November 2012 was the start of a major overhaul of the coppice and Tree Seat at the Prebendal Manor. After a Sunday of torrential rain, Monday 5th was bright and sunny with a clear blue sky. What better weather could you ask for?

The hazels (Coryllus avellana) near the lower Fish Pond had become so large that they blocked the view out onto the field system between the Manor and Fotheringhay Great Park. In fact you could only see the Park hedge-line from the gate near the vineyard. We decided to re-open the view but to keep the hazels with the intention that they would not become over large in future. Probably a forlorn hope as there is too much to do on the site.

The coppice itself, which I had designed to show the use of different types of wood and to encourage a variety of wildlife, was also in need of thinning as the willows had put on so much growth due to the very wet weather during 2012.

The Tree Seat was a fairly simple task. The seat is a hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) that I hollowed out and trimmed, so that medieval ladies could sit in the shade during the heat of the day and admire the view of the fish ponds. The seat offers an enclosed area that also acts as a windbreak, but over the last few years I had trained the growth at the opening to extend to offer more shade. As a result it was now very difficult to trim the growth to a rounded shape without over-reaching, which is rather hazardous and it was hard to cut all the growth anyway. I decided to keep the longer opening but to cut very close to the trunk so that we would keep the shade, but have a much shorter overall length.

Hawthorn grows quickly so we would soon recover the greenery at the back of the seat. I used secateurs, loppers, a pruning saw and a builders ‘Jet Saw’ to cut the wood. The jet Saw is much better than a bow saw as it is easier to cut a straight line and the blade can go through wood of any thickness, whereas a Bow Saw can only cut to the depth of the frame.

The sheep, as ever, where interested in what was happening, especially if it involved food, so they came over to watch and much on the trimmings, which saved me clearing up quite so much rubbish later. I soon finished the task.

Mrs Baile had already started to cut back the hazels, but a new saw and some extra muscle power soon resulted in the work being finished. Clearing up is another matter. We decided to let the remaining leaves fall from the branches so that it would be easier to trim the branches and sort the wood for various uses in the garden, and of course, for firewood.

Our coppice is in fact a mix of coppiced hazel and short-legged pollards of willow and ash.

Because of the Muntjac deer, I was advised that the trees would be best grown as pollards, so that the deer would not be able to eat the new shoots after cutting. It proved a good decision, because the manor’s sheep were actually even more of a destructive force than the deer.

The difference between coppicing and pollarding is that coppiced wood is cut down to ground level, but pollards are grown on short stems, with the wood being cut back to the trunk. I tried to keep most of our pollards to shoulder height so that the cutting would not be too difficult not require a ladder to carry out the work.

I cut the surplus wood using the jet saw. For the thinner wood this is fine, but it is hard work on the thicker branches, so I soon worked up a sweat. To avoid tearing the bark and risking infection that may kill the pollards, I undercut the branches to remove them and cut off the more easily supported snag back to the trunk.

I am concerned that some willows in the nearby hedge have become so large that they are crating too much shade and the pollards are not getting enough light to create new growth. Also, some of the willows are diseased. Now we have the worry of the recently introduced Ash die-back disease (Chalara fraxinea) as there is already a major source not so far away in Lincolnshire and another in Bedfordshire.

After a hard day’s work there is still much more wood to cut and then it needs to be cut and sorted. Some branches will be used for fencing and I use thin stems called withies to tie the vines to the poles. They have been used for this purpose since the roman period. One day I would like to make a basket using our own wood, but finding the time is the main problem  – other than not knowing how to make a basket…

Most of the wood will be burned on the manor’s open fire as the willow produces lots of flame which the open fire needs to keep you warm. Having an old design of chimney that is basically a long tube means that the fire does not draw as a modern chimney does and it can get very cold. We joke that you have to dress up warm and put on extra clothing in order to sit in front of the fire. Sometimes it is just too much like hard work when it is warmer to stay in the kitchen where there is an Aga.

I am a garden historian, but a practical one. I resarch how gardening was carried out in the past, rather than just researching gardens. It can be very interesting. Some things that I learn seem to be rather unbelievable. Some other methods are still very practical. Visit my web site-

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