Books: Thirty Years in Wilderness Wood

From Living Woods Issue 40

A Home in the Wilderness. Review by Alan Rance.

Thirty Years in Wilderness Wood
Chris Yarrow
Matador Press

My wife Janet and I discovered Wilderness Wood
at Hadlow Down in Sussex when we were
touring the area in 2003. What an inspiring enterprise!
I collected a programme and pricelist of the
products they made and sold. We were so taken with
Wilderness Wood that Janet had the excellent idea of
suggesting that we spend a month there. I had taken
up green woodworking and had learned to build a
pole lathe and shaving horse a few years earlier, so we
offered to ‘work’ for the month of August, 2004, five
days a week, demonstrating the pole lathe and green
woodworking, providing they could site our caravan.

Our offer was accepted and we were included in
the Wilderness Wood programme for the year. That
month enabled me to have a very good look at the
Wood: the variety of trees in it and the diversity of
operations, much of which was aimed at attracting
the public (and their money) to the Wood. The café
and the displays were housed in a half-timbered ‘barn’
they built complete with the traditional wattle and
daub (read the book for the problems that caused)
and a shingle roof produced from their own trees,
as was all the timber for the building. It provided
employment for a surprising number of people. I
still treasure the display book that I compiled of
Wilderness Wood.

Thus when I read a review of the book Thirty Years
in Wilderness Wood, I contacted Chris (his wife Anne
was the public face of the enterprise — read the book
to learn why!) who promptly sent me a copy. As soon
as it arrived, I sat down and read the book cover to
cover, all 300+ pages of it. Thirty Years in Wilderness
Wood greatly exceeded my expectations.

Author Chris Yarrow has a degree in Forestry and
followed it up with a Masters in Forest Recreation
in Montana, USA. Anne Yarrow has degrees in both
Geography and Conservation. In spite of foresters
opining that Wilderness Wood, at 63 acres, was too
small to support them, Chris and Anne had a dream
of avoiding a middle-class existence, of being their
own bosses and living and working in a woodland,
employing sound, environmentally-sensitive methods.
The book tells how this energetic couple, with their
two young children, bought the Wood and made a
success of it. The Wood had previously been worked
by contractors for an absentee landlord, and it took
much care and toil for Chris and Anne to transform it
into a productive multi-purpose forest. Together, the
Yarrows created an enterprise that supported them
as well as employing the equivalent of six fulltime

They managed to get planning permission to build
a house there as well, which was sold with the
wood when they retired. Contrast their story with
restrictions placed on the house that Ben Law built in
his woods. Or on the friends of mine who had to go
to the Welsh Assembly in order to get a three-year
permit to live in a timber A-frame that most people
would not even consider for a ‘glamping’ holiday! Alas,
the Yarrows have given up the wood and I cannot see
anyone else working the wood anything like as well
they did.

While I accept that the Yarrows’ creation will not
match the ambitions and purpose of every woodland
owner, their story should stimulate thought. Some
ideas may appeal or may inspire lateral thinking
that could be of real benefit to many. If, like me,
you do not own or have a share in a wood, but are
interested in woodland and forestry, as I have been
since leaving school more than fifty years ago, the
book is an excellent read. It is hardbound and includes
handsome sketches and photographs.


Excerpt from Thirty Years in Wilderness Wood

It was not necessary to delve
into dusty barns to find out how they were
built. A wealth of practical information on design
and construction, including detailed joints, was
available in various craft publications. Of the joints
illustrated, perhaps the most satisfying was the
intricate “tie beam lap dovetail” at the top of a
main post, where the post, tie beam, wall plate and
principal rafter all meet, and are held in place by
gravity and a single oak peg. Our barn dimensions
were determined by the length of the beams we
could cut from our trees. Three bays would give us
a total length of 11 metres. Tie beams linking front
and rear walls gave us a comfortable span of four
and a half metres, and the resulting building would
be a useful size for a variety of purposes.

Fortuitously, Raymond, the carpenter son of the
village storekeeper, was at that time restoring an
eighteenth-century timber barn on the Downs, so was
already familiar with traditional jointing techniques.
He quickly tidied up my rough chainsaw mortices,
and soon we were laying out complete bays in the
yard. With the precise dimensions confirmed, Brian,
a builder who specialised in groundworks because
his vertigo precluded ladder-work, could build the
brick footings.

Anybody who saw the film in which the hero seeks
refuge in an Amish community where they raise a
barn in a single day will appreciate how quickly a
timber frame can rise, given sufficient manpower, and
homely women with basket of cookies and ginger
beer. We had none of these, but somehow heaved
each bay vertical, and used a pole tripod and light
block and tackle to lower the tie beams into place.
A photo shows a couple of centimetres of snow on
the beams as, perched on ladders, Raymond and I
nudge a rafter home with the sledgehammer. No
wonder the building trade is in the same accident
league as mining and forestry, and our barn folly
might easily have been my memorial.

With the walls up, raising the roof was a simple
matter of fixing the principal rafters to wall plates
and ridge-board, and nailing common rafters in
between. These latter were, true to the intended
rustic look, simply cleft chestnut rails normally
used for post-and-rail fencing; they gave an
“interesting” wavy profile, onto which we nailed
battens of half-round chestnut. To shed the rain,
we then made and nailed on about four thousand
oak and chestnut “shingles.” Shingles are among
the oldest forms of roofing, particularly common
in well-wooded parts of the world such as the
Alps and North America. I learned how to make
them from a book produced by a teacher in the
Appalachians, who had his pupils record the rural
techniques of their grandparents. Along with
spinning wool and making soap from tallow and
wood ash, they described the technique for shingle
making. Roundels of timber 12 – 18 inches long are
cleft into slices with a “froe” and mallet. A froe
is a long metal wedge with a wooden handle at
one end, and Ben the blacksmith quickly forged
us one from an old car-spring. Chestnut and oak
are ideal for shingles because they cleave well and
their heartwood is naturally rot-resistant: though
it subsequently turned out they were not durable
enough for our humid woodland conditions,
exacerbated by the coating of leaves and pollen
from surrounding trees. We had expected them
to see out our tenure, but twenty-five years later I
was again up on the roof replacing them all, helped
by George, an architectural student and part-time
ranger at the wood.

So now we had the skeleton of a building –
impressive timber frame, attractive and unusual
roof, and beaten earth floor. To keep out the worst
of the weather we nailed weatherboarding, milled
from our own pine trees, to the back and the
southern end, and began to make use of it as our
workshop, store, and wet-weather shelter. Rustic
yet functional, our barn should be a convincing
demonstration that we intended to do things