.”

Handcrafted decorative pieces by Emily MillsHandcrafted decorative pieces by Emily Mills

Mike adds. “There are things about this way of life and its traditions that haven’t changed over the generations. A back to basics life appeals to me. Being in touch with the seasons, handcrafting products from my environment – it’s all so life enhancing.”

Find out more

Mike Mills, MJ Mills Chestnut Products, em.mike@talktalk.net and view Emily Mills’ handcrafted items at www.etsy.com/shop/woodcottagecraft

Alan Sage, AJS Crafts, www.ajscrafts.co.uk

Contact John Waller at Underwoodsman Ltd at Bore Place via www.underwoodsman.co.uk

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