Revisiting Carbeth

I’m not going to mince my words here. The Carbeth site north of Glasgow is the flagship of hutting in the UK. It’s long established (since the 1920s), large (98 acres, 143 huts in 2013), and owned by the hutters themselves. The buyout by the Carbeth Hutters Community Company in 2013 and the site’s existence itself has helped fuel the Thousand Huts campaign, which in turn is leading to reform of planning and building control in Scotland in favour of new hutting sites. Visiting Carbeth and going to the 2014 Hutters’ Rally prompted me to start blogging about hutting.

I didn’t take any pictures during that first visit, but this month I had the opportunity to stop by and have a walk round the site with my camera, including up to the planted pine area on the higher ground (which I included in my post about root plates.) I believe the site was just sheep pasture when regular camping started in the 1920s, and it’s notable that like many other hutting and plotland locations, it’s acquired a lot of trees and bits of woodland across the site. Hutting is often an agent of reforestation elsewhere too.

Carbeth notice board

One of the things I try to look for when I visit a site are signs of organisation. How is the place run? What is provided? How well does it work? Is it self-organisation, or some external landowner or local government? As I mentioned above, Carbeth is now run by the hutters’ community company and this first picture is of the noticeboard as you go in with an AGM notice.

Community hut at CarbethThere’s also a community hut nearby with plastic chairs stacked outside and from what I remember of 2014 there’s a small library, board games, tables, and a little kitchen. At the very least you’re going to need so somewhere to hold meetings even when it rains, and it’s a good idea to have a use for it the rest of the time. Some allotment clubs have a village-hall sized shed too. The Humberston Fitties, which is the most similar site to Carbeth in terms of scale, have a Community Room hut (or rather, North East Lincolnshire Council does, and they’ve kept it locked when in disputes with the hutters in the past.)

Water pipe at CarbethFinally, there are basic services like the roadways and water supply, if any. One of the great battle grounds for English plotlands either side of the Second World War was whether the
plotlanders or the council would have the right or the responsibility to maintain roads and water pipes. At Carbeth I could see evidence of roadway repairs and here is a picture of one of the water standpipes and buried pipes that run across the site.

One of the constant questions for hutters is how to provide the services that the site doesn’t.  I saw a few clues indicating septic tanks and people collecting rainwater in IBCs. Quite a few TV aerials and even one satellite dish. Some roofs have solar panels or even miniature wind turbines. Almost every roof had a chimney pipe and cowl, and I could smell wood smoke but also coal, and I saw lots of firewood stacks. For many people, self-reliance and spending time relying on simpler technologies that you can maintain yourself is part of the attraction of hutting.

Huts are still being built and rebuilt, often with modern techniques for wooden buildings including waterproof membranes. The oldest huts, that look just like the ones in Humberston from the 1930s and 1950s two hundred and forty miles away in Lincolnshire, tend to be shiplap which needs factory-machined boards. The next four pictures show Carbeth and Humberston huts side by side, both shiplap and overlap.

Carbeth hut Humberston chalet Humberston chalet Carbeth hut

Concrete blocks foundations at CarbethThe majority that are overlap can be built with much less regular boards than shiplap, even including foot-wide boards with wavy edges done on a portable chainsaw mill at a felling site. I don’t know if that method was actually producing some of the timber for the Carbeth huts, but it does look as if it would be viable. Concrete block foundations were common, including this set laid out on one plot currently without a hut.

DSC_0248The distribution of huts is quite varied. The site averages two thirds of an acre per hut, but each hut’s plot is much smaller than that. The older ones have acquired fences or hedges, and maybe a few trees and outbuildings. Some are arranged in rows, plot against plot, especially on the hillside near the entrance above the Carbeth Inn. Others are in little groups, including some by crossroads or greens beside the roadways. A few are comparatively isolated, especially on the higher ground.

Carbeth has had it’s ups and downs, but it’s certainly on the up now, with solid collective ownership of the site and new huts being built. Above all, its existence demonstrates that hutting communities can work, and can be thriving almost a century after their foundation.


The Black Wood of Rannoch

The Black Wood of Rannoch is a thousand hectare area of ancient Caledonian Forest which has been continuously forested with native species for the last 10,000 years or so. People have harvested the trees in the past, but they’ve not been replaced by human replanting rather than natural regeneration, as is the case in the adjacent forests and most woodland across the island of Great Britain.

Earlier this month I was able to visit and photograph the wood, and I’ve already posted some pictures of a root plate in a blog post about that. Below are some more pictures with a wider range of subjects.

rannoch_02I parked just off the lochside road near where the Dall Burn flows into the south shore of Loch Rannoch. There are quite a few Forestry Commission stopping places along this road. I then walked up the roadway immediately to the east of the burn, as it passes houses, the abandoned Rannoch School swimming pool, and then through the gate into the Black Wood which has the green wooden sign shown here. There are several paths, but I stayed on the roadway with brief detours to look at interesting features.

The Black Wood is primarily silver birch and Scots pine, which were both pioneer species in the first wave of reforestation after the last ice age. You can see the random distribution of the individual trees in the pictures. Along with the uneven ground that pattern is in stark contrast to plantations. I’ve included the root plate pictures again as they also give you a feel for the place.

rannoch_09I took this panorama showing scattered, well separated birches on the higher edge of the Black Wood to the left of the track, and the start of a denser, even-aged plantation of pines with mostly bare trunks on the right. The difference between the two types of wood is very clear on the ground. Continuing along the track I left the Black Wood behind and came out into areas of clear felling and replanting, including one where older trees had been left. They did mostly appear to be dead though.

Trees For Life are actively trying to preserve and extend these native forests, and have a page with maps of their locations and other surviving areas of Caledonian Forest in the Highlands.

After these pictures is a short video I made while driving south from the Black Wood, showing a forestry harvester systematically engaged in clear felling.


Queen’s Diamond Jubilee beacon on the Wrekin

There’s not going to be a beacon on the top of Shropshire’s Wrekin hill tonight, even though there will be a thousand beacons across the UK for the Queen’s 90th birthday. But back in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee there was, and like a few hundred other people I climbed the hill in the dusk to see it lit.

Chains of beacons were used to warn of invasion, with watchers camped out beside bonfires on the top of prominent hills, waiting to set them ablaze as soon as the light from the previous one in the chain was seen. One of Macaulay’s poems (The Armada) describes a wave of such lighted beacons spreading out from Cornwall across England and Wales as the Spanish Armada approaches, and the Wrekin gets a mention:

Till the proud Peak unfurled the flag o’er Darwin’s rocky dales
Till like volcanoes flared to heaven the stormy hills of Wales,
Till twelve fair counties saw the blaze on Malvern’s lonely height,
Till streamed in crimson on the wind the Wrekin’s crest of light

Tolkien, who rooted his mythology in real history, also employed a chain of beacons and Peter Jackson’s “Return of the King” includes the scene.

More recently, beacons have been used for celebration as we’re seeing across the country tonight and in 2012. So back on the Wrekin, here is a photo of 2012’s bonfire, ready to go.


Then the moment itself. I could see at least one other beacon on distant hills by this point.


The fire quickly took hold of the whole bonfire, and I took pictures from further back showing more of the crowd and the plume of smoke and burning embers going up into the sky like Macaulay’s “crimson on the wind”.

wrekin_beacon_3 wrekin_beacon_4

Then we started drifting away and heading off down the familiar path, but for me it was the first time I’d done it in the dark. On the open ground on the top of the Wrekin it was ok, and there was a full moon, but once into the woods that cover most of the slopes of the hill it was tricky. Quiet a lot of phones appeared as makeshift torches, but I kept away from them to keep my eyes adjusted. As always, it takes about half as long to go down the Wrekin as to go up, and then back to my car, roads, streetlights, and home.

And this last picture is just in case you don’t know what Shropshire’s most famous hill looks like in daylight!


Ancient woodland at PMQs

Rebecca Pow asked David Cameron to protect ancient woodland as heritage sites during Prime Minister’s Questions today:

The full exchange was:

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): On a slightly environmental note still, woodland is much valued—not least for recycling much of our hot air—and ancient woodland is especially valued. With only 2% remaining, it is as precious as the rain forests and its biodiversity cannot be replaced. The Prime Minister has 331 ancient and veteran trees in his constituency; does he agree that this precious habitat ought to be protected in line with heritage sites and national monuments?

The Prime Minister: I am very lucky to have in my constituency an ancient forest, the Wychwood forest, which probably contains many of the trees that my hon. Friend mentions. I shall look carefully at what she says. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we plant more forests, trees and woodland, on which this Government have a very good record.

Which isn’t a yes, and might be repeating the mistaken belief that planting new forests in fields in any way makes up for destroying ancient woodland ecosystems that may be thousands of years old.

Plenty of people on Twitter get it though:



Root plates

I really love root plates. They’re the disc of earth, stones, and roots that you often see when a big tree falls over. They reveal something otherwise hidden: a snapshot of what was going on a bit underground, directly under the trunk itself. The most surprising thing is just how shallow they are. Twenty metres of substantial tree trunk laid on the ground but only a foot or two of substantial roots.

Root plates naturally have a mention in Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands”:

“until 1987 few English people understood what a tree’s root system looked like; some thought roots went as nearly as far below ground as stems above it. As the great storms of 1987 and 1990 showed, most trees in England are shallow rooted. It may be argued that deep-rooted trees were never uprooted, but anyone digging holes in a wood seldom meet roots more than 3 feet (1 metre) down. A giant beech can have a root-plate only a few inched deep, much less than the diameter of the trunk.”

This month I took pictures of pine and birch root plates in the woods above Carbeth and in the Black Wood of Rannoch in Scotland.

First these pictures from a stand of trees near the top of the Carbeth hutting site. You can see a double root plate with two trunks and then a single root plate. The third picture shows how shallow the root plates are, and the final picture puts them in context: right on the edge of the wood by an area of marshy ground before the huts start.

carbeth_rootplate_3 carbeth_rootplate_2 carbeth_rootplate_1 carbeth_rootplate_5

These next four are from the Black Wood of Rannoch just to the south of the Cairngorms national park. I’m writing a separate blog post about the wood, as it’s an important survival from the ancient Caledonian forest, but for now, let’s just look at some birch root plates. It striking how similar they look despite pine and birch being completely different species.

rannoch_rootplate_4 rannoch_rootplate_5
rannoch_rootplate_2 rannoch_rootplate_1

Finally, another pine root plate, taken in the rain in Grizedale Forest in the Lake District national park:
Root plate of fallen tree in Grizedale Forest

Root plates are formed when trees are unstable and fall over. A storm can help this, especially one in summer when deciduous trees are in full leaf. Rackham explains that trees have a lot more roots than they need to draw water and nutrients, and the excess is there for stability. Trees that can grow fewer roots than they want are more at risk. So being up against a river bank, or a road, or other trees doesn’t help. Paradoxically, it is more often the trees inside a wood than on the edges that get blown over by the wind, especially if the wood has been planted with an artificially high density.

There are lots of videos of trees falling and root plates forming on YouTube. This compilation is “Trees falling in nature”, although mostly they’re in gardens or struggling to balance in the grass verge beside a pavement: