Phil Sparrow continues the story of hardworking young forester Danny, who he first met in the sawmill. Last issue we left them in the pub when Danny, who had just failed to secure a grant to buy his own kindling machine, asked: “What do you know about Canada?” Phil had responded: “What do you know about heather?”

JUST as Canada is a country, Heather wasn’t some young, attractive female down the village. In this instance, my question referred to that tough, wiry, purple-flowering plant that grows in profusion across the northern and Scottish hills. Where Danny fits into this will become apparent, but first a little background information.

It may come as a surprise to some that hundreds of years ago heather was used as a thatching material. It was used extensively across Northumberland, in particular the upper Tyne Valley, and also on the Scottish Isles. Examples can still be found today on Skye, where these buildings are known as the Black Houses.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 1)

In Northumberland, they were incorporated into buildings known as Cruik Barns. Essentially these were buildings for animals but possibly also for human habitation and most likely for both. Field stone was collected and constructed into head-height parallel walls with two large gables at each end. Cruiks, single-arched Sessile oak branches (specifically selected for their shape) were then straddled across the parallel walls between the gables. Usually, three were selected depending on the length of the buildings and were held together by the purlings, the ends of which fitted neatly into a channel on the gables. Rafters, again of oak and consisting usually of split branches, were then laid between the mid purling and the ridge and the mid purling and the top of the side walls.

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Uniquely, so it seems, these side walls were capped with something called a drip stone. This was a series of flat stones angled ever so slightly away from the building that ran the full length on the top of both side walls. The rafters and the heather at the foot of the roof would sit on the drip stone. This meant that any water which seeped through the heather would eventually run down and onto the drip stone and down the outside wall below.

Heather is poor people’s thatch. It’s a material that was used before the railways opened up the Welsh slate quarries and made slate the go-to roofing material. Collecting was a whole-village affair. Most able-bodied people in the village would head up to the moors each year with horses and carts and hand-pull the heather. Yes, hand-pull! They must have had hands of leather. They then returned, carts loaded, and used the picked heather to patch up the year’s wear and tear. It does lead to one fascinating thought. I’ve only ever seen one hand-pulled heather roof; a small boathouse in Northumberland. I visited the site in August and was confronted by a purple roof as the heather was in full bloom. Because the heather is hand pulled, the roots go with it. Imagine walking or riding into a village in the Tyne Valley in early August in the 1600s and seeing rows of purple rooftops. It’s an intriguing prospect.

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Today heather is used on buildings for historic reasons and its supply and cutting is very niche market. The heather needs to be at least 12 to 14 years old and heather of this age is increasingly hard to find. It’s either been burnt off for grouse, cleared for grazing or neglected and is just a tangle of woody, twisted stems.

One particular quality that Danny has is that he’s not pigeonholed. Many young people you talk to today see university as the solution to everything. They begin with a gap year during which they travel the world, discovering everywhere these days is broadly the same; all Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, Facebook and Twitter with varying degrees of poverty and corruption. When they return, they need mental health counselling having seen some animal killed and eaten or discovered that most people in the world are a hell of lot worse off than themselves. Finally, having saddled themselves with lifelong debt they find their degree in Angolan Cave Painting hasn’t resulted in the £30k salary Tony Blair promised.

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Danny seemed to have worked all of this out without travelling very far and from a very young age had understood there were many routes to a successful life. But what they all seemed to have in common was they required hard work, planning and determination – qualities that are, in fact, universal. Luck, if it did exist, was something you made yourself. I had worked in the tobacco fields in Canada as a young man and made good money and he, after our brief conversation, had bought a ticket to Toronto and was off with the promise that he’d help me cut heather on his return. Canada, as it turned out, was really a fact-finding mission. Much of his employment to that point had been varied, opportunistic and by word of mouth, but was increasingly forestry orientated. Clearing out trees and thinning domestic gardens provided a steady income along with the day job at the sawmill, but they lacked the consistency and progression he seemed to need. The trees of British Colombia, however, were massive and many and, judging from the texts I received, opportunities were quickly being thrown in his direction.

I was somewhat surprised when he returned quite suddenly. It was as if he’d proved you didn’t have to go to university to have a gap experience and that, if you did, there should be a purpose to it. Yes, the world was for exploring, but then so were the opportunities it provided.

I was required to cut about 1,400 bales of heather for an English Heritage project in the Tyne Valley. I’d been cutting heather for some years and the standardisation of the task was an evolving process. For instance, where you cut it is very important as you have to extract it. How do you cut it? How does one standardise the bales so that it can be thatched? The questions were many and varied and we were helped considerably in those early days by working closely with a master thatcher.

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The cutting was done with a brush cutter with an adapted blade. Heather is a very woody plant and the blade becomes blunt very quickly. There are also rocks galore which can shatter the blade in an instant. Being anywhere near a cutter is quite dangerous as small woody splinters of heather fire off in all directions. Danny got the process in an instant. Growing up on a farm meant a familiarity with all machinery. The brush cutter was serviced, the blade adapted further and for the first time heather was cut in rows which were easy for the pickers to collect and stack. The pickers needed to collect the heather with all the butt ends in one direction rather than some tangled mass of stems. Having the cut heather in rows and all lying in one direction probably halved the collecting time.

Collecting and stacking heather is a back-breaking job. You’re up on top of the moors and well off road. Nine times out of ten it’s misty and wet and downright unpleasant. Getting people who can hack it is a very difficult task. We had wasted large amounts of money on people who just weren’t up to the job.

“I might have a few friends who can help,” Danny suggested. They all turned out to be fellow farm-raised individuals who, having just finished lambing and waiting for the shearing season to begin, had a small window of time on their hands.

They arrived en masse and on time the following day in a range of clapped-out four-wheel-drive vehicles, immediately setting about transforming the moor into a series of neatly stacked heather piles, perfect for baling. Despite the gloomy weather, it was as though the sun had burst through the clouds in recognition of their achievement.

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Likewise, baling heather was a slow, tedious, exhausting activity. Two 6-foot-long strands of twine were laid on the ground and a large quantity of heather was laid on top of them. The quantity varied considerably and so the size of the bales varied as to the arm span of the individual making them. A month later, after being stacked and the heather having dried and lost roughly a third of its volume, the bale could look akin to a bunch of wizened flowers. This could be a highly embarrassing situation when delivering it to a client as they paid by the bale. Standardisation was required and this came in the form of a V-shaped frame or cradle. The two strings were placed across the frame and the heather laid inside. When the cradle was full, the strings were tied and hence the bales became a standardised size. Still very labour intensive, still really hard physical work, but in the space of a week productivity had jumped forward by at least two thirds.

Finally and probably the hardest activity of all was getting the bales off the moor. The previous year I’d borrowed a friend’s wagon and, to my great embarrassment, I’d got the thing stuck in a peat hag. A telehandler had to be called in to shift it. Danny reassured me he had a failsafe plan.

I arrived early on the moor the following day. The mist had lifted and, apart from the occasional sound of a bumblebee and a very distant cuckoo, all was quiet. Then, from the distance, came a roar of engines and the clatter of metal. The noise grew louder until, over the brow of the hill, came the heather flotilla. Suddenly I felt like an extra in a Mad Max film. Two well-used four-wheel-drives each towed a 10-foot caged trailer while two or three quad bikes buzzed around them. The quads ripped around the moor collecting bales and returning them to the trailers while others stacked them carefully into position. In no time at all, the trailers were full and, after a series of journeys, the moor was cleared.

With the heather gone and the occasional rock exposed, it looked as though wall-to-wall carpet had been fitted across the moor. I stood there contemplating the scene. I turned to Danny and said: “That was incredible.”

He looked back at me and said: “Do you know anything about New Zealand?”

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