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’M sure I’ve mentioned this before, but if you are the owner of a tree surgery company on the relatively small end of the scale, you are almost certainly going to end up doing other work during lean times.

Over the last 31 years I’ve certainly diversified, even as late as 2018, when I found myself putting up some shelves for a lady whose husband had died.

That was a bad year for us, as was 2007–2009, and others besides, when we have mended sheds, dug footings, laid concrete, killed squirrels, gardened and so the list goes on.

The spring to summer of the year 2000 was one of those spells, and unfortunately it coincided exactly with me buying a new house, spurred on by a good season the previous autumn and winter.

“I don’t like it,” my wife had said, going on to explain that she really had her heart set on a thatched affair with Elizabethan woodwork and some nice panelling. I’d chosen an ex-farm cottage, though it was more of a 60s council house affair, complete with woodchip wallpaper, as if I didn’t have enough of that product in my life already.

But we bought it anyway, a step up from the starter home and a massive step into a horribly barely manageable mortgage, nearly twice what we had paid before.

Shortly after moving in, the phone stopped ringing.

We didn’t get much internet business enquiry back then, although I pride myself on having a very early website and e-mail, so most of the work enquiries arrived the old-fashioned way, through the landline.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: AKA …

I had a new house with a new office, but it seemed very little work to pay for these lovely things, as well as two daughters, who liked stuff as much as my wife.

So, as usual, I had to think outside the box.


Luckily, the phone did ring occasionally, and when it did, I was quite willing to undertake whatever the potential client asked for, including putting up estate agents’ signboards at £10 a time. I really was quite desperate.

Anyway, when an elderly type called one evening, I was pleased, even though it wasn’t tree work.

“Do you hang five-bar gates?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied confidently, not adding that we’d done a few and that I wasn’t particularly good at it.

I arranged to meet him the next day, coinciding the visit with a ‘To Let’ board that had to go up in the same village, which I decided to do on the way.

It was a Saturday. I remember that it was hot, despite only being springtime, and I recall that for a very specific reason.

I pulled off the road and clattered about in the Land Rover, assembling the sign and preparing to bank it into the ground with one of those pointy metal stakes. By the time I’d got the annoying awkward thing most of the way into the ground, I was sweating a fair bit, so I took a moment to wipe my brow and admire my £10 achievement.

The front garden was overlooked by the windows of the house, and during the work I was aware that I was being watched, so I kept my head down, not keen to engage in pleasantries when I was scheduled to be elsewhere.

This wasn’t to be.

“Hiya!” shouted a man’s voice.

I looked up at the source, a middle-aged fellow leaning naked, presumably completely though I could only see his top half, from what I assumed was the bathroom window.

This assumption was based on the glistening moist nature of the chap, by the cloud of steam that surrounded him and, slightly alarmingly, by the other bather who had now joined him.

“Hey!” shouted bather number two, and they both waved.

I smiled and waved back, trying not to imagine or assume anything at all.

It happens quite a lot, persons in a state of undress and friendliness when I call around, sometimes I suppose by accident, but occasionally for other reasons. I don’t for one minute think it’s just me, especially these days.

Although the arrangements these chaps had for morning ablutions were absolutely none of my business, I seemed to have somehow become involved, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I engaged in some idle chatter.

“I’m just putting up a sign,” I said, pointing to the ‘To Let’ board unnecessarily.

“We’re just having a shower,” said fellow one, and everybody waved again, including me as I was swept along in the general bonhomie of the situation.

“It’s hot today.” I said this and knew immediately that it wasn’t the right thing, so I waved again.

“Do you want a cup of tea … or a shower?” asked fellow number two.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: End of a Millennium

I wouldn’t have minded one of the two things on offer, but like I say, I was in a hurry and so I politely declined both and we all waved happily at each other and I drove off to my appointment.

The customer who wanted a five-bar gate was one of those fussy sorts who has everything in their lives perfectly organised and arranged.

His garden was immaculate, rows of neatly planted shrubs, evergreen topiaries, perennials and annuals, set off with a well, horrid garden ornaments and a greenhouse that looked like it might cost more than a nice car.

“I need a five-bar gate in the gap in the hedge.”

He showed me the place he wanted it.

“It has to be an exact fit.”

He over-emphasised the word ‘exact’, stretching it out and making a point of staring at me while he did so.

“Are you up to that?”

I was a bit startled.

“Err, yes, I think so,” I said, wondering what on earth he’d heard about me that might make him ask such a question.

He laboured on with his requirements, black ironmongery, point-topped posts, hardwood (preferably oak), gate and the posts had to fit ‘exaaaactly’ into the gap in the hedge.

I measured the job by staring at it for a moment and guessing I’d need a 10-foot gate and two 6-inch posts. Even pre-Brexit I didn’t try too hard to use metric measurements, or a tape measure ...

I listened to the customer telling me the specifications over and over again, re-emphasising the bit about it being an exact fit and musing about whether I could have stopped for longer at the signboard job, for a cup of tea, or a shower.

“Do you need to measure it?” he suddenly asked, catching me unawares.

“No,” I lied. I did actually need to, but couldn’t bear to be with him any longer. It was getting quite tedious.

To be fair, he was harmless enough, offering me a coffee (no bathing though), and we still work for him now, so I shouldn’t be complaining. As I have said before, the customer isn’t always right, but is necessary, and in any case, he was bang on, I should have measured it before I ordered it.

A few days later, not the weeks that are more common now, I collected the gate from the sawmill, a standard 10-footer.

It was still nice weather, for some reason I can recall nearly all the conditions when I look back on jobs, and the job was pleasant because of it. I think I did the job alone, sometimes I did and I have in the diary that we were poisoning squirrels that day as well, so the only other employee would have been doing that.

Surprisingly, the two post holes were easy to dig, the nearby privet roots putting up little resistance and it wasn’t long before I had two posts in place, exactly, if not exaaactly, in the gap in the hedge.

I told the customer I’d be back the next day, after the concrete had hardened, when he said something that was a bit of a setback.

“I need the gate to open both ways, inward and outward.”

Suddenly, things weren’t so rosy.

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If you’ve ever hung farm gates there is a golden rule, you choose an opening direction, set the posts a gate width apart, with a couple of inches leeway, then put the hinges on one of the outer faces. This means that the gate only opens in one direction, but it can swing all the way, rather than stopping at right angles, which isn’t satisfactory.

I tried to explain this.

“The posts are set,” I said, even though they weren’t, but I didn’t want to dig them up again which would also have involved cutting the hedge back to widen the gap. I went on to explain the methodology, but the fellow was adamant.

“It has to open both ways, I told you that.”

I didn’t remember this part of the specification, but couldn’t be bothered to argue, so I said I’d sort it out the next day and went home.

Thankfully, the chap was out the following day, leaving me to puzzle how to fit the barrier in place without moving the posts, which were now rock solid. Without going into too much detail, I can say that his requirement was now physically impossible, so I did the only thing left open to me, other than ordering a bespoke 9-foot 6-inch handmade farm gate.

I tried to trim it down.

At the time I had two alternatives, chainsaw or panel saw, so I opted for the laborious and time-consuming non-mechanical method, hoping it would be a bit tidier.

After half an hour of sweating and bleeding, I realised it wasn’t, not much anyway.

Just before Christmas 2020, I cut the back of my hand very badly with a carpenter’s saw, it caused blood to pump out, like in the films, rather than just leak a bit, so I’m quite careful these days. Even back then I understood how much more lethal these tools can be, and I was inevitably bleeding by the time I’d finished.

Ironic, isn’t it? I’ve only cut myself badly once, with a chainsaw, I have half a ring finger which is so badly sewn on that I’d be better off without it, but I’ve lost track of the number of times an innocent silky saw, post banger or spanner has attacked me.

Anyway, I reckoned that if I hurriedly put the hinges on, Mr Rabson wouldn’t notice the horrendously mutilated, bloodstained sawn edge, so that is what I set about doing.

I’d just finished and was considering trying to disguise things a bit with some smeared-in mud, when the man in question returned.

READ MORE: Tales from the trees: The customer is (not) always right

“It opens both ways,” I said confidently and swung it inwards, hoping the good edge would be the one that caught his eye.

Even as I was demonstrating the impressive handiwork my heart sank.

Rabson was staring at the horribly hacked, bright red shambles I’d created for him, which he pointed out quite unnecessarily enthusiastically I thought.

“I thought you knew what you were doing!” he said angrily.

I was now faced with a dilemma.

Should I admit it was a xxxx up and offer a discount, or repair, or should I try and bluff my way out of it?

What I really wanted to do was run away, that’s what we are supposed to do, that’s why we have adrenaline, but those human instincts have to be suppressed these days, shame really.

The long and short of it is that I started again from scratch, with a new gate, widened posts and all the expense and time that went with it. Ultimately, it was worth it. We have been cutting his hedges and trees once or twice a year for two decades now, so I’m probably up on the deal.

We don’t talk about the gate, it’s grown back into the hedge now, or the other way around, and I don’t think he ever used it anyway.

When I returned a few weeks later to replace the ‘To Let’ sign with one that said ‘Let’, I didn’t draw too much attention to myself. Nobody leant out of the windows the second time, so I didn’t have to politely refuse any hospitality again. It wasn’t that hot on my return visit anyway.

(Follow us on Facebook at DW Oliver Tree Services.)

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