As you can see from the image above, Friday morning saw the first frost of the year at Hales Wood. However, though we are still at the beginning of 2012, the plants are already beginning their preparations for spring and the recent mild weather has brought everything forward by a week or so. The honeysuckle in Hales Wood is already coming into leaf and provided they can survive further frosts, in summer these leaves will be joined by its sweet-smelling flowers.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is one of five woody climbers that are native to Britain and it grows all over Hales Wood. It twists its way up the rods of hazel and other coppiced species in the wood, spiralling anti-clockwise up towards the sunlight. However, as the rods grow within its embrace, the honeysuckle constricts, deforms and eventually strangles them, leaving the rods as standing deadwood. It is this behaviour that gives honeysuckle one of its other names ‘woodbine’. One would expect that a species which throttles rods and remains awkwardly tangled around felled hazel would be a hated foe of coppice workers, and perhaps at one time it was. But as well as accepting its place in the ecology of Hales Wood, Andy and I cherish honeysuckle; provided they are felled before they die off, constricted poles often exhibit incredible shapes which can be used to create unique walking sticks, tool handles and furniture.
Faggots are one of our main products in the winter months. A faggot or fascine is essentially a tightly bound bundle of sticks. Traditionally faggots were used as fuel, in bread ovens and kilns but we make them for sale to conservation groups who use them in river defences. They are staked into the edges of eroded streams where they collect silt, increase flow and rebuild the banks.
We use simple cradles like this one, made from aspen poles, to make faggots. As we sort through a pile of hazel, we select the lengths that are suitable for making into products, typically straight clean sections of varying lengths (or interesting forks and shapes for furniture making) and put them to one side, everything else is put onto the cradle. When the cradle is full ,the sticks are constricted using metal cables and then the bundle is tied up with string in three places. Therefore faggots are a way for us to use all the material which isn’t suitable for anything else and produce a useful product for important conservation work.
The tool seen used in the video above is known as a billhook, in winter, this is the tool I use most. Billhooks were once a very commonly used tool in Britain and much of northern Europe, they come in all shapes and sizes and have many different uses. Some are designed for felling small coppice rods and some are designed for hedging, some are designed for hacking through brambles and some are designed for pointing stakes. I use a billhook mainly for cutting and trimming felled hazel rods into products and faggot material and for sharpening smaller stakes.
Old catalogues like the one above give a hint to the huge variety of billhooks that were once widely available in Britain. As well as common regional patterns, local blacksmiths and smaller manufactures would have custom-made hooks to order to meet the needs of the individual user. There are still companies that make billhooks but for those willing to do a little sharpening there are still many good examples available second-hand; the older tools that have avoided too much abuse are often well balanced, made from high quality steel and generally worth buying.
This is the billhook I use for trimming up the hazel in the winter, its a Wiltshire pattern billhook made in Birmingham by A.F. Parkes. It’s hook means you can pick up rods without having to squat down and when cutting onto a block it can easily go through an inch and half of hazel in one swing. Its at least twice as old as I am but despite that (and the now vacant worm holes in the handle) it’s still working well.