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. 

I’M not as retired as I’d like to be – contrary to local rumour – and I still have to help my son to establish himself as director, but I have stopped one aspect of my previous life, almost completely.

It started when I got a new hip, I suddenly couldn’t drive for several weeks. Consequently, I also couldn’t visit customers and do the quotes for my business and my goodness what a revelation that was.

I simply hadn’t realised what a huge part of my life that was; a part that I realised, as I sat around in the late summer sunshine drinking tea and taking it easy, I didn’t miss at all. My son did this work instead and turned out to be good at it. So, after I recovered, I let him carry on, apart from one last visit that reminded me of a day out in 2001.

As a veteran of such, the final foray of last year into someone’s garden was easy to deal with. I knew that there was going to be a great deal of faffing about the moment I rang the doorbell and the elderly homeowner failed to quiet a yapping dog. I managed to get in and out, despite the dog, within a reasonable 15 minutes, but it jogged my memory of a hot day in the summer of ’01.

We were working at a public school on a major landscaping project that needed the felling of several very mature ash. The job was well underway and, apart from the ironwork, nails and bits of old cables in the trees (it was previously an assault course), there was time for me to take a midweek day to catch up on the visits and quotes, of which there were many.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: My taxing affair

For some reason, whether it is true or a false memory, the number 17 springs to mind, but that does seem a bit extreme. I do know there were a lot and I started in a far–flung village on the boundary of our catchment, hoping to work backwards toward home.

It was a beautiful sunny morning and the door of a nice country cottage, complete with thatch, roses and apple trees, was opened by an equally beautiful woman. Everything seemed pretty, and it was a good start to the day.

“Hello, I’m Dave,” I said, trying to do something with my hair and holding out my arm to shake hands in a day when that was still allowed.

“Hi, I’m Jane.” We then set off on a tour of the garden.

Everything seemed to be going exactly as you’d expect; housewife points at tree, tree surgeon talks about it, makes notes and tries to sound knowledgeable and capable.

Bread and butter stuff, you’d think, but things were about to go weird …

“My husband wants to remove this,” said Jane, pointing at a semi-mature oak which was blocking light from the patio, adding, “I want to keep it, it’s beautiful.”

The ‘beautiful’ things were stacking up, they seemed to be everywhere, and regardless of the health or otherwise of the oak, I picked a side.

It wasn’t the husband’s, I already didn’t like him, which was good really because things started unravelling very fast.

I was diplomatic, though, there has to be an element of fair play, particularly as there was a chance that this absent man might be contributing towards the cost of our services.

“Why does he want to get rid of it?” I asked, holding pen to notepad and trying to look earnest and impartial, rather than hot and biased.

“Because he’s a two-timing bastard who’s having an affair, that’s why …” Jane started crying, just weeping rather than sobbing, but I realised that an unexpected event had taken hold of proceedings and I didn’t know how to move on. I did, however, grasp the fact that the tree wasn’t the issue here, the customer’s husband very obviously didn’t need the tree felled because of his love life, as suggested, though it seemed unwise to point this out.

I was flummoxed, although it wasn’t the first time this had happened, but because of my past experiences of lonely housewives and philandering husbands, I knew what to do: make a nice cup of tea. The problem with my tried and tested customer care package was that it was going to take time, time I didn’t really have, so I tried to condense my kindness and compassion into a few kind words.

“I’m sure you’ll work it out; he’s probably not having an actual affair; do you want the stump ground out on the oak if we do end up felling it?”

Half an hour later, and with the knowledge that I’d at least cheered Jane up enough to stop her weeping, I headed on to the next of the marathon of visits, already half an hour behind schedule.

I pulled up into the grounds of an old vicarage affair, crunched across the gravel drive, sweating and suddenly needing the toilet from the earlier tea, and banged on the door.

After a couple of minutes there was a great deal of activity on the far side of the woodwork.

“Just a minute, I have to unlock,” said a shaky and elderly voice. Various bolts scraped, keys turned and chains were released and I knew for sure that I should have stopped in a layby to rid myself of fluids before I’d arrived.

It was going to be a long visit.

The door eventually creaked open and a three-legged and horribly ancient dog appeared, followed by a two-legged human version, of equal years.

“Yeeeeeessss?” said the lady, making the word itself into a question and eating into valuable bladder-control time with the prolonged greeting, which in itself proved things weren’t going to be easy.

“I’ve come to see the trees.”

“Are you from the council?”


“BIIIIIIIILL,” shouted the woman, so suddenly and unexpectedly that I nearly lost the battle with my bladder.

A man, who was so old that he looked like he might already have passed away, appeared in the doorway.

There were several more wasted moments of introductions and explanations during which the three-legged dog seemed to be the only one who accepted my presence, presumably because he neither expected me nor didn’t.

To him I was simply there.

“Well, since you are here, I suppose you might as well look at our trees,” said Bill, pointing his hand towards a driveway lined with mature beech, a front garden crammed with ash, maple and birch and adding, “most of them are round the back”. 

The dog, which was a whippet of some sort, rolled its eyes.

After a long wait in the sunshine, on the outside of a door that had been firmly shut in my face while Bill and his wife went to find coats, I was so desperate for the toilet that I nearly joined the whippet in the wooded area.

I was on the brink of this when the customers shuffled slowly around the side of the house, wearing boots, hats, scarves and heavy waxed coats. It was about 20 degrees centigrade by now, I was wearing a shirt and light trousers and old Three Legs was sporting a smart navy blue vest, for some reason.

The whippet led the way, he seemed to be in charge, and we meandered slowly towards the woods the dog had just visited. 

“Right, what do you want done?” I asked, trying to get things moving a bit before I wet myself and the day was gone.

The whippet didn’t know, which was to be expected, but neither did the customers, which wasn’t, but should have been. “You’re the expert, just tell us what you think of all the trees.”

Bill made the word ‘all’ into a version that summoned up its own meaning by making it incredibly long, like his wife’s earlier ‘yeeeees’. It crossed my mind the couple could probably spend several days in conversation without actually saying anything at all.

I needed to move things along.

“This beech could probably do with some weight off the wayward limbs, it has signs of Ganoderma and could fail in time,” I said, pointing to the white fungal bracket on tree number one. Everyone gathered round and bent down peering at the fruiting body, including Three Legs, who had rejoined us after some squirrel staring.

It took a very long time to talk my way through the front garden, around the side of the house and into the rear of the property and I realised not only that I wasn’t going to complete my round of visits, but, more urgently, I needed the toilet: now.

I could have asked the ancient pair if I could use their facility, but by this point I’m not sure I could have waited for the inevitable guided tour of the ground floor of the house.

I needed to do something about it, immediately, so I made a snap decision.

“I’m afraid that all the tree work at the front is going to cost a fair amount of money. Do you think you should do the work in stages; we can come up with a programme that you could budget for and I can quote as we go along?”

This was a neat solution; I’d done it before and it usually saved time on the day and gave me the chance to dedicate proper attention to the job as each phase came up.

“Oh, we don’t want the trees cut, not at the moment, all we wanted was some advice,” said the lady, causing me to simultaneously gasp and very nearly lose control of my bodily functions.

Three Legs was staring at some cows, Bill had wandered off and was trying to move a wheelbarrow full of compost, but not really succeeding, and I was left with the elderly lady, who then said: “We have a gardener who does the trees anyway, but he doesn’t know so much about them, so your advice will be very helpful.”

Her voice drifted off as I did the same, walking angrily and urgently back to my waiting Land Rover. I needed to go, literally.

Bill had manoeuvred the wheelbarrow into a position behind my truck and was slowly unloading it so that I couldn’t leave at once, not without running him over, so I waited in the cab, fuming and hot.

My final memory of that place was from the rear-view mirror as I hurtled down the long gravelled drive. Three Legs was standing next to an upturned wheelbarrow, staring thoughtfully at my departure. I think he’d enjoyed having me as a guest.

I’d like to say that I completed the next 15 visits and made it home for tea, if there actually was that much to do that day, but I can’t remember anything beyond those first two.

I did meet up with Jane again, at least a decade later she rang and asked me to visit and look at an old birch tree in the back garden of a new, larger cottage in an even prettier Wiltshire visit. There was a BMW executive–type car in the drive, alongside a nice red convertible thing and when I knocked at the door, Jane was joined by a paunchy balding fellow in ‘weekend’ clothes.

I wondered if this was the errant husband and assumed it must have been and that he must be wealthy, no woman as attractive as she could have chosen this specimen without good reason, though there may have been more to him than met the eye.

In the garden we stood around the birch. 

“Rueben wants to get rid of it, but I quite like it, and it gives us just enough shade on a hot day, what do you think, Mr Oliver?” 

READ MORE: Amateur tree surgeons warned to leave felling work to 'highly-skilled professionals'

I caught her eye and I’m sure she winked at me, her eyes were certainly twinkling and I knew exactly what to say.

“Oh, keep it, definitely, there’s no need to get rid of something useful simply because you don’t like it any more.”

Jane smiled, and I think we both knew what I meant.