More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft times very harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture.

I don’t remember whether the summer of ’99 was generally hot, but I can remember two weeks of work that gave us quite some discomfort.

Having gone through three months of torrential rain this year, culminating in a warm dry spell and COVID-19 (putting something of a dampener on the nice weather), you’d think I wouldn’t complain about a hot, dry spell coinciding with work, but moaning about the weather is part of our culture, especially if you’re a tree surgeon.

The first job was for a local school, a huge green beech wedged between a row of garages with concrete pebble-dash and asbestos-type roofs.

It had the Ganoderma issues that trees of this species are prone to, along with a host of other problems: Meripilus, honey fungus and a few more besides. It was also continually dropping dead wood, though luckily this hadn’t done any damage to the roofs or garages themselves. As yet.

“We’re going to need the 88,” I told Hooper, referring to a large Stihl with a 4-ft bar.

Hooper, who was as hard-working as he was thin (very), probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the big saw up a tree, not least because he wasn’t a tree surgeon, but also because he just couldn’t.

He was a softly spoken, almost posh fellow, but my word could he work! Especially as he was also an intellectual, studying politics when he wasn’t with me.

“By jove yes, I do believe you’re right,” he replied, reminding me a bit of Bertie Wooster.

By the time I turned to tease him about this turn of phrase, he’d vanished and a noise from the back of the Land Rover suggested he was struggling to remove the aforementioned saw.

“Err, I meant we’re going to need the 88 later this week,” I said, taken aback by his eagerness to carry out orders.

“Oh, rather,” he replied, and began rummaging for the top-handled saw.

The whole task was monumental. The tree was huge, with a diameter of over six feet at the point where the stems divided. It was also getting hot.

Even if we completed this challenge on time, there’d be no respite. I had a similar one to do the following week, bigger and in a back garden. I must have been very fit then. Or greedy.

I used a ladder to access the beech, and climbed up through the dense canopy, noting on the ascent how difficult the chogging down was going to be, as well as the crown dismantle. Eventually I reached my potential anchor point and re-routed the climbing rope so Hooper could – or could not – tie the saw on.

“Is it on?” I shouted after a couple of minutes of tugging and fumbling at the end of the line. Hooper replied in the affirmative and I pulled the saw into the canopy, hoping that for once the saw wouldn’t fall off at the first snag (knots weren’t my groundsman’s strong point).

On this occasion the saw appeared, cocooned in an elaborate and tangled mess of rope which took a while to disentangle.

“What the xxxx is this?” I asked, irritated at the broken fingernails and wasted effort of de-mummifying the saw.

“It didn’t fall off this time, though, did it?”

I couldn’t see the groundsman – the canopy was too thick – but I could imagine him chuckling to himself.

The crown removal was slow. I’m always over-cautious, but even more so working over those corrugated ‘asbestos’ roofs. It is simply too complicated a business if you damage them, with the regulations of hazardous waste added to the normal difficulties trying to put things right.

As the day wore on, the heat grew unbearable. Although I was drinking copious amounts, the temperature in my PPE was horrendous. Sweat trickled into my eyes, mixed with sawdust and dirt, leaving me partly blind, again.

On the second day, the tree was reduced to a skeleton, albeit it quite a big one. The brash was disposed of, so the relatively straightforward process of chogging down could begin.

Years ago, I invented a technique for this, a special cut that allowed 100-per-cent control of each log or section of wood, particularly large rings. I called it the ‘Davey cut’, after myself, and I have seen it used by others, so I suppose it was so obvious that arborists worldwide figured it out. I still try and claim credit for it, though.

The surprising thing is that it isn’t taught on any of the courses for NPTC, but I’ll describe it here, in case it helps.

Basically, you cut the ring through from the far side, but instead of running a back cut that overlaps and then snapping off what is a step cut, you increase the initial cut to three quarters of the way through, or more. At this point, it helps to use a wedge or small felling lever to keep the cut open, but this is only necessary for larger diameter sections.

Then, pull the saw out and instead of running a step cut parallel and higher than the first one, simply cut down at a 45-degree angle straight into the top of the first cut. The ring then settles nicely onto the stump, leaving you time to lower the saw on your strop and push it off by hand.

This works well, requires little precision and is very controlled.

A subbie I employed once was doing it on a tree we were working on.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked, expecting some sort of acknowledgement.

“Oh, I invented it myself,” he said. Ah well.

With the garages underneath, I took my time and it wasn’t until day three that I was within a few feet of the ground on spikes, sweating and handling a Stihl 66, or possibly even an 88, with a long bar. Nothing, up until this point, had been damaged.

“All clear?” I called to Hooper, switching off the saw.

“Yep, go for it.”

I started heaving the three-foot-wide ring towards its tipping point, so it could fall the last part to the ground and settle on the pile of its dead colleagues on the ground.

The Davey cut worked well. I heaved the slice of beech off with a felling lever and watched as it crashed to the floor, hoping it wouldn’t slide off into the garage wall. It didn’t.

However, things were about to take a turn.

The garages, which were of the ex-council type, were a long row of about 10, all terraced together but with their own front doors. At the far end, down the slope, someone had left their door open, leaving the space inside empty.

My beech ring, which landed nicely enough, slid slowly off the pile of slices, and somehow ended up in an upright wagon-wheel position. From there, it set off down the slope, picking up speed and heading for the open door.

“Hooper!” I shouted, pointing at the log.

“Oh, my word.” He set off after the escapee, with little prospect of success.

My neatly cut Davey ring shot down the hill at speed and entered the garage through the front door, followed by Hooper. There was a noise – one that I didn’t much like – then silence.

“Is there much damage?” I called, those immortal words used by tree men throughout the land on many, many occasions.

I’d already accepted there was going to be some, when Hooper re-appeared at the entrance.

“Er, yes…” he said.

I quickly descended, disconnected the saw and ran down to survey the scene.

These particular buildings were made of prefabricated concrete, bolted together in sections and pebble-dashed to give them a touch of class. My log had punched a section clean out of the side of the building, before coming to rest neatly on top of the damaged concrete, its work done.

“Oh xxxx,” I said, once again using a traditional arborist’s phrase to sum up the event.

“If we shut the door, nobody would even notice anything wrong,” said Hooper, correctly.

I’m sure I toyed with the idea, but, being an honest sort, decided to own up.

The owner of the building wasn’t too upset, but did ask if I could mend the side wall, which was, in one section, smashed to smithereens and not exactly something you could buy in a builders’ merchants.

I pondered the problem, then had one of those flashes of inspiration that come so infrequently.


The following week, having completed the first of the two monster beeches, we tackled the second, an equally impressive tree in a very, very small back garden. It had managed to spread its canopy over no fewer than three gardens, as well as a conservatory and the River Kennet, so an equal amount of care was required on this occasion. At least there was no pre-fab garage this time.

I’ve always kept the rigging and lowering as simple as possible, so that is how we tackled beech number two, with a lowering rope. I can vouch for the fact that you need very little else, though some of the gadgets do make it a bit easier.

Anyway, in another week of terrible heat, we successfully reduced the tree to a monolith, with no damage whatsoever, not even to the neatly tended planting beneath the tree.

I was sufficiently pleased with myself to allow a bit of mild boasting to the customer. “So far so good,” I shouted, as she waved me down for a cup of tea. I should have kept my mouth shut.

I should also have learned my lesson from the garage job and quartered the big rings before pushing them off the stem.

Well, the inevitable happened – a perfect Davey cut, a good shove and a giant cartwheel of wood rolled down the garden, smashed a hole in a piece of trellis and sploshed into the river.

The customer couldn’t have been less understanding, furiously admonishing me and making quite a thing of it, despite the easy and inexpensive repair I was about to carry out. Sometimes you really have to bite your tongue and not say, “Well what the xxxx do you expect when someone tries to take 20 tonnes of wood down in a postage-stamp garden with nothing more than a chainsaw and a rope?”

So, I didn’t say that.

We fixed the trellis easily enough. As for the garage, we mended that too, so well that the repair was pretty much invisible.

How? I’m sure you all want to know, what with such materials being unavailable since the late 1950s.

Well, it dawned on me the garage I had at home was the exact replica of that which I damaged. On finishing that second big tree, I put my chainsaw back in its secure cage in my garage at home, carefully locking the new wooden side door that I’d installed to replace the missing concrete panel, which had a new home now.

Occasionally things work out just right. I’d always wanted a side door. The up-and-over one was so awkward!

Wiltshire Dave

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