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 autumn of 2000, I seemed to be spending a lot of time travelling to far-off, exotic places for work: Bristol, Oxford, Salisbury, Southampton and Reading.

Actually, perhaps ‘exotic’ is the wrong word; but, being a rural type, the word that I want to use wouldn’t be fair, biased as I am.

I employed one regular fellow, Badger, who was hardworking, pleasant to chat to and reliable, but more of a labourer than a tree surgeon. I used a few subcontractors to help, so that I didn’t have to climb too many trees myself.

Also, we were working as subbies ourselves for a couple of landscaping contractors and some bigger forestry companies, hence the travel. We went where they worked, which seemed to be everywhere.

This I didn’t like, particularly doing so in a series of dilapidated old Land Rovers and Freight Rover trucks, towing an old Bearcat chipper that weighed in at a tonne and a half. But, as I’ve always said, needs must, so we did.

I worked amongst others for a forestry consultant, a posh sort of fellow with a waxed cotton jacket, a cravat and a tweed hat that definitely didn’t suit him and very shiny brown shoes.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: Not tree surgery

“Hi, my name is Balfour,” he said, when we first met. I didn’t really know what to make of him but was struck by the fact that he seemed to be incessantly chewing gum and smoking, as well as listening to heavy hip-hop-type music. Or at least I think that’s what it was.

The chap just didn’t appear to know what trend he was following and had apparently opted for a curious mishmash of cultures, but I rather liked him. I do attract the most extraordinary customers, and employees.

He worked a lot in Gloucester and for certain estates that have a royal connection, and it was about this time that I was waiting to join him for a look at some trees with one of the lesser Royals, not quite the Queen or her immediate family, but definitely a relation of some sort. It was terribly exciting, but for now I was mostly involved with the more mundane landscaping companies.

“We’ve got a job in Reading,” said the boss of one, an old farmer who’d changed career and with his partner was now in charge of quite a large semi-national company.

“Hoorah!” I said sarcastically and, in my head, I really don’t like Reading. It’s big, busy and has too many dual carriageways and the most upsetting roundabout on the planet, including several in Swindon.

“A row of Leyland cypress need reducing in height behind the grounds of a hotel,” explained Ken, the landscaping boss. “No need to visit first, you’ll easily do it in a day with your team.”

And there I slipped up.

No tree surgeon on the planet with any level of understanding would undertake such a job without seeing it first. The pitfalls are way too many to list, but I’ll mention just one: the quantity of material. Okay, two: the distance from home.

But, even with a decade of knowledge, I took this chap’s word for it, even knowing how hard pressed we’d been in the past, working on jobs that we would ‘easily do in a day’, often trekking home late at night and exhausted.

We had done a job near Heathrow once that had taken us 12 hours on site, cutting down London planes in midsummer. Never again. Also, Bristol: 13 hours on a job on the most awful industrial area in the centre of that town.

I could go on – Southampton, Gloucester, and even central London – but it was work and I couldn’t afford to be picky. I can now though, we average about five to ten miles each day, thank goodness.

Anyway, the day of the Reading Leylandii arrived, as did we at 8:30 am, despite the travel, and I got out of the Land Rover to introduce myself to the hotel manager, as arranged. It was wet, the grass waterlogged, and a persistent annoying drizzle did nothing to help my spirits.

Badger smoked a roll-up and the contractor stared morosely through the windscreen of my Freight Rover, looking like he wished he weren’t on the edge of a busy dual carriageway in a commuter town in the south of England.

I walked into the hotel foyer and asked the receptionist to tell the manager I was there.

“He won’t be in ‘til 10,” said the girl, who I quite fancied. “Anyway, he told me to tell you that the head cook, the porter, the cleaner and the bar staff are all ready to give you a hand,” adding that the barman had to be back on shift at lunchtime, doing his normal job, I suppose.

All of this came as something of a surprise to me.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: AKA …

“Er, we usually work just with our own team,” I said, pointing at Badger and the morose subcontractor and wishing I hadn’t, they didn’t look very keen.

The receptionist laughed. “Have you seen the trees?” she asked, slightly incredulously and making me feel a bit sick. “Ken asked that our staff helped out and the manager agreed. Everyone is very excited, I only wish I could help too.”

I wished she could too, but didn’t say anything, I was and am happily married, but she’d certainly have added a sparkle to what promised to be a miserable day.

She pressed a buzzer and told someone at the other end to bring the ‘tree team’ to reception.

Oh, my word. What on earth was about to happen, I wondered, but not for long, because it immediately started happening.

First to arrive was the chef, I guessed as much from his whites. For some reason he still had his special hat on as well.

“Hi, I’m Roly, looking forward to the work.” He held out a pudgy, soft white hand, and I wondered if a fellow could have a more appropriate name, given his red face and physical stature. Roland was joined by two waiters, who thankfully weren’t dressed in formal gear, announcing that they’d bought some gloves, and a slightly unwell elderly type, who I assumed was the pot washer, but didn’t speak, so I never found out.

I marvelled at the brand new work gloves and the trainers of my team and decided that I must donate whatever helmets I had in the van, which turned out to be mine, an old, battered orange one full of dog hair and mud that was in the Land Rover anyway, and Badger’s. It wasn’t ideal, but at least my workmate and myself knew the score, so could keep ourselves relatively out of harm’s way, or, in my case, be careful.

“Nobody on site without a hat is allowed in the drop zone,” I announced, going on to explain to the motley and slightly bemused crowd what I meant.

“Badger, you’re on the chipper – only you,” I said quite sternly, making one of the waiters look like he was about to cry. It was very, very apparent that my new team had never done any such work, possibly not even having set foot outside before, and I nearly called the whole thing off.

These days, things are different, so please don’t use my stories as a handbook of best practice, but in the year 2000 the industry wasn’t quite so tight, and I’m sorry to say, neither was I, so we pressed on.

Before we could start, the back door of the hotel opened and an attractive young lady shouted: “Coffee, anyone?” I was about to say no, but was silenced by a cacophony of enthusiastic staff, who crowded around a large tray of drinks and sandwiches, joined by Badger, who seemed to have forgotten why we were there.

I rolled my eyes in despair and joined in, figuring that if I ate as much of the food as I possibly could myself, we could start the work all the sooner.

Eventually, I had the team all set up and ascended the first Leylandii, which was one of about 10 in an overgrown, super-wide 40-foot hedge. This was going to be a nightmare, I thought, correctly.

I made my first cut, held tight to a smallish stem and peered through the foliage to make sure that the ground crew were safely out of the way before letting it go. To my astonishment, I noticed that both waiters were now sporting umbrellas and sheltering in the lee of the building. Well, at least they were safe.

The pot washer was smoking a roll-up with Badger, next to the chipper, leaving only Roly the chef unaccounted for.

“All clear below?” I shouted, and, spotting the orange hat of the cook safely to one side of the lawn, I hurled the feathered spear sideways out of the tree.

As I let go, to my horror I saw Roly racing towards the flying missile. He was hell-bent on being the first into action, presumably because of his status, but wasn’t looking up, which is something I definitely had mentioned in the safety briefing.

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

The missile hit the chef square on the top of his hat, the only consolation to me being that it was such a tiny twig it couldn’t possibly cause him harm and I felt relieved that I had at least given him a helmet. He’d be fine.

He wasn’t.

Out of sight now I heard the most terrible wailing, a sort of high-pitched, agonised yelping, like a small dog that has injured itself. Up the tree I imagined that the fellow had somehow lost his hat and suffered a terrible head wound, so I quickly abseiled to the ground.

I burst out of the bottom of the hedge, almost sick with apprehension, and rushed to the prone form, now hatless, and was quickly joined by the waiters and the nice sandwich girl who had been watching proceedings from the hotel.

“Ahhggghhh!” screamed the chef, and a waiter rushed off to find a first-aid kit, while the catering team knelt beside the victim, holding his hand and mopping his sweaty brow.

I could tell at once, both from the noise he was making and by the nature of the incident, combined with headgear, that nothing had actually happened other than a mild shock at how it feels to be hit on the head by anything.

“I think he’s concussed,” said the pretty girl. “How many fingers am I holding up?” She held out her hand with three fingers pointing skywards.

“Three,” I said, helpfully.

Everyone looked angrily at me, waiter number two stating that I was dangerous and they shouldn’t be helping me, the latter part of which I couldn’t agree with more. Badger stayed by the chipper, unfazed, and the washing-up fellow seemed to be smirking. Perhaps he didn’t like the kitchen boss?

The first waiter reappeared with bandages and a pack of frozen peas. This was getting ridiculous, so I decided to leave them to it and the last I saw of my tree gang was an angry huddle shooting withering looks at me as they helped Roly back to the kitchens.

They didn’t come back out, there were no more sandwiches, in fact no sign of anyone at all when we eventually finished the job, well into the evening. I wasn’t worried about the cook, other than a vague sense of guilt and self-recrimination at my own stupidity.

As for the other job, on the royal estate in Gloucester, it never happened.

I rang Balfour a few weeks later and asked whether it was going to happen, keen as always to fill my diary.

“Naaah,” said Balfour nonchalantly. “I went back to meet the client and he sent out his batman instead.”

I asked what had occurred, that such an important meeting had been handled by domestic staff, rather than the owner of the property.

“Oh, when I arrived in the grounds I drove straight up the front drive to the main door, I had the stereo on a bit loud in the car, apparently I should have used the tradesman’s access and I wasn’t showing enough respect.”

I chuckled, imagining the forester with his hip-hop at full blast, chewing gum and waiting to meet the client at the manicured front elevation and wasn’t that surprised.

Sometimes things just don’t work out.

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

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £75 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.