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 work very hard any more.

In fact, I still do quite a lot, probably still 50 or so hours a week, but it’s easy, talking and a bit of pointing and quotes. The hardest thing is working out daily schedules, keeping men busy and customers happy without making them wait too long or undercharging or overcharging them – it’s a balancing act.

It is, however, nothing compared to the autumn of ’99, when I wasn’t just a director, but a fully functioning arborist as well.

In the old diary, I noticed that I was booking appointments to look at jobs at 6:30 pm at night, often several in a day, then, presumably, writing the quotes and getting ready for the next job. I also notice that I was doing this six or seven days each week. I noticed the phrase ‘muck spreader’, written on an evening appointment, which reminded me of something annoying and time-wasting that happened back then.

To this day I struggle to dispose of wood chip. To this end I’d bought a five-acre field for about £12,000, which was cheap, so that I could grow Christmas trees and use the wood chip as mulch around the crop.

It quickly dawned on me that spreading the waste product around with a wheelbarrow was hard work, so I decided to buy a muck spreader, hence the appointment.

That week in question was particularly busy. We were cutting hedges for an old lady called Mrs Hawkins, amongst other things, but she was suspicious from the start.

“Can you come and look at my hedges?” she’d asked, a few weeks prior.

“Yes, of course,” I said, into my telephone, which was red for some reason.

I asked her name.

I heard her conferring with what was obviously her husband. “He wants us to tell him our name,” she whispered, presumably with her hand not quite over the mouthpiece.

“Don’t tell him,” came a firm voice in the distance.

“We don’t want to give you that information,” said the lady.

This was a puzzle; I was tired and I wanted to make the appointment and have tea.

I tried to be patient.

“Okay, please let me have the address of where the hedges are,” I asked, not unreasonably.

“NO!” It was a loud man’s voice, now directly into the receiver.

“Then how will I …”

I realised before I could complete my sentence that the customer had gone, the phone making that dull ringing tone that indicates the communication is over, so I replaced the receiver.

“How odd,” I said to Winnie, and was just explaining what had happened when the phone rang again.

It was the lady.

“Our name is Hawkins and we live in Marlborough,” she said, going on to give me her full address.

“We were robbed last week,” she added, by way of explanation.

Now I understood her paranoia. She was elderly and obviously terrified after their recent experience.

With a bit of empathy and kind words I was able to put her mind at rest, and a few weeks later we undertook the hedge cutting, which was awkward, hard work and annoying.

It was 20 years later that we finally stopped the annual maintenance of those hedges. We were the only people she ever trusted after the robbery, so much so that we had a peculiar encounter with Mrs Hawkins a few weeks later.

The early autumn slogged on. September was particularly gruelling, but at least it was dry, and one evening there I was at a rough farm dealership a few miles from home, looking at the remains of a muck spreader.

“It’s a good ‘un,” said the dealer.

Of this, I was doubtful.

In front of us stood the most ancient, decrepit, rusty and filthy piece of farm machinery I have ever seen.

The first rule of selling, in my opinion, is that your product should at least be clean, and, if it has tyres, they should really contain air.

Other rules are about fair pricing, vaguely matching the description and, in the case of tools and implements, they need to work. The dealer had broken quite a few of these rules, possibly all of them other than the one about vaguely matching the description.

Stuck for words, looking at the farm implement and being too polite to simply go home, I decided to engage in some conversation, just to postpone the inevitable embarrassing departure I suppose.

“Err, how much are you asking?” I said, weakly. I already knew the answer and also that even if he moved the decimal point slightly to the left, I still wouldn’t be buying it.


I can’t move on that, said the chap, breaking rule number three, and possibly some others to do with being open to negotiations. I was astonished, and slightly jealous that he was able to say the words so confidently, bearing in mind the state of his goods. I’ve never been that confident at that sort of thing.

I looked around his yard, wondering what to say next. In one area were some tractors, mostly blue I think, though it was hard to tell given the late stages of oxidation they were suffering.

Piles of old straw, baling twine, corrugated tin and other unrecognisable scrap were peeping out of the nettles and ramshackle sheds and the whole area smelled of burning wheat, on what I assumed was a perpetual fire for the sweepings of the corn store.

“It’s all for sale,” said the dealer, confidently, confusing my aghast stare for that of an enthusiastic buyer.

“Including that?” I said, pointing at a dead sheep.

Surprisingly, the farmer replied in the affirmative, but he had mistaken my irony for a query about the dilapidated combine harvester dating from the ’60s which was slowly reuniting itself with the ground.

Normally at this stage in the story I’ll add something poetic about a bird singing, it’s usually a robin, but on this occasion, I think I’ll go for a lone crow, cawing menacingly in the nearby copse.

I wasn’t going to buy the muck spreader, of that I was certain, but for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the man, I’m not sure why.

“Can I see it running?” I asked.

“What, the combine?”

It was the dealer’s turn to be aghast now.

I explained that I’d like to see the machine I’d come to buy working, explaining that I couldn’t make a decision until I’d seen it in action.

“I don’t think so, I haven’t got a tractor with a PTO that works at the moment.”

Nothing about what he said came as any great shock to me, but at least I now had a way out, an excuse to leave, though I still don’t know why I felt I needed one.

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid that I can’t take it without seeing it run, not that I don’t trust you, of course.”

The second bit was untrue, the first part equally so.

The farmer became irritated, I guess he assumed it was a done deal.

“I suppose I’ll have to get a tractor then.”

And before I could stop him, he’d stomped angrily off, towards a distant farm building on the track behind the yard.

After an uncomfortably long time, during which I seriously considered running away, I heard a noisy rumbling of an approaching Fordson, which appeared in a cloud of smoke and reversed angrily to hitch the spreader to the linkage.

There was quite some trouble connecting the two, accompanied alternately by the dealer swearing and me politely saying that he shouldn’t go to too much trouble.

Somehow, I’d made it even more difficult to not buy the implement and I wasn’t quite sure how that had happened, nor how I was to eventually extricate myself from this situation.

This, the second problem, was about to be resolved.

With a massive crunching and grinding of gears, an extra black cloud of smoke and a great deal more swearing, the chap finally engaged the PTO and the muck spreader sprang briefly into life.

For a few seconds I watched in horror as the machine violently and dramatically ended its own life.

I’m not sure if you are familiar, but the side throw spreaders of old used to chuck all the dung out of the machine with a series of chains that flailed around in the tub.

This system obviously works very well. It was designed to be simple, but only if the shaft to which the chains are attached is straight, and the tub, half round.

If, as in this case, those two things aren’t in place, the chains are, in effect, too long for at least half their rotation. Combine this with a tub that is so misshapen and rusty that it could easily be destroyed by a much lesser force than the remaining 40-odd horsepower of the old tractor and the result is dramatic.

The noise reached a crescendo of violent banging as the PTO picked up speed, the chains hit the sides with such violence that large lumps of rusty bodywork were simply torn off and hurled in every direction, including mine.

The farmer, who was quite exposed, tried to shrink his head into his cardigan, like a tortoise, but amazingly held his ground.

Through the smoke I could see his grim face, staring out from the carnage towards me, in a sort of accusatory manner.

This, the total destruction of his machine, was going to be my fault, I could just tell.

He started to power down the tractor, which was proving difficult. I’m convinced that it had been taken over by the ghost of the evil muck spreader, a new host.

It was now or never, I had to leave before the man dismounted and somehow persuaded me to buy his implement, possibly the tractor too. He was quite a persuasive salesman.

“Thank you, but I think I’ll leave it,” I shouted, for some reason waving politely as I ran towards my Land Rover.

He didn’t follow me, he had no real cause, but I don’t think he ever forgave me and for some reason I still feel slightly guilty about it all, I’m funny like that.

Back at home, relieved and tired, I was keen for a drink and a bit of a sit down. It had been a long day, but I was annoyed to find an old but well cared for Austin Mini in my parking space.

I peered through the window, and came face to face with my newest (at the time) domestic customer.

“Oh, Mr Oliver,” she said, greatly relieved to see me. “I’ve been so worried.”

I asked her what was up, thinking maybe her hedge hadn’t quite turned out as well as she hoped, though she’d seemed okay at the time we finished.

“Show him, Les.”

Her husband, a tall, frail man with a skeletal face, handed me a carefully wrapped parcel.

“CAREFUL!” shouted Mrs Hawkins, causing me some alarm.

Inside the parcel was a freezer bag, on which she had written the word ‘EVIDENCE’ in urgent black ink.

I held it up and was pleased to see that it was a penknife belonging to either myself or a work colleague, I can’t remember which.

“Is it yours?”

I replied that it was.

“Oh, thank goodness,” said Mrs H, and her husband nodded with obvious relief.

“We found it in the garden yesterday. We haven’t slept all night, we thought the burglars had come back.”

Despite the late hour, my tiredness and frustration at the day, I felt nothing but sadness and sympathy.

We get robbed a lot. It’s annoying, expensive and infuriating, but it’s nothing in comparison to the awful devastating effects it had on this couple, so, instead of sending Mr and Mrs H away, that I might relax and drink some beer, I invited them both in. For a nice cup of tea.

I still haven’t got a muck spreader; I seem to have been put off that idea for life.

Wiltshire Dave

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