I recently carved this spoon from a section of eight year old sweet chestnut wood. The other half of the blank had been used by Ed Marsh to carve a spoon for himself. Behind this simple act of carving a spoon lies an interesting story that is worth telling.
Ed had sourced the piece of sweet chestnut from Clissett Wood, the woodland in Herefordshire that he co-owns and helps manage. This is no ordinary woodland, but has a rich pedigree in the history and revival of green woodworking in the UK, via its association with Mike Abbott and Gudrun Leitz.
Mike Abbott was one of the pioneers of the revival of green woodworking in the UK. His influence grew from authoring the book ‘Green Woodwork’ which had come out in 1989. Along with Drew Langsner’s ‘Green Woodworking’, first published in 1987, these books inspired me to pick up a froe and maul and to start cleaving green wood.
In the 1990s Mike Abbott was searching for a woodland to buy in the Herefordshire countryside and on 26 March 1994, visited New Hill Wood for the first time, a 10 acre woodland for sale around 5 miles North West of the market town of Ledbury. It was a traditional broad-leaved woodland with trees planted in the 1920s, but with a few 19th century specimens and new plantings of ash, oak and cherry. The woodland offered great potential as a woodland workshop but was expensive and so Mike and colleagues set up a partnership to allow the cost to be shared amongst seven co-owners of the woods, including fellow green woodworker Gudrun Leitz.
With the purchase complete the name of the wood was changed to Clissett Wood to honour the memory of Victorian chairmaker Philip Clissett, whose beautiful spindle and ladder back chairs grace several museums in the West Midlands.
Clissett Wood has seen many hundreds of students pass through its leafy splendour in the years since Mike Abbott, his wife Tamsin and friends bought the wood. The woodland also features heavily in Mike’s second book, ‘Living Wood’ published in 2002 which has a more autobiographical element and details the trials and tribulations of looking for a woodland to buy, including a whole chapter on Clissett Wood.
Mike and Tamsin have subsequently sold their shares in Clissett Wood, but as one of the two original co-owners Gudren Leitz continues to run green woodworking and chairmaking courses from the woods today. .
And so it came to be that Ed Marsh, one of the more recent co-owners of Clissett Wood, was at the recent Oxfordshire Bodgers meeting in our own small woodland idyll of Foxcombe Wood when he presented me with some sweet chestnut grown at Clissett Wood which he had harvested from a recent management weekend in the woods.
The character of sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, became apparent as I looked at the spoon blank cleaved in two by Ed. At one end was a dirty grey smear on the surface of the cut wood. This was evidence of the high tannin content of sweet chestnut wood reacting with the metal of the axe blade used to cleave the branch leaving a characteristic deposit familiar to anyone who has seen, for instance the staining around a nail driven into oak wood.
As a non-native species to the UK, the traditional view that sweet chestnut was introduced by the Romans has been disputed although it is clear that the tree was exploited for its wood and fruit from the early middle ages.
The high tannin content , second only to oak for UK hardwood species, makes sweet chestnut an excellent wood for posts, fencing and stakes, usually harvested from coppiced trees. For me sweet chestnut is forever linked to the wonderful timber framed Woodland House built by Ben Law and documented on Channel 4’s Grand Designs in what the presenter and viewers said was their favourite house
Behind every wooden spoon is story of the sort of the wood it is carved from, where it has grown and how it was harvested. Not all stories get told, but I’m pleased that this sweet chestnut spoon has such a rich provenance.