WHAT a crazy year. Who could ever have predicted this? With timber leaving the mill as quickly as it’s cut we’ve finally caught up on orders. This surge (the COVID dividend) has also been really good for profits, which is a nice thing at any time, but at this stage in my life it is a double bonus.

With current demand, the sawmill is too small for what we do and so evenings and weekends are generally spent delivering orders and shifting residues and sawdust to keep the whole enterprise functioning. We are fortunate that we have a yard nearby which we can use for overflow, but that means putting wood into storage and double handling, so I try to avoid this whenever possible.

Since lockdown, we haven’t had to use the overflow at all, but demand has forced me to work crazy hours just to keep on top of things. Of course, a bigger yard would make life much easier and it’s not as though I haven’t tried, but every attempt has usually resulted in some obstruction – usually planning issues. So, I may just have to keep working these crazy hours (100 last week), keep making a profit while I can and retire early! This probably makes the most sense.

A few years back, when raw timber prices escalated to silly levels, I seriously toyed with the idea of renting out the sawmill and doing a bit of HGV driving. Considering some of my recent experiences, I’m so glad I didn’t select that option. Just lately, HGV drivers and I seem to be getting along like oil and water. If you are a wagon driver and a little sensitive then you should stop reading now. Naturally, I would have to include the caveat at this stage that not all HGV drivers are guilty of such indiscretion, but recent events have left me wondering where some of them keep their brains!

We’ve all witnessed (with increasing frequency it seems) the frustrating situation of two articulated wagons occupying both lanes of a dual carriageway. You sit there for what seems an eternity while one vehicle slowly inches its way past the other. As the hours go by and the traffic backlogs to epic proportions in the outside lane, the two vehicles seem locked together in a duel to the death. Both of course will be calibrated to 56 mph, yet one will have more recent tyres, giving it a .0000001 mph advantage over the other. The duel continues, the miles pass and the queue in the outside lane is now visible from the moon. Then we hit an incline. The tiny advantage that the vehicle had in the outside lane is no more and the two vehicles are once again perfectly parallel. And so it goes on ...

READ MORE: Prince of Wales praises red squirrel conservation volunteers 

When this happens to me, as soon as the overtaking vehicle passes the front of my cab I momentarily take my foot off the throttle and flash him in. Unfortunately, in the current climate I seem to be the only person driving with such consideration for other road users and consequently this has resulted in a number of altercations. Twice in one week I’ve been overtaking larger wagons – in my little four-wheeler – when we’ve hit a hill. On both occasions I’ve been just about to pass the vehicle on my inside. I look in my mirrors, expecting at any second for the driver to flash me in, when the road levels off and starts to go downhill.

At this point the wagon I’ve been overtaking puts his foot down. Being fully loaded, he can overrun the speed limiter and so he now starts to undertake me. I suppose at this point I should just accept the situation and allow him to undertake regardless of the frustration caused to the drivers behind, but because of his lack of manners I start to indicate. I give him a bit of a warning, but then begin to pull across in front of him, thus preventing him from undertaking. Brakes are applied and then there is the flashing of lights, the continued blaring of horns and silent mouthing of obscenities the likes of which I can only imagine. If the pea-brained individual doesn’t know that we overtake on the right, then perhaps he shouldn’t be driving.

The only positive thing about being out on the roads at night is that it helps to keep my mind off the car crash that is my private life! And it was all going so well. As a new singleton, the word must be out and various women have turned up at the mill to spoil my new-found happiness. It seems, although I’m new to this game, that some people resent you for being happy. For a while, certain visitors arrived bearing gifts like stews or casseroles, cheese scones and even beer and chocolates. Of course, I’m old and wise enough to realise that some are genuine acts of kindness, while others may have ulterior motives. The kindness is genuinely appreciated, as my cooking skills are non-existent. Such simple acts as operating a microwave present challenges. My first foray into microwave cookery required the heating of a pie. You would think that this would be straightforward, except that this particular pie was raw and needed cooking. My solution was to give it longer in the microwave. As the pie in question had probably never seen a fresh ingredient and consisted of some chemical cocktail, the lengthening of its cooking time simply turned it into some steaming, pulsating, luminous globule that looked more like a meteorite having just returned through the atmosphere from space.

Burgers fared no better and were quickly transformed into pools of grease. In the end I was forced to drive to a local pizza outlet, whereupon I was forced to pay £12 for an object looking more like it was worth 25p. Enough is enough, I thought to myself and proceeded to invest in a slow cooker. I can set the thing up at lunch time and then after work I can sit down to a beautifully cooked meal. The first attempt wasn’t too good, with a piece of beef taking on the appearance and texture of a mop’s head. However, since then, things have improved dramatically and the latest, a gammon joint, is one of the nicest meals I’ve ever had. This is just as well, as one lady who comes to visit, having promised to cook, has yet to produce anything.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see what the new year brings. Demand for timber may well drop as people reduce the number of projects post-lockdown, and who knows, the economy might even falter? It seems unlikely and I’m reasonably confident demand will continue. Either way, it will be interesting both commercially and personally. What I do know is that, whatever happens, I must take a holiday. There are times recently when I’ve started at 4.30am and still been working at 9pm. That I haven’t gone down with exhaustion is a miracle. All things considered, I’m lucky that I’m the sort of individual who can cope with pressure, keep calm and carry on. I suppose I’ve also been lucky that I work in an industry that, during these turbulent times, has been buoyant. It’s a tough industry and it takes a lot of work and dedication to survive, but then the rewards are good. Resilience is the name of the game.

Talking of resilience, my Easymat resaw decided to pack in recently. The controls which operate the thickness and the drive wheel won’t work. Complex wiring works the feed wheel both backwards and forwards, enabling wood to be returned to the operator. If you try and reverse an electric motor which is going one way without stopping it, it will carry on in the same direction and eventually burn out. You therefore need a DC brake in the system. After two days I just couldn’t get the saw up and running and realised that a complete rewire was needed. That way, I could test each contactor as I went, which is a tedious and painstakingly slow process. Contactors work by exciting a small coil of wire in the base, which pulls the contactor in. With a live and a neutral contact you can set the contactors away individually and work out which wire operates what and thus proceed with a rewire. Two days later – and me with a burnt-out brain – it’s back working.

This is a huge relief. Trying to buy new machines for small mills like this is virtually impossible, as is bringing in an electrician to try and fix it. Resilience is the name of the game!

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link: https://www.forestryjournal.co.uk/subscribe/

Thanks – and stay safe.