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Colin Milburn - A success story for Woodland Heritage

Hereford is where this all started, training with Mike Abbott in Clissett Wood in 2000, with much appreciated support from Woodland Heritage.

Then, after finishing my apprenticeship with Tino Rawnsley in Cornwall, I set up my own business in 2002. The romance of green woodwork has evolved rapidly into realism as I figure out how to make a living doing what I love most.

The commitment to using traditional techniques, local resources and craftspeople so that money on projects is spent locally, is close to my heart and I have been trying to put it into practice. Individual green wood furniture commissions led to making 3 oak benches for the new Redruth Mental Health Facility. I used one oak tree, which had been struck by lightning and would otherwise only have had a firewood value. From being able to extract, mill and prepare the timber myself using my horse and Tino’s wood-mizer, I increased the value of that tree 10 fold.

A steel security fence was going to be erected around the hospital. One of the architects asked if I could make a wooden fence, which would be as secure, but aesthetically more pleasing and a less hostile environment for the patients. I engaged asmall team to help me do this. The fence was 110 metres long and 2.5 metres high with vertically lapped larch/western red cedar boards, a sweet chestnut shingle roof and 8 oak doors.

In 2003 I undertook a study tour to Northern Spain with support from SWARD to research their woodland management and traditional carpentry skills. The regional government have a commitment to using indigenous timber sourced from within a 50 mile radius. There was a willingness to teach youngsters through a serious apprenticeship scheme and by using the promotion of traditional crafts as a magnet for tourism to benefit the local economy, there is sustainable employment for the woodworkers. It was an inspiration to see what they were achieving and very useful to compare notes with other carpenters.

Timber frame, Shevishayes barn.

I have made a large oak bench for the main entrance to the new Liskeard Community Hospital. I based my design on St Piran’s flag, using blackened oak and ash with a carved inscription in Cornish. I asked the architect of the new building if the panels on the hospital walls were local timber and he replied: “Yes, they are from Jewsons.” I talked to him about what was available through local woodlands and he asked me to make a timber-framed bike shelter/bus stop for the hospital. James Lovekin, a highly skilled timber-framer, worked with me on this and we used locally sourced larch for the frame with cedar panels. Tino supplied his FSC certified western red cedar shingles for the roof which were secured with oak pegs.

The large construction firms use mostly imported timber. It has been very rewarding to increase their awareness of local timber and its applications. Many people visit these hospitals and there has been a lot of positive feedback to the pieces I have made. I also initiated a feature on green woodwork for the local BBC “Inside Out” programme which, along with some horse-logging demonstrations with my horse Elvis, has sparked a lot of interest in our work.

Bus shelter/bike shed, Liskeard

With James, I worked on a 40 ft x 20 ft green oak frame for a traditional cob barn renovation in Devon for the Duchy of Cornwall. The timber came from thinnings on one of the Duchy’s forestry blocks in Hereford, it was milled by Mr J Tomms here in Cornwall, was prepared and erected using traditional skills and has ubsequently been thatched. All these projects were prepared in the workshops on the farm where I live. During these years, we have settled into the farm and there are now two young Milburns to raise as well as a (hopefully) expanding herd of Traditional Hereford cattle with the arrival of “Postman” the Bull last week. I have been able to offer William Gilchrist an apprenticeship with support from the Job Centre and the Silvanus Trust. I was pleased to be able to pass on to him some of the opportunities that Mike and Tino afforded me. Most recently, I have acquired a small glebe woodland of mixed oak, beech and ash here in North Cornwall. I’m thinking long and hard about the management plan for the wood and my work. I don’t want to mass produce furniture, nor do I want to become a construction company. I’ve learned first hand how managing bigger projects can distance you from the core skills of working with the wood.What I most want is time – time to be in the woods, tending the trees, working with Elvis harvesting the timber and crafting it into furniture and structures that are both practical and beautiful. Yet time is such a precious commodity.

Elvis

Our world is a long way from Adam Bede, where the life of a green woodworker was an integral part of a community and when a simpler, slower existence was possible. To survive today, the skills have to be applied in different contexts. I recently attended a course at Tate St Ives for “Arts in Health” and after working on the hospital projects, this is one area that I would like to further develop. I’ve also attended some of the Small Woods Association’s meetings which have been very helpful. It was great to see Peter Goodwin (WH) at one of their events in Cornwall recently. The original inspiration that I got from Mike and Tino continues to keep me going when times are hard. A rhythm of work across the year is emerging as I integrate the different things I have learned to make a sustainable living from a small woodland. Right now, I am doing some work for English Nature on the management of the SSSI sites on Bodmin Moor in order to supplement the green woodwork and support my family.

I’ve grown up amidst some of the most ancient coppiced woodlands of the Celtic kingdom. Above all, I want to look after them for future generations to work and enjoy.

Colin Milburn

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