Monday, 21 December 2015

The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees @ BBC Radio 4

The Sid Valley will probably lose a large proportion of its trees in the coming years - because many of them are ash:
Futures Forum: Valuing trees: the cost of replacing the Sid Valley's trees

A couple of years ago, Richard Mabey took us for a walk amongst some of his favourite trees, including the ash:
Futures Forum: The Yew, the Sycamore and the Ash

And earlier today, Radio 4 took us on a very personal journey:

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In 2012, Robert Penn felled (and replanted) a great ash from a Welsh wood. He set out to explore the true value of the tree of which we have made the greatest and most varied use in human history. How many things can be made from one tree?
Over the next two years he travelled across Britain, to Europe and the USA, to the workshops and barns of a generation of craftsmen committed to working in wood. He watched them make over 45 artefacts and tools that have been in continual use for centuries, if not millennia.
Today, he begins his search for the perfect tree in woodland near his South Wales home. It's a bitter, Elizabethan winter and snow lies on the forests. After a long hunt, he gets a call from a forester in Herefordshire.
This is a tale about the joy of making things in wood, of its touch and smell, its many uses and the resonant, calming effect of running our hands along a wooden surface. It is a celebration of man's close relationship with this greatest of natural materials and a reminder of the value of things made by hand and made to last.

BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, Episode 1

Here's a nice little video from the publisher:

The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees - YouTube

And here's an excellent piece from the Telegraph:

Why ash is Britain's most beautiful tree, not oak

Harry Wallop goes down to the woods with ex-City lawyer turned forester Robert Penn, whose passion for ash trees is chronicled in a new book

Smoke signals: Rob Penn encourages families to make the most of Court Wood
Smoke signals: Rob Penn encourages families to make the most of Court Wood  Photo: Jay Williams
As playgrounds go, this is about as enjoyably idyllic as they come. I’m in the foothills of the Black Mountains in Wales, in a clearing in Court Wood, sitting around a huge, crackling campfire. Children are roasting marshmallows, playing on a large tyre swing and building dens. Some of their parents are here, drinking tea and sloe gin – and waiting for their breakfast.
The cook is Rob Penn, in scruffy jeans, boots and a T-shirt, who is frying a collection of wild mushrooms picked by the children (with the help of local expert Bruce Alcock). They are delicious, though the youngsters seem to prefer the marshmallows to the fungi.
The children and their parents, are part of a community woodland group started by Penn, 48, a writer and broadcaster who presented Tales from the Wild Wood for BBC Four and whose new book, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, is published this week.
A former City lawyer – “God, it was unbelievably boring. It nearly killed me” – Penn has spent the past decade in Wales, specifically among its trees.
He is passionate about the need for woods in our lives, especially for a generation more at home with Xboxes and iPhones than with birches and blackberries.
Robert Penn: "I am much, much more stable if I am in the woods."
“One of the great things about woods is that you are out of sight of your parents by going 30 metres that way,” he says pointing into the undergrowth. “You might be still within earshot, but the trees cut you off – there is a sense of otherness and change. There is a reason fairy stories are invariably set in woodlands. That resonates with kids. When children walk into a woodland, they feel like they are walking into a fairy story.”
Oak’s fame comes from all the buildings and Royal Navy ships it provided. But it is the timber of gentry. It’s very expensive. Ash is the timber of the working man. And you find it all over Britain.
Robert Penn
Court Wood is a magical place, and the landowner has agreed to let the local children roam free – and their parents to keep some of the firewood – in return for the management of the ancient 11-acre site.
Penn accepted the deal with alacrity because there is one tree that dominates in this wood and it is a species he loves: the ash. “In winter, it is the most beautiful tree in Britain. It has the loveliest shape, with the branches turning up and its trunk – straight and proud.”
An ash tree on the edge of Court Wood, Monmouthshire
We think, correctly, that when it comes to trees the oak is the solid heart of Britain. But as Penn says: “Oak’s fame comes from all the buildings and Royal Navy ships it provided. But it is the timber of gentry. It’s very expensive. Ash is the timber of the working man. And you find it all over Britain.”
His latest book, selected as aRadio  4 Book of the Week, is a passionate love letter to the ash tree, which has provided the raw material for everything from Achilles’s spear in the Iliad to the bodies of London’s Routemaster buses.
If you have these things in your domestic life, you are more inclined to value the nature outside your window.
Robert Penn
The arrows used by the English bowmen at Agincourt were made from ash and so, too, were the sledges Roald Amundsen relied on to beat Scott to the South Pole. “Ash is one of the greatest gifts with which nature has endowed man in the temperate regions of the planet over the course of human history,” Penn says, arguing that its flexibility and strength has made it indispensable to tool makers, cooks, sportsmen and hunters.
But he believes it still has relevance in the age of silicone, plastic and aluminium. And to prove it, he felled his own ash, a 90ft high, 130-year-old giant, and set about trying to see what he could make out of all the wood it produced.
The answer is an awful lot, if you look hard enough.
The book, like Penn himself, is often wry and always interesting. It chronicles his mission to find craftsmen around Britain and overseas who are still working with ash, making beautiful and useful articles.
Over the course of a year and a bit, he commissioned – and watched being made – 45 different objects, from the ancient to the quite modern. Some, such as beautifully slim bookmarks, were made in large batches, which means the single tree produced a total of 126 items.
Nothing went to waste. Even the sawdust was used to smoke chicken and the smaller branches chopped for firewood.
A selection of the 126 items made out of the single ash tree, felled by Rob PennA selection of the 126 items made out of the single ash tree, felled by Rob Penn
I inspect the collection of finished items (though he has already given away a few to friends) in an outhouse back at his home, a beautiful, rambling farmhouse full of wood-burning stoves and views of the steep, green Welsh hills.
He whips off a sheet to reveal the pale items laid out on a table tennis table. There are a couple of powerful catapults, a baseball bat, a set of dominoes, a long, sleek kayak paddle, some spatulas, and a medieval arrow crafted by Tom Mareschall, an Essex craftsman who keeps the fletcher trade alive by running courses at historical re-enactment shows. The arrow has real heft, and weighing it my hand feels like holding a bit of history. It has grey goose feathers attached with glue made from rabbit skin and a lethal iron tip, called a bodkin, created in a coal-fired forge using bellows. You can easily believe it could have killed a French cavalryman at Agincourt.
Inside his house there is more, including his handsome kitchen worktop and various coat pegs. In his study up the stairs (lined with his collection of post-war copies of National Geographic) is the masterpiece: a stunningly elegant desk at which he writes using a wooden pencil on a pad of paper. It looks utterly contemporary.
From the trees you get a strong sense of the seasons changing, of the year progressing, and the sense of death and renewal. And that grounds you.
Robert Penn
Some of the craftsmen he found were the last in a long line still practising their trade, be it Mareschall the fletcher or Phill Gregson, a fourth-generation wheelwright on the Lancashire coast, whose main business is mending the carriages used in period dramas on television or traditional gipsy caravans, which have come back into fashion.
But Penn is not pessimistic. “There is definitely a renaissance going on in terms of British wood. You can go into Heal’s now and they will point you in the direction of furniture made out of British wood. There is even a whole range of ash furniture.”
One of the star pieces in Heal’s over the past year has been the Windsor Rocker, a large, modern rocking chair designed by Katie Walker, using local ash.
Penn highlights a couple of young designers in Hackney, east London, who run Hampson Woods, making wonky chopping boards that are now available in John Lewis and the Conran Shop.
Possibly my favourite is a nest of three simple bowls, which are completely unvarnished and, as a result, highly tactile. I can’t stop stroking them. Robin Wood, a leading craftsman who made them using a traditional foot-powered lathe, told Penn: “Don’t do anything. They’ll change shape, they’ll become yours. They’ll eventually break, but then you come back and get another set. Don’t treat them.”
An bowl made by Robin Wood out of Robert Penn's ash tree
Penn says he has been eating his breakfast out of them for the past eight months.
“I bet it’s muesli,” I joke.
“Yes, it is,” he says laughing.
The writer does, indeed, tick many of the sandal-wearing, hippy boxes, but he resembles more of squat rugby scrum-half with a throaty smoker’s laugh than a tree-hugger. On the way back to his house, he had enthusiastically pointed out different tree species while driving like a maniac around the narrow country lanes. His wife, Vicks, implores him to stop looking at the golden autumnal leaves on the hills and start watching the road.
And he can see the ridiculous side of his project, which took on a slightly fanatical bent at times. He even heard Kitty, 11, his youngest daughter, whisper to a neighbour who had come to blag some firewood: “Don’t take the ash logs. Dad’s a bit weird about them.”
A set of wooden dominoes made from ash
To mollify her and her siblings, Scarlett, 12, and Lucas, 15, he decided to get them a toboggan, taking some planks of ash in his rucksack to Austria and commissioning a traditional Alpine sports goods manufacturer, who steamed the strips of wood into the classic J shape in a modern factory. It’s a cracking looking sledge – though lack of proper snow last winter means it has yet to get a run.
After spending a year with all these objects, Penn says that he could never go back to eating his muesli out of a china bowl.
“If you walk into your kitchen every day and you have these things in your domestic life, you are – I think – more inclined to value the nature outside your window. I’d miss the wood horribly if I had to use a plastic chopping board.”
For Penn, everyone can learn from the glory of this incredible material that is part of our landscape.
“I’ve suffered from depression on and off all my adult life, and I am much, much more stable if I am in the woods,” he says. ''It’s the way the light shifts through the day, so you get a very strong sense of the day passing, which is valuable. And from the trees you get a strong sense of the seasons changing, of the year progressing, and the sense of death and renewal. And that grounds you. It is a reminder to live your life well.”
The 126 objects, in all their utilitarian beauty, seem to be not just a tribute to a selection of craftsmen living their lives well, but also a celebration of the ages-old relationship between man and nature. And one we should treasure.
  • The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees by Rob Penn is published by Particular Books, priced £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

Why ash is Britain's most beautiful tree, not oak - Telegraph

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