I’m going to start posting more about my own wood at https://centurywood.uk and probably most of the forestry and rewilding posts I make in the future will be there too. The first post I’ve made is about ride rewidening and a bit about coppicing by hazel and poplar.
I don’t know about you, but poetry at school was a hit and miss business. Looking back, it feels as if a lot of verse was thrown in my general direction, some of which has stuck and some of which just bounced off – even when committed to memory overnight to placate a teacher. W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is one that stuck, and a couple of years ago I realised its connection to hutting and to Walden in particular. The poem is short enough to quote in full here:
Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Until I came back to the poem a couple of years ago, I remembered the island but not the cabin. Perhaps as a boy I imagined escaping from the pavements of my own city to the island, but as a man I think ahead to shelter and the cabin. Yeats thought even further, to food, with his nine bean rows and bee hive. Rereading it I then saw the connection to Thoreau’s account of two years living in a hut by a lake, in “Walden”. Thoreau grew his own food, and sold the surplus to pay for other necessities. He talked at length about cultivating rows of beans in particular:
Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.
Which is more prosaic and more extensive than Yeats’ nine rows of beans, but represents the voice of experience!
Some digging of my own turned up passages in Yeats’ autobiography which spelt out his childhood connection between Walden and the island, starting with a conversation with his father:
When I said to him, echoing some book I had read, that one never knew a countryside till one knew it at night he was pleased (though nothing would have kept him from his bed a moment beyond the hour); for he loved natural things and had learnt two cries of the lapwing, one that drew them to where he stood and one that made them fly away. And he approved, and arranged my meals conveniently, when I told him I was going to walk round Lough Gill and sleep in a wood. I did not tell him all my object, for I was nursing a new ambition. My father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep. (Part I, xvii, p.43)
Years later walking on the grey pavements of London in 1888, he remembered the island and composed the poem:
I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. (Part II.I, xv, p.94)
One of the impulses of hutting is not just to go to more natural places, but to go back to them. Repeatedly. To maintain a connection to them, even when walking the grey pavements of cities. To carry part of them inside you, “in the deep heart’s core”.
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a hut beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and started the process which led to “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854. This book has gone on to become a classic of American literature, held up by advocates of self-reliance, resistance to the power of the State, naturalism, and conservation; and studied by generations of school children. Even in the UK, it’s often quoted, with its mixture of philosophy and the outline of Thoreau’s efforts to lead a self-reliant life from the land around his hut.
I’ve been meaning to write about Walden since I started this blog, but the more I thought about it, the bigger the task became. Walden is a treasury of ideas connected to hutting and nature, and a single post or even a sequence written at the same time won’t do it justice. So instead I made a page about Walden and will make blog posts as I add material to it. For now that page has a collection of key passages I selected while reading the book, with a focus on hutting.
A few of them give you a flavour of his intentions:
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.
Walden Pond is now a Massachusetts state park and visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. There is a reconstruction of Thoreau’s hut near the car park and the footprint of the original hut is also marked out.
Interesting article by Geoff Beacon on the possible return of plotlands and prefabs, and the background to how we got into the current house price mess stoked by the planning system:
Just imagine, as we do in the York Plotlands Association, that individuals could buy a plot of land for, say, three or four times its a agricultural value (e.g. £2,000), be given planning permission for that plot and put a home of their choice on it. For the individual that would cut out the £50,000 to £100,000 planning gain that ends up on the price of their new home.
In 2014 I made one of the most popular posts here: “Humberston Fitties: magical but under threat“, describing one of Britain’s few remaining plotland sites on the north east coast of Lincolnshire. It was under threat from the continuing uncertainty surrounding the council’s intentions, and the possibility it might be sold to the adjacent commercial caravan park. Since then, things have just got worse and some of the chalet owners have put out a request for help.
The chalet owners have formed the Humberston Fitties Community Interest Company and have offered £1.5 million to the council, who are determined to sell the long lease for the whole site. The adjacent caravan site (Thorpe Park) had first refusal but declined to buy it. Problem solved? No, the council don’t want to sell the long lease to the chalet owners. (Who are voters and council tax payers and people who spend money in the local economy remember.) Instead they are in secret negotiations with an undisclosed company, believed to be another commercial caravan site company.
This seems unbelievably bloody minded and high handed by the council.
I had this email from the C.I.C. yesterday and wrote this blog in response:
NELC put the leasehold up for sale in Oct 2016, inviting expressions of interest. Our Community Interest Company submitted an offer to buy at the asking price of £1.5 million. NELC have very regrettably rejected our offer, in favour of their ‘preferred bidder’, who is believed to be a commercial static caravan site company.
Given the bizarre secretive way in which our landlord NELC are going about things, we as a community really do fear the worse. As such, and given that we feel that we may well be about to loose this much loved piece of Utopia that happens to be a Designated Heritage Asset, we are trying to increase awareness of what is going on across the length and breadth of this land, by whatever means (and media) possible.
We have formed an online petition that I hope you will sign. See link :- https://www.change.org/p/north-east-lincolnshire-council-petition-opposing-north-east-lincolnshire-council-s-proposed-disposal-of-the-fitties
Feel free to circulate this message and spread the word generally, to your friends, family, associates and colleagues!
So, please consider signing the petition and telling your friends. If you have media connections and might be able to help, please get in contact with the C.I.C. via their website.
(The site also has a really interesting page about the Fitties history too.)
Another positive story, from last week’s Observer:
Now a ‘hutting’ revival is predicted after the Scottish government signalled that later this month it will change legislation to exempt huts from building regulations, allowing people to put up these most simple of second homes in the countryside wherever they can rent or buy a plot of suitable land, subject to planning permission.
Story in the Guardian today about people buying woodplots and doing interesting things with them:
If you go down to the woods today … you might find a school, a photographer’s studio, or a carpenter’s workshop. Britain’s forests are getting a new lease of life
We went to this year’s Glamping Show today at Stoneleigh Park near Warwick. Glamping has expanded over the years to include camping pods, newly-built shepherd’s huts, and tiny houses as well as the luxurious tents, yurts etc. I’ve included a gallery of some of the photos I took which gives you a flavour of the event, and points where glamping now overlaps with hutting.
The show is explicitly aimed at landowners wanting to diversify into glamping, and had stands from everyone from wood-burning hot tub makers to online visitor booking software. In the main hall were (mostly) smaller stands and three seminar spaces. Outside were a wide selection of the kinds of tents and cabins on offer.
Hutting tends to be about having the hut or cabin or shed or whatever for much longer than glamping, where you might just hire it for a week. Most hutting is about owning the structure and maybe even the land it sits on. However, there’s now a lot of similarity in the buildings, even if the glamping huts are quite neat and commercial. They’re a lot more soulful than caravans though.
So it was really interesting to see a fun talk by Max McMurdo about upcycling and glamping, and the idea that you might furnish or even construct glamping huts or tents with reclaimed materials to get away from a manufactured feel. He also made some good comments about the experience of glamping which resonated with the experience of hutting: such as the way daylight becomes so important when man-made light is not just available at the flick of a switch; and how satisfying the most ancient human technologies such as lighting a fire can be, especially when you’re living free of wifi and “being connected”. During the questions at the end Planning Law reared its head (as it always does sooner or later), and there was also lots of good advice (like looking for materials to reclaim in skips!) Max has also got a new book out about upcycling.
Back in the outdoor area, I was really pleased to have a chance to look around the tiny house from Tiny House UK. This is the first time I’ve seen one in person and I hope we see more of them in Britain. Since the ones on wheels or liftable by a crane count as a caravan in planning law, they have the potential to make all those situations where you’re allowed a caravan to be a lot more attractive. One of these is forestry, where you’re allowed to live on site in a caravan when doing forestry work as long as it’s “less than a season”.
If you’re at all interested in doing glamping as a business then I’d recommend looking at the magazines Open Air Business and Glamping Business for the adverts and articles. There are a lot of options, including DIY approaches all the way up to companies who do all the work and share profits with you in return for use of your land.
I came across the video “Living Tiny Legally, Part 1” due to a post in the Tiny House Community UK Facebook group. It’s a really interesting insight into how people have been persuading some local authorities in the US to allow Tiny Houses. You do need to mentally translate “zoning” into “planning permission” and “construction codes” into “building regulations” for the UK system of course.
At 19:30 in the video there’s a slightly awkward moment where one of the city managers finds a diplomatic way of saying they wanted to avoid creating trailer parks that would reduce surrounding house prices. This has always been one of the key worries of local authorities in the UK when faced with plotlands or hutting development: how do they know this isn’t going to turn into some form of shanty town? Quirky colonies populated by artists and software engineers are mostly welcome. Traveller sites usually aren’t.
This is the first part of a three part project, but there are already lots more videos on their Tiny House Expedition YouTube channel.
After a morning spent at Allan Bank by Grasmere, I spent an afternoon at the Forestry Commission’s Dodd Wood and Whinlatter Forest Park sites either side of Bassenthwaite Lake. Again I was mainly looking for red squirrels, but didn’t have as much success as at Allan Bank.
Dodd Wood is a smaller site and is notable for having osprey viewing platforms manned by volunteers in the summer. It’s possible to see down to the osprey nest and watch the adults swooping down to pluck fish from the lake. Red squirrel feeders are also visible from the viewing station, but I didn’t see any signs of feed when I visited.
However I did get some blurry pictures of squirrels scampering around. Like at Allan Bank, they seemed to be spending as much time on the ground as up trees. Even when aware of me and heading off, they didn’t take the opportunity to climb the nearest tree and then move around in the canopy.
One of the proposed reasons why red squirrels are helped by the presence of pine martens, is that grey squirrels spend more time on the ground than reds and so get preferentially eaten by pine martens, letting the reds recolonise the area. Perhaps the scent of pine martens prompts reds to keep off the ground more? Nuts tend to fall to the ground so if it is safe to come down from the trees then it might be worth having both behaviour patterns in their repertoire.
Whinlatter Forest Park is much larger and billed as England’s only true Mountain Forest. The staff in the visitors’ centre were up front about the low chance of seeing reds as the site was quite busy. I headed off on the Seat How Summit Trail, and didn’t see any other walkers all afternoon – just a few mountain bikers. This trail gets up to 520m where the trees give out to heather and includes Seat How, a rocky outcrop with astonishing views across the forest and over to the mountains and Derwentwater. It feels like an island in a sea of trees. These two photos give you a hint of all that.
As a working forest some areas were entirely closed off for felling. You can see evidence of clear felling in the left hand picture above. Some of the other forest roads had warning signs – particularly about the danger of climbing stacks of logs. Quite a sobering thought.
Despite the lack of red squirrels, I did manage to see deer.
And toadstools. And sycamore beside a roadway at about 300m.