Tottington Woodlanders

We are a registered charity which manages an area of ancient woodland next to the village of Small Dole near Henfield in West Sussex.

At Home in the Woods

Prickly Nut Wood is home to writer and woodsman Ben Law, notably remembered for his appearance on Channel 4’s Grand Designs when he built his unique house from the trees and woods he manages.

img_2092On Friday 15th July Ben opened his home, near Lodsworth in West Sussex, to Tottington Woodlanders and eighteen of us met him for a guided tour, giving us an insight into the way he manages Prickly Nut Wood and the sort of work he undertakes around Sussex. He also runs woodland craft and construction courses using materials from his woodland.

 

 

 

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We were welcomed with tea and coffee made from spring water heated in a kettle suspended over an open fire. An uprooted tree with a corrugated iron roof provided shelter and an outdoor kitchen. It was filled with smoke blackened cast iron pots and pans for use over the open fire.

 

 

Prickly Nut Wood’s local shop, the Lodsworth Larder, is one of Ben’s projects. It has won architectural and social enterprise awards, and as with all of Ben’s projects, was built from sweet chestnut, oak, ash and larch.  The Lodsworth Larder is the Uk’s first roundwood shop, and is run by the community for the community.  The profits go directly back into the village.  It has also become a hub – supporting local producers and offering such a wide range of produce villagers have no need to shop elsewhere.

Ben explained that when he first took stewardship of Prickly Nut he didn’t just start coppicing, cutting and felling. He decided to watch the seasons’ change, observe the birds and animals, and plan a sustainable future for himself and the land for which he was now responsible. He lived in a bender made from hazel hoops with a tarpaulin roof for the first two years, and told us that by doing that he became as one with his surroundings. He noticed which trees were frequented by which birds and began to recognise the scurrying sound and rustling of leaves as mice and other rodents went about their evening business.

After our meet and greet, Ben took us on a wander through the woods, first showing us one of his shepherd’s huts that is used by his apprentices. There are currently two apprentices (one male, one female) – both learning their skills in woodland craft under Ben’s watchful eye and expert guidance.

img_2089In his early years at Prickly Nut Wood, Ben decided to build a pond. This was no easy task as years of neglect and the vigorous growth of rhododendron and birch had created an impenetrable barrier to the stream he wanted to use to feed the pond. But, with persistence and a sharp billhook, Ben cleared the way, and with a few friends puddled the Wealden clay to create a natural pond. The pond, through Ben’s empathetic use of natural materials, has also become a haven for grass snakes, damselflies and dragonflies, as well as a myriad of other insects and animals. The pond is quite large, probably 25m in diameter. It’s unusual in its construction since the edges are shallow and graded with gravel, but the centre has been dug to a depth of 2.5m to make a swimming pool. Near the pond is a barbecue area and a bar, all made from locally sourced and recycled materials; an idyllic place for a summer’s evening drink and a chat with family and friends.

As we walked through the wood Ben explained how, after his first year of observation, he formulated a plan for coppicing. The first cant he chose was chestnut – last coppiced some 50 years before. He described how some of the coppice stools were full of dead branches; others were covered in twisted, windblown stems. Of equal importance was trying to decide upon the best route for the extraction of the timber. The years had seen the old tracks become overgrown and neglected. He also said that he is a great believer in doing as much work as possible near to where the coppiced material is cut. Large chestnut poles can be cleaved into four pieces for fence posts where they are felled, and building a cleaving break in the middle of the cant for splitting chestnut- fence pales, means they can be put into bundles of 25; easy enough to carry out on shoulders – according to Ben.

Further along our walk we came to a large coppiced chestnut clearing. One of Ben’s apprentices was sawing the coppiced chestnut into one-foot lengths. It turns out that Ben has a contract with the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton to make 58,500 shakes for the roof of a new building being constructed there. Shakes (and shingles) are like roof tiles, but made from wood – red cedar, sweet chestnut and oak are mostly used in their making. (Shakes are not sawn but cleaved along the grain of the wood by splitting. Shingles are cut by saw along the grain.) To speed up production at Prickly Nut Wood, Ben has a hydraulic log splitter especially adapted to cleave shakes from the roundwood chestnut pieces. Once the one-foot logs are split into 8 shakes, each shake is finished by hand in the workshop. Finishing the shakes includes ensuring uniform thickness and bevelling the bottom edge to aid rain run-off. Any shakes that don’t quite make the grade because of knots or splits are either used for kindling or for roofing animal shelters and henhouses.

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Construction of a butter pat joint

As well as the Weald and Downland museum project, Ben is currently working on a bus shelter for the bus stop at Halfway Bridge. The shelter will be made from roundwood and constructed in his favoured style of cruck frame with a ridgepole.

To add strength to the construction, Ben favours the use of ‘butter pat’ joints. One of the roundwood poles has a rectangle of wood in the joint that matches up to a ‘butter dish’ in the other.

Towards the end of the afternoon we were treated to what everyone must have been eagerly anticipating – a look inside Ben’s beautiful family home. The main structure of the house centres around a large cruck frame. The roof is covered in handcrafted shakes made from sweet chestnut, the expected life of which is about 20 years. The exterior of the walls are covered in rough sawn timber planks. The walls themselves are made from straw bales with riven sweet chestnut lathes covered in clay . There is no mains electricity . Solar panels provide a 12Vdc source of power for a small TV, LED lighting and to drive a pump for the heat exchangers that provide hot water. The house is warmed by a woodburning stove.

Ben Law’s family home

All in all, this was a wonderful day out at Prickly Nut Wood. A big thank you to Jill Cannon and the rest of Tottington Woodlanders’ team for making it happen. Ben was truly inspirational.

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