Phil Sparrow continues the story of Danny Graham, a young forester whose willingness to try anything and grasp every opportunity has taken him from sawmilling to sheep shearing to tree planting and now, into the forests of Devon.

IT suddenly occurred to me this week that I may never visit Cornwall again. Probably like many of you, I have happy and lasting memories of the place from my childhood. It was part of a gradual evolution of travel as a family. From camping on Holy Island year after year, then to the Lake District, then to Cornwall and finally before I left the nest to camping in France.

Travelling from the North East back in the ‘60s all the way to Cornwall was a journey fraught with danger. As with most vehicles in those days, there was no guarantee you’d arrive at your destination. The vehicle on this occasion was a Morris Oxford for which, as I recall, my father paid the princely sum of £5. I think it came in grey or grey and, always one to put his own stamp on things, he painted it lime green – probably the only paint he could find in the shed.

For a family like ours in those days, camping was the only option and with the car packed to the gunnels, including the cat, the dog and the tortoise, we set off on the long journey south. The first breakdown occurred around about Knutsford in Cheshire. Here we spent four days camped in the tiny front garden of the mechanic’s house while we waited for parts to repair the fault. The tortoise loved it as the garden was surrounded by a privet hedge that hadn’t been cut for years. The second breakdown was somewhere in Somerset, but this only took a day. A thermostat, I believe. This was a common fault in those days and you spent as much time watching the temperature gauge as you did the fuel. We crawled onto the campsite near Polperro nearly a week after setting off, but it didn’t seem to matter. Dad was brilliant with adversity and could turn anything into a great adventure, which is how I remember it all.

The smell of the sea air in Polperro was different to the sea air in Bamburgh. It seemed warmer, friendlier and more welcoming, somehow. I loved the walk along the clifftops before the steep decent down a worn tarmac road into the tiny village of Polperro. The mournful squawk of the gulls, which seemed amplified by the narrow streets, and the ever-present shoal of resident mullet nestled safely under the little bridge next to the harbour. I vividly recall the smell of candyfloss and chips and the anticipation of reaching the sea for the first time and carefully selecting a spot on which to plonk all the gear; towels, picnic, etc. The opportunity to rekindle such memories and to take in the sheer beauty of the place is almost overwhelming, but these days it’s all tempered by the reality of actually getting there!

READ MORE: Sawmill recruitment: Young forester Danny's latest adventure

I recently attended a funeral in London which involved a return journey from near Berwick. Six and a half hours down and seven back and that doesn’t include any of the driving in London to and from the crematorium, avoiding congestion zones. Traffic, traffic, traffic. Accelerator, brake, accelerator, brake. I take my hat off to you lorry drivers out there. Imagine trying to get to Cornwall from Berwick today. I have also heard that many Cornish villages are now nearly all second homes and bereft of life and where it’s easier to get Halloumi than candyfloss. I think I’ll just hang onto those memories.
Getting down to this region from the North East during the pandemic was a relatively easy business. However, now things are returning to normal it’s a very different kettle of fish. Over the last few weeks, Danny and I had been transporting trailer-loads of heather to a site near Pately Bridge in North Yorkshire where it was being used to thatch a pump house next to Grimsworth Reservoir.

During one of several journeys he asked me if I knew anything about Devon. I explained that Devon was a little like Northumberland in that people tend to pass through it on their way to Cornwall, just as they do through Northumberland en route to Scotland. A few years back I took the train to Penzance on a trip to the Scilly Isles and, while travelling through Devon, I was surprised by the density of forestation. The problem is much of it grows in steeply sided valleys which make it hard to get at and extract.

Danny, being young, fit and enthusiastic, works on a very simple principle. That is, as an experienced self-employed chainsaw operator – with a full book of tickets, PPE, a healthy selection of good-quality saws, the technical know-how to maintain them, a good attitude and work ethic, a caravan, a decent and reliable vehicle to pull it and an understanding of social media, forestry forums and job advertisement sites and a very understanding girlfriend – he has access to a vast well of opportunities across the UK.
We’ll let him tell the story....

Danny Graham: At least once or twice a week I spend a short time browsing through job vacancies in forestry. Usually there’s everything from a single day’s work to full-time opportunities. Some interest me and most don’t. Some look exciting, but the majority seem boring. Every now and then something comes along and I think: Yes! The job sounds like fun and it fits in with the rest of my work calendar commitments. These days I’m more swayed by the location rather than the job description or even the advertised salary. 

Forestry Journal:

The way I see it, I’ve got the rest of my life to fell trees in the north of England if that’s what I decide to do. So while I’m still reasonably young and not overly tied down, it seems good to me to get out around the UK, see the sights, meet new people and make as many contacts as possible. Who knows how useful these might be in the future?
At the end of August, I’d just finished a two-month-long shearing season. Seven days a week without a break and with the same group of people. I was in need of some fresh scenery and more than ready to be holding onto a chainsaw rather than a sheep. A late-night scroll through the internet revealed a job which caught my attention. It was short-term and read: “Located in Devon. I have three acres of terrible-quality larch to process.

It’s too bent for a processor to deal with and my usual hand-cutters aren’t man enough to go near it. Looking for a fool from the North (anywhere’s north of Devon apart from Cornwall) to come and grind it out for a fortnight to get it out of the way.”
I immediately thought it sounded right up my street. I rang him the following morning and got the job. Three days later, with my new second-hand caravan yoked to the Hilux, I set off at speed, snaking and fish-tailing my way down the M6 to the south-west coast. It was only then I began to ask myself a few questions. Heading into the unknown and having time to think about it starts to create doubts in your mind. For instance, is this a real job? Am I going to lose money again? And... where the hell is Devon?

All I knew about the job was that the employer was delighted I was going down, that he had an unusual accent and there was no way I’d do it on a single tank of diesel. My first experience of Devon was a bollocking. I must have been given the wrong location. Having arrived at 1am I’d parked up where I thought I should be and crawled into the caravan for a sleep. I was rudely awakened by someone hammering on the door. A very disgruntled garage owner was unimpressed at his forecourt being used as a caravan park. I apologised profusely and told the bald-headed mechanic I’d leave and get out of his hair (a comment he failed to find amusing). As I drove off the forecourt, all I could hear was a tirade of obscenities, but in a lovely Devon accent.

After a quick phone call I eventually paired up with my short-term employer, where it immediately became evident he was indeed a very interesting chap. He was in his late 30s but a giant of a man. At nearly seven feet tall he towered over me, but I quickly realised he had an intimate knowledge of the forestry industry and his strange hybrid accent resulted from him being half German. Apparently he used to compete nationally in strongman competitions, but he also had a keen interest in fishing. Being half German, he was very precise and particular and explained in great detail how he intended to retire in Sweden by running a carp fishing lake. It quickly became apparent that this guy was a force of nature. He was unstoppable. 

I decided, in my head, to call him ‘the unstoppable German’.

To be continued...