Our young, travelling forester has finally found a place he can call home. Perhaps more importantly, it’s somewhere he can establish a new timber workshop in which to work in peace.

IT’S important in life to keep a sense of perspective. Media commentators would have it that everything is going to rack and ruin when in fact there are many positive stories to be told. I, for instance, feel incredibly fortunate and appear to have landed on my feet. Let me explain. 

We all know there’s a housing shortage in the UK which, put in simple economic terms, is too many people chasing too few properties. Then there are other factors like property in the North generally being cheaper than property in the South. So, when a desirable rural cottage becomes available in Northumberland, they rarely show on the open market.

READ MORE: Our young forester gets back to hand cutting in the woods

Stitched up pre-arranged deals with estate agents mean Mr and Mrs Jones from Wapping or Cambridge purchase said property as a second (third or fourth) holiday home which they duly visit twice a year, thereby contributing zero to the local economy and doing nothing with the attached parcel of land. Hence much of Northumberland’s villages are becoming ghost villages with short flurries of activity around August and December.

This southern interest in northern rural retreats has naturally caused a huge spike in house prices, thereby putting them way out of reach of local people. This rush for second homes happened three decades ago in Wales but programmes by TV personalities like Robson Green have propelled Northumberland to the front of the queue. 

I was refused a mortgage on a house in the area when I was 19 years old as, according to some cardboard cut-out at the bank, my annual profits weren’t high enough and I was clearly deemed ‘a risk’. I was particularly annoyed at the time as, for the previous 10 months of that year, my rent payments far exceeded any potential mortgage payment.

Back then, said property would have cost me £265,000. Just recently (now 10 years later) I noticed it on the market at £420,000. Particularly galling was the fact that whoever had purchased it had done nothing to improve it and the cottage and surrounding land now looked worse than when I first saw it.

However, cardboard cut-out man at the bank said no and so I’ve spent the last 10 years living in caravans, on floors, with grandparents, girlfriends, in shearing sheds, work accommodation and a little upturned boat called a ‘pod’, and it’s been difficult for me to pinpoint exactly where home is. Northumberland has always been my home, but it’s a bit vague as a postal address! I think that accounts for my willingness to work anywhere in the world, because if you don’t have a home to come home to then what difference does it make?

So, with the recent passing of a close family member and not an estate agent to be seen I have come into possession of a cottage with outbuildings in 20 glorious acres of Northumberland. It actually belongs to my mother-in-law, but we have the pleasure of living there and calling it home. My neighbours are some very boisterous lambs (which take great delight in ganging together like naughty schoolboys), oystercatchers, a beautiful gurgling river, a myriad of wildlife and not the remote possibility of any neighbourly dispute over leylandii hedges! To sit there in the evening with a cold beer and no artificial light is truly magical and more real than any televised nature programme.

With so many outbuildings, much of my time has been spent setting up my new workshops and, after a hard day’s work, I’ve had some pretty late nights. Organising the space, getting bench heights sorted, installing lighting, arranging security (rural crime is on the rise) and all the other things which come with a house move have made for some very long days. Despite this, I’m already reaping the benefits of having my workshop just 30 metres from the house. While the firewood processing is in full swing I spend most of my nights grinding chains. If, for example, I’m into dirty timber and there are a couple of operators, then it’s not unusual to use in excess of 20 chains a day. Small-diameter timber isn’t too taxing as it only takes six minutes on average for me to grind a full skip 20” chain. Dirty timber, however, leaves a lot of 28” and three-foot chains to grind, which makes for very late nights and a need to keep on top of things – and with the workshop so close, I can be!

Prior to moving, my workshop was on the family farm which is currently run by my brother with whom I don’t always see eye to eye. Coming in from work and then having to drive 20 miles to my workshop (Northumberland is a big place) was really tiring and costly, notwithstanding petty acts of childishness. He would switch off the lights via the fuse box as a protest to the consumption of electricity used by the tiny motor I used for the grinders. I would then have to switch to one of my generators until he got bored and went to bed and then I could switch the power back on. How good it is to grind my chains in my own workshop without any petty conflict. Of course, the next time he wants one of his large ash trees processed I’ll be forced to mention the rocketing costs of fuel and see if he can find another chainsaw operator who’ll do the job for free.

The only downside to this new abode is vehicular access. The cottage is served by a very narrow, newly tarmacked road, half paid for by the council and half by the residents. The road itself looks as though it’s got rather thin edges and I doubt the other residents would be very happy to see a 50-tonne wagon on top of it. In retrospect, this is probably a good thing as what is essentially a quiet rural idyll might quickly be turned into a timber yard with noise and generators and lights – a definite deterrent to oystercatchers.

My middle brother, after many years of driving other people’s wagons up and down the country, finally took the plunge and bought himself a second-hand wagon and drag.

Unfortunately, these first few months of ownership have been riddled with problems and I think he’s spent more time under it than in it.

Prior to its purchase, the wagon sat for a year in a compound after its previous owner went bust. I would never profess to be particularly mechanically minded and prefer wherever possible to run state-of-the-art machinery. However, I am aware machinery doesn’t like to be unemployed for long periods. My brother’s wagon has proved a case in point as, over the last few months, just about every sensor has failed or malfunctioned. Despite all these setbacks he’s still operating, and having a brother (with whom I get on very well) capable of shifting your timber certainly has its perks, especially when his timber wagon is parked only 50 metres from my kindling business.

One unusual feature of the wagon is that instead of exiting the vehicle to operate the crane he simply shuffles along onto the passenger seat, puts on a pair of goggles and works through a 180-degree camera. This is a bit like a horse wearing blinkers. Great if it’s pouring with rain or the wagon is in some midge-infested hell hole, but if by chance you’re blocking the road, you fail to see the cars piling up behind you. You can easily differentiate a 10’ log from a 12’ log, but trying to separate pine from larch or kindling spec from chip is almost impossible.

I recently went with him on a job to do just that. I sat in the driver’s seat while he operated the crane and, as he picked up each log, I’d shout “chip” or “kindling”. It took us over an hour, but we had 50 tonnes separated the correct way much to our mutual benefit. He got a better price for his logs and I got to hand pick mine. It made a nice change as most of the time we spend arguing over what are usually petty and pathetic issues, but when we work together the results can be surprisingly positive.

Forestry Journal:

Anyway, all wagons and saws will be redundant this weekend as I set out to yet another wedding. I’ve obviously reached an age when many of my friends are tying the knot and they’re coming thick and fast. This weekend finds me in Ireland. It’s a brother-in-law from Newcastle whom I’ve only met a couple of times but why anyone from here would want to drag the entire family to Ireland for a wedding is beyond me. I can only conclude it’s the Guinness! I’m assured by those in the know (a Mr Ian Stewart) that the Guinness in Ireland is second to none. Ian is the most competent forwarder operator I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside and as I’ll soon be boarding a ferry I’m fairly sure that working together we’ve processed enough oversized timber to fill one. Ian works primarily on Northumbrian estates and we’ve reached an excellent level of understanding, so much so in fact that we can clear an entire site without speaking other than the craic at bait time.

If they were ever to bring back forestry competitions like they ran in the ’80s, then Ian and I would undoubtedly win the best forwarder/hand cutter combo prize. If he says the Guinness in Ireland is good then I believe him! Anyway, when I return there’s only 35,000 sheep to shear and so I’ll need to be fully hydrated!