The continuing story of Malcolm Brown and his transition from art student to arb expert on the local parks department

SO much for landing an easy job, thought Malcolm at the top of the bank, looking down on the cluster of trees past two football fields. On paper it seemed simple – make a grove in a stand of young trees at a local school.

The problem was it was on a school. In the old days, one could simply rock up, drive through the yard and get on with it. Now, in a growing climate of fear over child safety, every school was like a military base with security to rival MI5. All visitors had to phone ahead, everyone had to have DBS background checks plus ID, and sign in and out on every visit. Malcolm felt the cold eyes of CCTV cameras on him even before he was through the first locked gate. 

READ MORE: 'The average bloke doesn’t understand trees': Malcolm goes home in Tree Gang Pt. 51

The second problem was the stand of trees lay some way downhill from the school below the bottom sports field, with the only access being a treacherously narrow grass ramp. All in all it had been an exceptionally wet winter and even as Malcolm and the headteacher surveyed the job, rain was falling. Malcolm just knew those pitches were going to be a sodden quagmire. Once in similar conditions at Limebank Stadium, the van had sunk up to its axles and had to be dragged out by tractor. Afterwards, the pitch had looked like something from the Battle of the Somme.

Gingerly, Malcolm walked down the slippery grass to check the lie of the land and it wasn’t long before his boots were squelching. No way was the van getting across there. It would need a good few weeks of dry weather before he’d even contemplate attempting it. Trouble was, it didn’t look like the weather was going to clear any time soon.

The trees stood on a forgotten patch where the school grounds backed onto a row of houses. 

“We want to create a storytelling glade,” the headteacher told him brightly. “We’re going to call it Bluebell Dell.”

“Lovely. Do you have bluebells?” The ‘wood’ in question looked like a stand of self-setting ash trees, roughly between 20 and 30 years old, interspersed with a few sycamore and a lot of bramble and nettles. Not the sort of place you’d expect to find a mass of bluebells. 

“We’re going to let the children plant some once the weeds have been cleared,” she said, wellies sucking on the mud as she took him round the field. 

The brambles massed around the edge of the young wood made a very effective barrier. Malcolm knew his team would have to clear them away before anything could be done with creating the dell.

“Some of these trees are reasonably thick,” he said, looking about for likely places to ditch a load of brash where it wouldn’t be noticed. There wasn’t anywhere. “We could probably use them to make benches for sitting on.” More importantly it would save having to cart them off site. 

The headteacher thought this a splendid idea. Even so, there would still be a lot left over. Some logs and brash could be stacked into piles for ‘bug hotels’, Malcolm’s latest way of avoiding extra trips to the tip, but a chipper would still be needed. It was then Malcolm noticed the gate.

The outer border of the school, having escaped the MI5 treatment near the main building, was only protected by a line of rusty, spiked railings. Buried beneath a blanket of brambles, Malcolm spotted an old double gate next to a gap between the houses. Perfect for gaining access to the wood. He put the suggestion to the headteacher.

“Oh no. We’d rather you didn’t use that old gate. It might compromise the school’s security.”

Malcolm groaned inwardly but patiently explained the difficulties of getting to the wood any other way. Eventually, the headteacher relented, pending consultation with the school board. 

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Later, back at the depot, Donc, Malcolm’s tractor driver, learned of the plan. “You’ll be lucky. That gate was used to mow the pitches until some old git living next to it played merry hell. Must be ten years since it was last opened.”

“So how do you get on now?”

“Down that bloody ramp. But don’t try it in this weather, you’ll never get back up.”

Luckily, after a lot of emails between the school and the parks head office, it was decided the gate could be used, as long as the council promised to help finance a new security fence. 

So, as soon as a break in the weather came, Malcolm and his team headed down with a chipper to start the job. With their usual van being in for service, Malcolm took the spare, a plain white crew cab used off and on by all the teams. They still had to sign in at the main building, presenting DBS certificates and council ID badges to prove they weren’t dangerous criminals, before driving right around the block to the housing estate.

“Never even knew this gate existed,” said Graham, lifting a hedgecutter off the back of the van.

Malcolm took up a pair of bolt cutters to remove the rusted padlock. “No one did.”
With the brambles trimmed back from the gate, Malcolm was about to cut the lock when he heard an angry cry. 

“Oy! What do you think you’re doing?” A glowering pensioner, with a nest of white hair around his egg of a head was shaking his fist. 

Mathew handed Spudda the bolt cutters and approached. “We’re just going in to do some tree work.”

“Oh no you’re not. This is private property. Now bugger off or I’ll call the police.” Claiming he owned the land leading to the gate, the man wasn’t swayed by Malcolm’s council ID, or the logo on his fleece. However, Malcolm stood his ground. He wasn’t about to be dissuaded from using the only viable access route.

The debate was shaping up to a stubborn face off when Spudda yelled: “Gate’s open.” 

While Malcolm and the man were arguing he’d cut the lock and was wrestling the old gate out from its nest of brambles.

The old man turned purple and stormed across, shouting: “Shut that bloody gate now!”

“Sorry, mate. No can do,” said Spudda, dragging the gate across the gravel.

The pensioner grabbed the gate and hauled on it like a maniac, but found it too heavy to shift.

“I’d stop before you do yourself an injury,” Spudda laughed unhelpfully.

Infuriated, the man shouted: “Right! That’s it. I’m calling the police and the council!” And with that stomped off to a house on the corner. 

“If you ask me, he’s tapped,” said Graham. 

Karl mused, “Who do you think will get here first? The council or the cops?”

“Cops I reckon,” said Graham.

“A fiver says it’s the council.”

“You’re on.” Graham and Karl shook hands to seal the bet.

Meanwhile, Spudda was going hell for leather with the hedgecutters on the remaining brambles.

For once, Malcolm was glad of Spudda’s gung-ho attitude. With luck, they could get a lot done before the shit hit the fan as he had a feeling things would get complicated very soon.

Backing the van into the gateway to block it just for good measure, Malcolm turned off his works phone before heading into the trees. Ignorance was bliss. If his boss wanted him, he could come and find him. 

They managed to drop three trees and fill the van with brambles before the police arrived. Spudda was stood on the back in the process of turning them to bramble mush with the hedgecutters as a patrol car drew into the access road. Malcolm met with the lead officer and explained the situation. Karl handed Graham a fiver.

“All we did was open that old gate and the fella went mental,” said Malcolm.

The police officer sighed. “Mr Turner used to phone us regularly to complain, but this is the first time we’ve heard off him in a good few years.” He went on to explain that Mr Turner only owned a narrow strip by his house, enough to park a car. The rest of the road was public access.

When Alan, Malcolm’s boss, turned up, it transpired Mr Turner, fed up of the tractor mower leaving grass all over the road, had made so many complaints that it had been decided to close off the gate.

Anything for a quiet office life, even if it makes our job impossible, thought Malcolm bitterly. Inevitably, Alan told him not to use the gate.

“Seriously? Have you seen the access down from the school? It’s like driving through a swamp.”

Malcolm’s blood was boiling.

“Just do your best,” was Alan’s unhelpful response.

Mr Turner re-appeared. “You’re not making a mess in front of my house. I’ll write to the police, my councillor and my MP. You’ll see.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” said Alan, with fawning deference. “We’ve taken on board your complaint. There will be no mess and the gate will remain locked.”

Malcolm stormed off in frustration. If that’s what Alan wanted then that’s what Alan would get.

Straight after lunch he drove through Check Point Charlie at the main school entrance and launched van and chipper down the slope leading to the football pitches. They made it down the first ramp successfully and slew across the top pitch leaving a muddy track in their wake. At the second ramp, however, everything went Pete Tong. The van plunged into the mud on the lower pitch and, despite every effort, remained stuck fast. 

Donc and his tractor were summoned to come and haul them off. Alan watched with a grim expression as the pitch was churned into a chaos of furrows as Donc manoeuvred to hitch up to the van. 

Alan was there to make sure things were done with least disturbance, but with the ramp being too steep, narrow and wet they were forced to exit via the gate. 

Naturally, Mr Turner was not happy to find the road outside his house looking like the aftermath of a mud wrestlers’ convention. The school was even less happy seeing the damage caused to the pitches. 

A few months later, a new high-security fence went up behind the houses, along with a new high-security gate. As a concession to residents, a new concrete area was added just inside the gate where tractor drivers could brush mud off their tyres before leaving. Even so, Mr Turner continued to be a problem until he went into a nursing home where, according to Malcolm’s sources, he continued to create merry hell.