After hand-felling larch in Devon and willows in Lancashire, jobbing forester Danny Graham heads to Berkshire for some tree planting (and a little R&R).

FOR all the beauty of Northumberland, December can be a grim time of year. The sun seems to set before it rises, the sky is filled with sleet, the fields resemble the Somme and outdoor working is generally highly unpleasant. This is when my swallow genes kick in and I have an inner calling to migrate to a warmer climate. Having finished my current work in Lancashire, I headed north for a brief family visit prior to Christmas before heading to Berkshire, where tree planting is in full swing.

The Newbury–Hungerford area is a new patch to me and, as I hinted in a previous article, it’s very important to ‘settle in’ to an area. Not just the job itself, but the components that help to make your time in the place as pleasurable an experience as possible. You must answer questions like: where do you buy food? Where’s the nearest fuel station? Is there a gym? One of the problems with December is it gets dark at 4pm, which leaves an incredibly long evening to occupy. Sitting in a small caravan, alone in the middle of some remote wood for hours on end has never been my cup of tea.

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Joining a gym or leisure centre addresses two issues. First it ticks the hygiene box, providing hot showers, saunas and steam rooms. Secondly, it usually provides an immense amount of entertainment, all for as little as £1 per day. You get the feeling not much has changed since Roman times. You can imagine the legionnaires tramping across the British countryside, along their straight roads, before stopping at a bath house. Going to a Roman lavatory was a very communal affair, with long rows of men sitting and chatting over the issues of the day before entering a steam room or solarium. Even the Roman option has to be superior to standing under the trickle of a shower in the caravan or having to brace yourself before descending onto a freezing-cold plastic toilet seat.

Joining a gym is therefore a welcome luxury, though there is one small downside; the induction! It doesn’t matter how many places you join, you still have to be subjected to the induction. Clearly these places have their rules and protocols, but if you’ve been through the process as often as I have it becomes very tedious. This gym’s aficionado was no exception; quite camp and with shorts so tight he almost resembled a tube of paint. He strutted around the gym with his chest puffed out like a cock (chicken), flexing his biceps at every opportunity, king of all he surveyed. His name was Ben, but in my mind he was Rambo. I allowed Rambo to carry out his full and well-rehearsed 20-minute speech before admitting I was only there for a cycle and a shower. He seemed crestfallen that I wouldn’t be attending the Zumba classes.

Forestry Journal: Zumba isn't for Danny Zumba isn't for Danny

And so my routine began to settle. Work all day, then head for the gym, do a bit of cycling and then a nice hot shower. The gym is also a great place to people watch. From my somewhat unscientific observations there appeared to be two categories of attendees.

Category one: the self-obsessed. These people are generally slim and have all the latest gear. They’re there because it’s the place to be and be seen. They don’t seem to do much and rarely visit the apparatus. They never sweat, but instead spend most of their time walking around, drinking bottled water (Evian of course) and staring at themselves in the large mirrors which festoon the walls. They all have Fitbits or monitors of some description constantly relaying their heart rates, how many steps they’ve taken and God knows what else.

Category two: clinical referrals and the desperate. This category usually consists of individuals whose years of sitting at a computer and ordering takeaway deliveries have resulted in an awakening. A realisation that if they don’t do something about their physical status soon then it will be too late and the grim reaper may be the next person to visit. They seem to approach the task with desperation before fading, rather than adopting a measured and steady approach. They and their apparatus are usually covered in sweat and they are very audible, grunting, groaning and gasping as they wrestle with the machines. One chap I observed put so much effort into the rowing machine that I was concerned for his life, and the culmination of his exertions was a horrendous nose bleed. The poor guy didn’t realise and, before long, the whole area looked like a murder scene. The guy was helped from the machine by two members of staff while Rambo quickly set about cleaning up the mess.

It goes without saying that the final step when integrating with the local area is the selection of a pub. As I’ve discussed before, one of the advantages of being in the South is that you’re never too far from a Wetherspoons. These are great for a quick, cheap meal, but they’re not the type of establishments where you can meet like-minded people. This was the week before Christmas and so you’d expect establishments to be going all-out for trade as well as being more heavily attended. For the first week I tried a different pub every night, but nothing fitted the bill. It’s incredible how diverse they are.

Some were clearly food orientated, whereas others seemed to cater for more socially challenged individuals happy to spend their income support.

One place, called The Pheasant, was particularly unpleasant. I should have walked out immediately but unfortunately I’d caught the barmaid’s eye and felt obliged to buy a pint. My attire (jeans and ripped hoodie) was clearly well out of place amongst the tweed jackets. The conversation appeared to centre around the sense of exhaustion felt after two consecutive days of shooting and the fact the bar maid had ‘overfilled’ her gin glass.

It was a complaint I’d certainly never encountered up north. It’s probably the quickest pint I’ve ever drunk! 

Finally, on my eighth attempt, I happened across The Red House. Yes, I have been to Amsterdam and no, it was not like that! In fact, because I found the name off-putting, I’d given the place a wide berth, walking past it several times. Once inside, I couldn’t believe I’d wasted seven other evenings. It had a really friendly, welcoming and homely atmosphere with a fire crackling away in the bar. The staff were friendly and accommodating and the customers, instead of frowning when people entered the bar, actually welcomed them. The landlord was passionate about his beer and cared more that his customers had a good pint than extracting every penny from their wallets.

It’s at this point I have to reveal to the reader that it’s Christmas Eve. For the first time in my life I’m 300 miles from home and away from the festive routines with which I’m familiar. In a funny sort of way, it’s a bit of a relief. There’s a very strong drinking culture between the farmers and countrymen around this time of the year in the Coquet Valley in Northumberland. Festive games include ‘Who can drink a gallon of lager the quickest?’ followed by ‘Who can drink a gallon of lager for consecutive nights throughout the festive period?’. It was a relief to be away from it all.

Forestry Journal: Danny took to the pub Danny took to the pub

As I sat at the bar, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying my pint, a family of four entered the pub. They were clearly locals as they knew everyone and spent some time taking turns to chat to each individual, including me. Where was I from? Why was I there? The couple seemed interested in what I had to say, but I couldn’t work out whether they had a genuine interest in the forestry business or they were just being polite or they wanted to fix me up with their rather unappealing daughter. Either way, I felt myself being slowly drawn into the celebrations. Pints of Guinness appeared as if from nowhere while a lady shouted, in Noddy Holder style, “It’s Christmas!” at the top of her voice. I was then bombarded with a volley of shots and spirits. Aware that I was enjoying other people’s hospitality, I insisted on buying a round, which was much appreciated. By now the family that had entered the pub and initiated the activities were well and truly drunk. The daughter looked an interesting shade of grey, the father and son appeared to have fallen out with each other and the mother just sat and giggled. It was a Christmas Eve like no other but, aware I had a full day’s planting ahead of me, I was able to retrieve my sensible hat and headed off into the night.

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You can’t beat experience. When Sir Isaac Newton was quizzed about his achievements, he somewhat modestly claimed he’d only stood on the shoulders of people who’d gone before. I sometimes wonder how at my age I’ve been able to get ahead of others in terms of work, knowledge and production output and can only conclude it’s largely down to the highly experienced and skilled individuals I’ve had the good fortune to work with.

Be it the Duke of Northumberland’s main harvesting contractor, the owner of a small sawmill or others too numerous to mention.

You just can’t beat experience, and when it comes to planting trees, no-one has more than Kevin, about whom I’ll share more next time.