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Our Field Weekend - Scottish Borders

Our Field Weekend - Scottish Borders

Last year’s trip made it into Wales; this year over eighty members, guests and associated fellow travellers made the first ever foray by WH into Scotland. David Taylor joined them …

Based in the delightful town of Kelso, with weather more akin to the Costa Brava than the Scottish Borders, this varied, mixed and unconventional party visited the mixture of estates, timber growers, processors, designers and marketers of woodcrafts that the indefatigable Peter Goodwin, Woodland Heritage Chairman, had arranged.

The Border Country looked at its lush and blooming best as we zoomed the eighteen miles from our hotel to Bowhill Estate, owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, passing as we travelled, a mere eight vehicles on the way.

Day 1 Bowhill Estate

John Betjeman looked forward to his first visit to rural Scotland with the hope that he might see a Factor standing in The Policies; we were even luckier in having as our guides Andy Wiseman, head forester to the Buccleuch Estates, and his operations manager Jim Colchester.

Bowhill is an impressive family home which takes more than a little upkeep these days. Restoring one chimney costs a small fortune and the assembled members stood in the courtyard in the sun and assessed the total liability by counting the chimneys and multiplying out.

Members gather on the hill overlooking Bowhill House

We were soon on our way into the woodlands which form the setting for the big house and embellish it, hence, as any Latin Scholar will know, their designation, in Scotland anyway, as The Policy Woodlands. Larches from Athol, planted in 1760, stand with a variety of impressive exotics – Douglas Fir, European Silver Fir, Abies Grandis – all evidence of the family’s long-term interest in trees and commercial forestry.

The first ever commercial plantings of Sitka at Newcastleton, were made by Buccleuch Estates. Centuries of vision are well described in the Estate's nicely produced woodland booklet. Some specimen trees received the ultimate accolade of being girthed by Bede Howell; you could almost hear them sighing in satisfaction. At this point a quizzical cock blackbird joined the party, listening with obvious interest to the proceedings.

We walked on through mixed woods of mixed ages, species and sizes. We saw some wonderful 80-year-old Douglas and we identified 19 different tree species in woods being converted to continuous cover.

This had become a practical proposition because of rigorous control of roe deer, a management programme designed to prevent damage rather than to control numbers, a significant switch of emphasis. Having a stalker working for the forestry department made this possible. Surveys confirmed the presence of a wide range of regeneration, the foundations of fine varied woods in future decades. If, of course, grey squirrels can be kept at bay. In an area which is at the front line of grey/red confrontation. Miles Barne gave us an expert resumé of the European Squirrel Initiative’s activities. In spite of a recent resurgence of Bowhill’s reds, the future looks fraught with danger in this part of Scotland unless developing population control science can soon come to the rescue.

We then walked around the Upper Lake, now so well integrated into the setting of Bowhill House – those policies again – as to appear natural. This had its origins in the friendship between the then Duke of Buccluech, the poet and writer on things Scottish Sir Walter Scott, and the landscape architect and founder of the Picturesque School, James Gilpin. But no follies or ruins here if you don’t count three venerable Beeches, large enough to defy Bede’s tape and cranky enough to make a timber merchant, with whom I was travelling, look up apprehensively, and then move onto safer ground.

Scottish Woodschool

After lunch, we moved on to Woodschool, near Ancrum, where the remarkable Eion Cox gave us the lowdown on his early strivings in small woods run by “happy hippie” volunteers which led ultimately to Woodschool, Buy Design, and was the seedcorn for The Borders Forest Trust. All embrace the notion that forestry is above all a community asset and should nurture local skills of all kinds to add value to wood of all kinds.

Using local hardwoods for craft design, Eion graphically described as “making honey out of henshit”. More conventional use of local hardwoods in the Woodschool workshops, through which had passed several rotations of craftsmen learning their trade, were displayed in the attractive Buy Design showrooms, at the back of which is a magical courtyard garden, over which swarms of swallows and swifts wheeled and circled.

Day 2 The Hirsel

The upper lake at Bowhill
The next morning came the realisation that my car had been standing for the past 36 hours in the shade of a tree containing a heronry. Ignoring first instincts to drive it into the Tweed and hitch-hike home, I headed off to a convenient and unlikely Sunday morning Kelso carwash. Thence lickety spit to the Hirsel Estate, just down the road at Coldstream, in the morning sunlight.

This is the home of the Douglas-Home family and is a felicitous mixture of parklands and policies, let and inhand farms, a golf course, an array of let houses and cottages, and 700 acres of mixed amenity, commercial and sporting woodlands. At a grassy car park by the craft centre and museum, we were met by Estate Factor Henry Birch and Estate Forestry Consultant and manager Finlay Mitchell.

We headed off into the policies (Betjeman would have been delirious with excitment) and stood in the shade of Oaks planted in 1814 enjoying a chorus of the birdsong for which the estate is rightly famous. We talked Oak, Elm, regeneration, shake and how to spot it, prices and policies (forest policies that is) certification and the Forestry Commission’s attitude to hardwood tree breeding. Was the Estate right to be messing with young Oaks, or should it perhaps leave them another couple of hundred years then have another look ?

Mature Oaks rise over spectacular Rhododendrons.
Nuthatches and tree-creepers went about their daily business in the crowns above quite unconcerned, even when Gavin Munro gave us a run-down of the British and Irish Hardwood Improvement Programme (BIHIP) a cause much supported by Woodland Heritage. Roger Venables stunned the party by pointing out that there is no hardwood mill left in the UK which can run exclusively on native hardwoods, a situation that has led to the growth of local mobile sawyers to provide a much needed service to growers.

The purest and most thoughtful minds, said the poet John Ruskin, are those which love colour the most. So the pure and thoughtful amongst us were almost as delirious as the late Laureate would surely have been to see the Rhododendron and Azalea collection in Dundock Wood, a habitat created by importing wagonloads of peat from the Lammermuirs in the 1880s.

Gianni Versace himself could not have imagined a more deafeningly colourful display. It was all a bit too much for your correspondent, never renowned for purity or thoughtfulness, who stomped off muttering about Glasgow pavements on a Saturday night. There is just no pleasing some people.

Back to the craft centre for lunch, where the embattled ladies of the staff toiled to get us fed, thence to look at the site of an ancient and arthritic veteran wood on a long narrow strip both beside the river and the Estate’s golf course, through which ran a footpath beloved of the inhabitants of Coldstream.

It's hard to imagine a more demanding felling and extraction location, but a local timber merchant submitted the winning tender and triumphantly completed the job to everyone’s satisfaction, and I mean everyone on a list of consultees as long as your arm; even that of our leader Peter Goodwin who found the haulage down to Ipswich too burdensome for his bid to be realistic.

Then we looked at riparian woodland planting, very much the flavour of the month grantwise in Scotland, then we said our thanks and then we left the Hirsel after a very happy visit.

This concluded the main part of the trip, but enthusiasts were to continue to see the remarkable Tim Stead design workshop, and make an informal visit to Cragside at leafy Rothbury, across the Border in Northumberland.

The success of this trip speaks volumes for Peter’s driving force and Gavin Munro’s local network. Woodland Heritage continues to champion those private growers of faith and vision who believe in the importance of quality timber production in the sure and certain knowledge that it will always be in demand. It’s just a pity that we have to wait a whole year until next year’s trip.

The Hirsel gathering of 88 members.

Day 2 - The Workshop of Tim Stead

by Colin Milburn

It was great to be able to attend Woodland Heritage’s annual open day at the Bowhill Estate. I really enjoyed meeting Eoin Cox on the Sunday and visiting Woodschool. It was an inspiration to see what they have achieved with hard work and perseverance to establish Woodschool on a practical scale and to learn about the strong working relationships they have developed with people on the more industrial side of forestry.

Later, Maggy Stead showed us round her house. It was a tremendous experience to see some of Tim Stead’s work. I first learnt of Tim when I read an obituary in April 2000, the weekend before I started my apprenticeship with Mike Abbott. Reading about his life and work as a wood artist, of his approach of letting the wood speak of its own nature and history, and of blurring the lines between art, craft and design, was a formative moment for me. Ever since, Tim Stead has been a real role model.

I had a whole grand idea about it all. Yet to see his work first hand – the beautiful wooden detailing of the furniture and other things in their house, the care in working with the wood, incorporating the natural forms into what he was making, working with the bends, curves and what others may perceive as blemishes – made his approach so much more immediate. It was a real shot in the arm, to learn more about such an interesting man who used wood in very original ways.

As a craftsman, I gain confidence from his belief that art and design are not separate. It confirmed to me the importance of how you can make top quality pieces out of gnarled pieces of wood or irregular timber and use craft skills to create sculptural forms with practical functions. It was also good to see how Maggy and the students in their workshop continue this work.

Maggy Stead explains a tall sculpture to Richard Chapman. Colin stands amongst the Elm furniture.

The Woodland Heritage weekend reinforced how essential the contribution of people like Eoin, Tim and Maggy, is to the future of wood alongside more conventional approaches.

www.timsteadfurniture.co.uk This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

“With the Grain
– an appreciation of Tim Stead”

Edited by Giles Sutherland
ISBN 1 84158 423 1

Foreword by HRH Prince of Wales

“I cannot begin to say how touched and delighted I was to be asked by Maggy Stead to write a foreword to this collection of essays and tributes celebrating the life and work of her late husband Tim Stead.

I met Tim when I visited Woodschool in Ancrum in 1999. This is a remarkable organisation which he helped to found and sustain. He himself was a remarkable wood craftsman, a true and gifted artist who created wonderful furniture and sculptures. He had a unique understanding of the sustainable management of woodlands and the use of indigenous hardwoods and he did so much to encourage local sourcing and to educate people about wood and wood craftsmanship. Somehow, he even found time to be a poet and I know that his work has touched many people.

Tim’s most untimely death in 2000, at the early age of 48, took from us a very special person. He represented an approach to the enlightened management and use of our natural resources that I, for one, profoundly admire and it was a particular tragedy that he left us when we needed him most.

I can think of no more fitting tribute to Tim than this book which celebrates his life and work. It will be a constant inspiration to remind us of his unique gifts and how well he used them to add true value not only to the wood he loved, but to the world in general.”

Day 3 Cragside, Northumberland

by Bede Howell

Members arrived up steeply-graded roads where gentle rain enhanced the magnificence of the fabled Cragside, a site which embodies the Victorian spirit of England’s North East – in engineering, we can do anything.

William Armstrong’s name was known in engineering circles world-wide. His famous Elswick Works on the Tyne at Newcastle produced wonders of sound engineering and was also known for continuous experiment and innovation. After Armstrong made a yet more powerful gun for sale to the world’s navies he then set about producing tougher waterline armour to resist the shells – perfectly showing an entrepreneurship in the tradition of the Lombard Bankers who would provide funds to both sides in a conflict. However the battles turned out, they were backing the winner !

Armstrong’s house at Cragside is the architectural and landscape embodiment of his daring, but wellorganized spirit. The site is dramatic, steep and rocky with a sinuous approach. At the speed of an equipage this gave excellent opportunities to heighten his guests’ imagination as the turrets and machicolations of the house came into view.

Our mission lay with the grounds, into which the National Trust has very skilfully concealed a series of car and coach parks and as the rain eased to a smirr we walked through the great archway into the courtyard. Due to building works the house was closed to visitors and we were privileged to have the whole of head forester Ian Fletcher’s attention until early afternoon. His introduction took us to the very bones of the site and its geology, for the house is seated above steep valleys where vistas, terraces and walks are set among giant boulders – boulders brought from the upper moorlands to their present places by strong men, strong horses and Armstrong’s steam machinery.

The tree collection shows Western American conifers in the glory of their maturity and immense height. The Trust’s careful management with discreet thinning and pruning has produced a soaring landscape, beautifully setting off the slender and elegant iron bridge which spans the chasm. Under the trees the Rhododendrons and Azaleas bloomed and shed their scent to give us great pleasure as Ian Fletcher told us of the continuing work with a very small staff to keep the collection healthy and the encroaching Gaultheria procumbens in reasonable check.

Civil engineering works on an Armstrong scale continue. We saw skilled work on drainage repairs where the drivers of diggers worked with delicate care around the roots of towering trees – a credit to the Trust’s management of people as well as its property.

The hardy few who delayed their homeward journeys were led by Ian Fletcher on the spectacular Drive, between rocks, through woods, out to countrywide views and everywhere through great mounds of brilliant Rhododendrons. A cheerful lunch was taken at Blackburn Lake, now drained, but still sporting its unusual heather-thatched boathouse. As we said our thanks and goodbyes we also realised how wonderfully Woodland Heritage’s core staff organise tours which are of technical interest, artistic merit and thoroughly enjoyable.

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