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.

IN the run-up to Christmas 1999 and the countdown to Doomsday (which was apparently due at midnight that year) I was involved in a landscaping/fencing job for a well-to-do type nearby.

This was the priority, but having a Christmas party for the two or three chaps who worked with me was also an essential, bearing in mind the significance of the end of the millennium.

With this in mind, I booked a local pub, which was rough, but willing to cater for the 23 guests I seemed to have invited (I’m still not sure how, I only employed one chap and a couple of subbies).

Work first, though.

“I need a stock fence, running along here. I want planting, I have a list, and I want new gates,” said Mrs M. I suppose I should have been grateful for all the work. It’s always welcome, but there was something about this lady that made me suspicious. “I don’t want to pay over the odds.”

Ah, that was it. She was mean.

The house was large, with land. She was well turned out in (presumably) expensive attire and there were posh German cars in the drive. And a swimming pool. But she didn’t want me to have very much of her obvious wealth, not even if I had to work quite hard, which seemed to be what she had in mind.

Also, it was near Christmas, I wasn’t someone who had a surplus of cash in the bank and I’d have to fund the whole project before invoicing at the end, hopefully in time to get paid for the festivities I had planned.

Looking at her, it was on the tip of my tongue to make a crack about how she was so obviously nearly destitute and that I’d help fund her plans, but I decided not to. Sometimes these things pan out better than you think (and sometimes they don’t).

Instead, I decided to ask her why she was wanting a new fence 6 ft outside the old one, claiming a strip of the farmer’s land and all his beautiful, mature oak trees. Perhaps she had a deal with him?

She didn’t. “Oh, he won’t mind,” she said. “He’s got loads of land. I’m sure he won’t miss a little piece at the edge and it would add so much to our garden.”

It dawned on me that she hadn’t had a lot of dealings with Wiltshire farmers as my experience, gathered over a lifetime in the Kennet Valley, was at odds with her expectations.

“Okay, if you’re sure,” I said, making a mental note to put a disclaimer into the quotation about the positioning of the fence. I’d already learned a lot over the preceding 10 years and disclaimers featured heavily in an increasing list of clauses at the end of each written quote.

I’m up to 17 now. I suppose they are terms and conditions, only as I don’t do small print they are all written in glaring black italics.

Anyway, I sent the quote and she accepted, so with some trepidation I ordered the plants, fencing and gates. I have a vague memory that the costs were around £2,000, a sum I could hardly afford and one that took me into overdraft territory.

The fencing arrived first, along with the gates. There was a delay with the plants, which arrived about a week later, but we were into difficulties already at this point.

Firstly, I didn’t have a tractor back then, so Badger and I started banging the round, pointed posts into the ground – except we didn’t.

“They aren’t going in, Dave,” said my employee on my return to site a couple of hours into the first day.

He’d managed four, which isn’t many, not even considering that we were using an old-fashioned, side-handled post banger, which is exhausting, bad for your elbows and surprisingly dangerous.

It quickly became apparent that, far from being lazy, Badger had been trying extremely hard, but the roots from the oak trees were problematic to say the least.

I had a go, then both of us together, then we tried making a pilot hole with a bar first.

This worked better, but not well enough, so I set off on a mission to find an auger, a handheld petrol machine with a corkscrew blade that was to prove as useless as it was dangerous. It also added to my costs, on hire at £40 or so per day.

Back on site another two hours later and almost at the end of the short autumn day, I found my chap standing forlornly amongst a heap of broken posts, bleeding heavily from a head wound.

“I did say to wear a helmet,” I said, irritably inspecting his wound, which was superficial but leaking quite a lot.

We didn’t discuss it much further because the customer arrived back from a shopping trip and came over to inspect our work.

“Ooh,” she exclaimed, looking at Badger’s blood-soaked head. “Did you hit him?”

Presuming she was joking I quipped something back, but it turns out she wasn’t, or didn’t appear to be.

“Was it because he wasn’t working very hard?” she asked, as if this might be a plausible and legitimate explanation as to why I’d assaulted my colleague. I tried to explain that if you lift the post banger too high, it caught on the top of the post and swivelled back violently onto the operator’s head, which is why I encourage helmets. She had, however, lost interest.

“I was hoping the fence would be level,” she said, looking angrily at the few posts we had managed to get into the ground.

“But that isn’t possible.” I was going to try and explain that if the posts were level, with some imaginary horizontal line, the first one would be 4 ft 6” out of the ground, but the far end, some 200 yards away, would need to be 12–15 ft tall, to allow for the slope. I have no idea how she expected the stock netting to look. Something like a prison camp, I suppose, on the down side of the run. I didn’t get to explain.

“You’ll have to get it properly level,” she said. “That is what I expected when I asked you to do the job.” And she turned on her heel and went into her house, probably to unpack her shopping and eat something organic.

I decided to ignore this nonsense. What she asked for was so ridiculous that it didn’t bear any further consideration, but I banked on the certainty that reason would prevail when she saw the finished job.

We fired up the auger.

“This’ll do it!” I said, confidently and wrongly, above the noise of the machine.

Badger opted for first go and plunged the blade into the ground, where it hit a tree root and immediately stopped spinning – or at least the blade did.

At full revs, the engine wanted to turn something, but thwarted by the obstruction, used its energy to spin the motor, handles and Badger. Still bleeding, he suddenly took off in a ferocious anti-clockwise arc, covering a good half turn before flying off into a heap on the floor.

My life has been a slow and painful series of experimental endeavours into finding solutions to work problems, some successful, some less so.

I have learned, for example, that handheld petrol augers only really work on non-stony, root-free ground, where you don’t need a machine anyway.

We tried two men, bracing ourselves and fighting the machine all the way, which proved marginally more successful, but was slow and incredibly physical work, as well as adding to the ever-increasing amount of muscular-skeletal injuries I was totting up.

Three days later, we had a line of posts, all relatively straight, but unquestionably not level which, as I had mentioned, wasn’t remotely feasible.

Mrs M, who’d decided not to talk to me anymore (which suited me fine), occasionally glared angrily from a window, or on the way back into the house from one of her many shopping trips. I just pressed on. There really was no choice, and another day later we had a really rather well-constructed farm fence.

Now was the moment of truth. I needed the customer’s approval, before we tackled the gates.

“I told you I wanted it level,” she said, predictably, but making my heart sink nonetheless.

I could tell she was angry, but I was saved by her husband, who had kept a pretty low profile so far.

“Mr Oliver has explained, darling.” The fellow was obviously terrified. “The fence has to follow the lie of the land, or it’ll be too tall at the far end.”

“Rubbish,” said Mrs M. “All fencing should be level.” She pointed at a distant stock fence, one of many in this area. “I want it like that.”

The fence in question stood some quarter of a mile away, on one of the very few completely flat paddocks in the area. Badger, who was now wearing a turban, lit a roll-up and did some muttering.

“What did he say?” The lady was getting crosser by the minute, so I opted not to tell her his opinion about the situation (and her in particular). “C’mon Peter, we’ve said all that needs to be said. We won’t be needing Mr Oliver to do the gates, or the planting.” She added the second part as an afterthought, but it was a statement that caused my sunken heart to do a bit more sinking.

“I’ve already ordered and paid for the plants, and the gates.” I said this with a slight resignation. It was apparent this expense was now my problem. I looked at Peter, he looked at the ground, so I looked at Badger, who looked the other way. I think he was still muttering.

So, we picked up our tools and went home.

I was now £2,000 down, plus the hire of the auger, Badger’s wages and all the other expenses involved, but I hoped to at least get something back for the work we had done. Perhaps I could sell the plants and gates to another customer?

For the weeks leading up to Christmas, our front garden was like a dormant version of the Chelsea flower show, populated with expensive shrubs and trees, compost, gates and all the paraphernalia associated with a medium-scale aborted landscaping job. It wasn’t ideal, but not as unideal as not getting paid for what we had done, which also seemed to be on the cards.

After a month, I rang up. It was very near Christmas, I had an out of control overdraft and I was getting frustrated.

“I’m writing a cheque now,” said Mrs M, who’d apparently come to terms with the un-levelness of the fence.

I thanked her and waited a week before calling again.

“I posted it a few days ago,” said Mrs M, who lived in the same village as me at that time.

“But the village postbox is at the bottom of our drive,” I protested, imagining her feeling guilty as she stood amongst the plants she’d left me with, popping my cheque into the box.

“Yes, that’s where I posted it,” she said, and put the phone down.

Another week later I heard the letterbox clatter and Tetley proudly delivered a letter to my office/bedroom.

It wasn’t stamped and it wasn’t postman time, but I caught a glimpse of Peter fighting his way hurriedly through the front garden jungle – keen not to chat, I think. Funny that. His wife had definitely posted it, she told me.

Christmas and the festivities were coming, I was looking forward to a break and a party, I had a chance to sell the gates for another job in the next century and I had a truly delightful surprise.

The farmer, who had taken the news quite badly that he’d lost a 200 by two-yard strip of land complete with trees had pulled my new fence out with his tractor and dumped it in Mrs M’s garden.

I heard through a neighbour that he’d also asked for his original boundary fence back, or a replacement. Thank goodness for my diligence in producing a written quote which read: “Please ensure with your neighbour that the fence line is agreed prior to commencement of work, as we cannot be held responsible for disputes arising thereafter.”


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