Phil Sparrow reports on his recent visit to Ford and Etal Sawmill.

I feel very privileged living in Northumberland. It is a vast and still largely undiscovered county. It isn’t difficult to escape humankind and find oneself completely alone with just the wind for company. There are not many places left on these crowded isles that permit such luxury. When one day we return to ‘normal’, the same tourists will arrive and crowd into the same places, cluster around the same famous landmarks, eat the same fish and chips, same as always. I’m not knocking it, as it’s great for tourism and provides a huge boost for the local economy, but there is a different Northumberland if you’re prepared to look.

It’s quite a long time since I last visited Ford and Etal and I couldn’t quite remember just where the sawmill was located. It was a stunning day. To quote a famous Christmas carol, “snow had fallen, snow on snow” and so I was confident that if I gave myself an hour I’d make the appointment in good time. The route from Belford took me across the Till Valley to Wooler, around glacial Lake Millfield and up to Ford and Etal. My chosen form of transport was my old-fashioned four-wheel-drive Hilux (not only popular with the Taliban, but an essential tool in these conditions).

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The drive was spectacular. Because it was so cold, the snow had a dryness to it which made driving easy. I made my way cautiously down Chatton Park Hill, over the River Till, which flows north before it joins the Tweed, and through the village of Chatton. One fascinating feature of this region is its ‘cup and ring’ marks. The area around Chatton and Chillingham has some of the best examples in Northumberland – it’s just a question of knowing where to look. Probably the best example is at Kettley Craggs. Cup and ring marks are intriguing in that no one has a clue what they mean. They’re also roughly 6,000 years old, which makes them prehistoric, dating to 3,000 years before the bulk of the Iron and Bronze Age features found throughout the Northumbrian landscape.

Forestry Journal: Partially hidden by a dusting of snow is the well-organised yard of Ford and Etal Sawmill.Partially hidden by a dusting of snow is the well-organised yard of Ford and Etal Sawmill.

It was then on to Wooler, which is a small, traditional market town nestled in the Cheviots. It still has its own independent bakery which does a very good bacon and sausage sandwich; together with the tea, this comes to the grand total of £3.50. Suitably replenished, I pushed on. Snow has a wonderful way of muffling vehicles before it all turns to slush and I drove up the main street of the town in almost perfect silence.

Once out of Wooler I headed north on the A697, skirting the edge of the great Millfield Plain. To the untrained eye this looks like some gigantic dried-up lake bed – and that’s because it is! Small, prehistoric settlements once clustered around its edge and it now provides rich information for modern archaeologists. Just off the A697, to the west, is the Anglo Saxon site of Ad Gefrin, the palace of the kings of Northumbria before they upped sticks and moved to Bamburgh.

I continued travelling north on the A697 through the village of Millfield and then turned off down to Ford and Etal and back over the River Till, still flowing north and still about to join the Tweed. Ford is a beautiful and quintessential English village. Small, stone-built cottages are clustered around Lady Waterford Hall, under the shadow of Ford Castle, all part of the Joicey estates. It is described in tourist literature as an ‘undiscovered gem’. This worries me as it seems like an invitation to all and sundry to visit – a cavalry charge of tourists. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet.

Forestry Journal: Forestry manager Robert Nevins.Forestry manager Robert Nevins.

Ford has a particular place in my memories. The castle was once run by the Northumbrian Education Committee as a field study centre. It provided the opportunity for children from the whole Tyneside area to have their first taste of rural life. Visits were usually from Monday to Friday and consisted of hill walking, map reading and navigation, orienteering, camping, rock climbing, river studies and more. These were life-changing experiences for many children and in particular an opportunity for those from less prosperous backgrounds to taste the freedom of the countryside. It was also used at weekends as a teacher training centre, providing courses on current educational thinking. What a resource!

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At Ford, I turned left over the Till and head along to Etal. There’s no sign to the sawmill on the main road – as with many things in Northumberland, you just have to know. Just before the village was a snow-covered track with what looked like the imprints of heavily tracked vehicles. I headed up the track past a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle, happily munching silage and oblivious to the freezing temperature. A little further on, I took a right turn and arrived.

Forestry Journal: The four-wheel-drive Hilux is essential in these conditions.The four-wheel-drive Hilux is essential in these conditions.

Ford and Etal Sawmill is a small, self-sustaining sawmill on the Ford and Etal estates (owned by the Joicey family) that has been around for over 100 years, though not always on this site. Your first impression as you arrive is of a neat, tidy, welcoming and well-organised establishment. The snow had covered the neatly stacked piles of sawn wood in the yard and I parked in the clearly identified parking area. The man in charge of all operations is Robert Nevins.

These are strange times indeed and I was grateful that he had put aside time to speak to me. Robert is a local lad, born in Etal and started at the mill straight from school. At 16 years old, he decided to increase his forestry knowledge by attending Newton Rigg Forestry School in Penrith. After three years he returned to the sawmill, but seeing little opportunity to advance his career he went to work in Perthshire for several years and did a long spell at Cheviot Trees, where he learned about cultivation rather than milling. When Etal’s head forester announced his retirement in 2009, Robert returned.

Virtually all operations at the mill take place in a series of large, well-maintained sheds. Ninety-nine per cent of all timber milled is from the estate, which has roughly 650 hectares of woodland. The bulk is softwood. Hardwood is harvested if and when available, with the vast majority going to fuel the many cottages throughout the estate. Little timber is wasted.

Forestry Journal: Timber is cut first on a Stenner band rack, before moving on to a Stenner resaw.Timber is cut first on a Stenner band rack, before moving on to a Stenner resaw.

The mill is organised so that the majority of tasks are undercover. Timber, on the round, is brought in from the estate and fed into the side of the shed via dogs onto the first saw, a Stenner band rack. Once cut, a platform then slides the sawn log along to be resawn by a Stenner resaw. Although the saws are of some age, they represent an era when things were made to last. If and when things wear out, then it’s usually just a matter of greasing and reassembling. Cut timber is then stacked in an appropriate quantity and transferred to the next shed along, containing the treatment tank. The tank is in a bunded area where excess fluid is pumped back up into a header tank to be re-used.

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Next to the treatment tank, and also under cover, is a large standing area where timber can temporarily dry before being stacked in the yard or moved to the farm next door, where it is placed in underutilised grain driers. Obviously, in the summer this occurs outside. Being on a hill, even a gentle breeze will dry timber outside much quicker than inside.

Forestry Journal: There are currently five employees working in the sawmill.There are currently five employees working in the sawmill.

I began by asking the obvious: how has the current pandemic affected things? As with many people in the forestry business, the answer was very positive. There has been an unprecedented rise in demand. In normal times, day-to-day production at the mill generally centres on rails, posts and boards. The manufacture of gates, sheep hurdles and raised-bed kits is subcontracted to a nearby workshop. The bulk of this is sold to local businesses or farmers. The pandemic, however, led to a huge surge in demand from the general public. With time on their hands, everyone suddenly wanted to install raised beds or repair a fence or just build things. This has been good for business.

Being self-sustaining means the entire operation can react to bespoke demands. Flexibility and adaptability are key. Because of this, the mill isn’t subject to the usual huge fluctuations in the cost of timber on the round. Only months ago, it was £60 per tonne, whereas today it’s touching £80. Also, many of the mill’s methods are traditional and not automated, so a steady workforce is maintained. There are currently nine employees in the forestry department, with five in the sawmill, three harvesting and one on fencing and general estate duties. Everyone chips in with deliveries.

Forestry Journal: Treatment tanks.Treatment tanks.

Robert went to some length to explain how much he had appreciated the cooperation of the workforce and owners throughout this difficult time and how they’d all adapted with designated areas, hand sanitizer in all vehicles, portable card machines and so on.

When asked about the future, he was equally positive. No one really knows what these new countryside schemes will look like, post Brexit. If, as suggested, marginal lands are released to forestry, then how will the planting of more trees marry with impending carbon taxes or carbon capture? More trees mean more business, but then which trees? No one really knows... yet.

Robert has a difficult role to play and I certainly didn’t want to draw him too much into any sort of political discussion, but I found his answers honest and current. One thing he did mention which caught my attention was about the growing number of farmers now using biomass boilers and how the mill is meeting this demand.

We inevitably ended our discussion on the current hot topic of rewilding. Like me, he thinks the general public don’t understand the scale of what is required and the push is currently being led by celebrities. Knepp Castle in Sussex is one thing, but packs of wolves roaming through dense forests in Northumberland is quite another. He made the point that everything is in conflict rather than harmony. Ford and Etal estates work closely with Berwick SOS (Save Our red Squirrels). Greys are trapped and destroyed. A more obvious solution might be the reintroduction of pine martens. However, this would conflict with the shooting lobby as the martens take young pheasants and partridge.

By this point in our conversation, the office had begun to vibrate from the motion of the Stenner band rack as the mill returned to action. Not wishing to take any more of Robert’s time, I muffled my thanks through my face covering. After taking several photographs, I exited out into the blizzard from whence I’d come.

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