WE have just completed a major works removing very mature sycamore, yew and lime on a listed monument, a castle which was converted from Neolithic earthworks in Marlborough.

It was complicated, risky and involved some very intricate winching and old-fashioned pulley systems as a crane was out of the question, and I’ve very little experience of using these machines anyway. We finished the job last spring, during the COVID-19 lockdown, condensing two years of planned work into three or four months, starting in December, with the help of my son who is now 19.

One of the earliest jobs on that same site, known simply as The Mound, was in 2001, which is a bit of a skip-forward chronologically in the Tales, but it seems relevant at the moment as the story involved Dougal, who is now taking over my business.

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It started with a fairly alarming question, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the site, which is also in school grounds. 

“Can you quote to remove the dying ash, from the second level up?” I stared at the head groundsman, stuck for something to say and preferring to look at his face rather than the giant, fully mature and hollowing ash that was perched precipitously about 30 feet up an almost vertical slope.

Basically, I didn’t want to quote for it and wanted to tell the fellow that exact thing – diplomatically, of course, we got a lot of work from that client.

“Yes, no problem.” I said, stuck with the neverending dilemma that if you have a very good contract, you need to be obliging no matter what the circumstances. As well as this, I had to do that most awful of things and keep the price sensible, because if I showed any signs at all of creating anything like a decent margin, I was likely to face questioning and risk competition.

The head groundsman went on to explain the safety concerns of working at height, on top of ‘at height’, which is basically what this horrid tree was offering, adding stuff about monuments and English Heritage as icing on the rather nasty cake.

Like I said, we have now, nearly 20 years later, almost completed the deforestation of this hill, which is surrounded by footpaths, school buildings, students and, just to complete the complexity, a very, very precious and rather delicate eighteenth-century grotto made of shells, flint and chalk. Between my first tree work on The Mound, and my latest, other contractors have been involved on odd occasions, the last one using a crane, which at 100 feet tall only just reached the top tier, the pulley being at eye level which was quite odd.

Anyway, nothing else could be reached with this machine, so when my turn came around again last year, we used pulleys and a long scaffold chute and, of course, lots and lots of men.

Back in 2001, the ash tree, which was accompanied by a sycamore that also needed to be removed (a smaller tree but higher up the monument), and some other scrub of no significance.

I quoted low, got the job and planned a date in December, just after the beginning of the school Christmas break, for obvious reasons, but when I went to write it in the diary, I was temporarily flummoxed by a note for that day that my wife had added. It said, ‘Due date’, and not much else.

I decided to ignore this, knowing full well what it referred to, the impending birth of my third child, partly because it was the only reasonable day left that side of the festivities and also that Daisy had been born 12 weeks early, so I’d grown untrusting of the reliability of children.

To this day, both my daughters are horribly late for everything we do, from going out as a family to arriving on time for meals and stuff. My son, however, the one who would have been helpful to have been born first, (I could have retired by now if he had been Lily, if you see what I mean), has always been on time …

So, I ignored the whole ‘due date’ business in favour of the more pressing tree surgery one and assembled the men on site on my chosen day in December. I can’t remember all the chaps at that point, I’m pretty sure Badger was there, and I know that Mark was helping us, a subcontractor. So many men have helped out over the years, the business fluctuating and unpredictable meaning that men came, went, came back, went again, you get the picture.

Forestry Journal: A sycamore treeA sycamore tree

We started with the sycamore, it being smaller and a bit of a warm-up, so I ascended it and started removing the brash, dropping some of it onto the terraces and lowering the bigger parts. It was cold, windy and the added height of the monument meant that I was very far from the ground. I’m not scared of heights, that would be silly, but when I used to actually climb trees, as opposed to just talking about them, I recall double checking all my two-way Karabiners more thoroughly the higher and more dangerous a tree was.

I did do quite a bit of double-checking that day!

All was well, the more I worked the more confident I got, which was exactly as planned, ready for the bigger tree which I hoped to get mostly done as well that same day. The men spread themselves down the slopes, each standing on a terrace and throwing the brash down in stages. 

As always, something needed to go wrong.

All tree work is in some way tricky, even the easiest dismantle of a semi-mature Norway Spruce in a back garden, we just get used to it. If you take down a big tree, with maybe over 100 different cuts and lowering or free fall techniques, the odds are stacked against every one going perfectly. Mostly nothing happens, sometimes a small event occurs – maybe a broken garden gnome, occasionally a disaster and, quite often, a near miss. 

On this occasion, it was the latter. I was finished with the brash removal and rather than come out of the tree and let Mark take over the chogging down, I decided to take a few off myself, for fun really.

I like lowering chogs, or did when I was a proper tree man, and I prefer the simplest of systems, just a lowering rope and a timber hitch when I can. This was working well and there was quite a stack of chogs at the base of the tree in no time. We were lowering off the base of a nearby lime, the chogs freefalling a couple of feet before Mark took up the slack and lowered the piece of wood to the ground. 

We could, with a bit of timing, allow the natural swinging motion to get the logs to the next level down, dropping the piece at the peak of its outward swing neatly where we wanted it. This would save time removing the wood from The Mound later, we were going to split it and throw the logs to the tarmac base under the work zone. 

But, as I say, there is always a margin of error.

I shouted down to the groundsman that I was going to drop a beer barrel sized chunk and that it might snatch a bit, so to get the friction wrap to work properly and be ready.

“All clear!” shouted Mark, so I let the chunk of wood fall.

It dropped about 12 feet, was caught by the lowering rope and swung out as planned, so Mark released the slack and started lowering it, still swinging wildly but in control. It was near the ground when it went wrong, I watched the drama unfold from my position up the still swaying stem of sycamore.

At the exact moment of the penultimate swing, Mark went to release a bit more slack to drop it onto the lower tier, but the rope snagged part way through the manoeuvre, probably on a hidden stub at the base of the anchor tree.

This caused the barrel to swing back an extra time, at ground level where it smashed into the stack of resting cords scattering them like skittles in that bar top pub game. I watched in horror as a large barrel of wood, about three feet long and two in diameter, teetered on the edge of the tier over the steep slope above the grotto.

Gravity and bad luck won the day, and the section started a slow descent of the slope, picking up speed dramatically and hurtling towards the grotto. To my astonishment, Mark set off after it, running down a few yards behind shouting, like in that Somerset cheese rolling race. I had no idea what his plan was, and strongly suspected he didn’t have one because even if he did catch the escapee, there was no chance of slowing it, not without some sort of self -sacrifice anyway.

Forestry Journal: A nice cup of tea helped A nice cup of tea helped

I thought the grotto was doomed, but at the very last second the barrel hit a tree root, skipped sideways, brushed the side of the structure with the slightest scuff of bark and hurtled into the car park. Here, it shot across the tarmac, bouncing and swerving exactly between a group of parked cars, before finally wobbling to a halt having missed everything.

Mark arrived a few seconds later and put his foot on it in triumph, as if he had in some way altered its course and averted disaster.

“That was a close one, Dave,” he said, far too cheerfully for my liking.

I got down from the tree and had a nice cup of tea, to settle my nerves and after lunch Mark completed the dismantle with no further nonsense and soon was up the ash, which was bigger, but much nearer ground level at the base of the monument.

Throughout the afternoon I’d been deliberately ignoring the almost non-stop vibrating of the phone in my top pocket. I had a vague feeling of what it might be, but ignored it until about four in the afternoon, when my dad showed up.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: A taxing time

“Winnie’s in the car with me,” he said, pointing at my wife who was sitting in the passenger seat smiling but looking a bit uncomfortable, so I clambered down the last tier, through a mountain of brash and cords I’d been stacking and said hello.

“I think I’m having a baby,” she said, touching her tummy unnecessarily. I was quite aware of where it lived.

This was a bit of a nuisance, we had a huge mess to clear and the car park, which the school needed to re-open, was buried under tree waste.

“If it’s a boy, can we call him Dougal?” I asked, trying to get the name off the ground in case it got ‘christened’ in my absence, which was looking a bit inevitable now.

My wife, who is a good sort, agreed to go to hospital and start having my son with the help of midwives, doctors and my dad, which is all she really needed, on a practical level at least.

I followed about half an hour later, overcome with guilt, insistence from the chaps that they could manage and a half hope that I would arrive when the little chap was safely wrapped in a towel. As it turned out, I was about two hours early for this and witnessed my third such event, all of which I have suffered flashbacks and some sort of PTSD ever since.

Luckily, I’ve not enough space to describe the event itself, it involved the most alarming surgery I’ve ever encountered, but it was probably just routine to the staff who were very good.

18 years later, we were back on The Mound. I pointed to the decaying ash and sycamore stumps, now overrun with ivy and hollow in the middle.

“You’ll never guess what,” I said to my teenage son who was helping with some of his first major tree work with me.

He didn’t need to guess anything though, it’s a well-told tale here at home and, of course, Dougal has heard it all before.

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