To Cumbria for Timber (December 2011)

To Cumbria for Timber

Though we have already got two oak logs and two greenheart beams, we realised a while ago that we would still be a few planks short for replanking "Hazel". I was just starting to look around for more sources of timber when a friend of a friend posted on Facebook a message that he was felling some oak trees and thought they might be of use to someone. I got in touch and soon I was heading for Cumbria to have a look.

Joe reckons he's the most eco friendly tree surgeon in Cumbria, which means he often does himself out of work by persuading land owners that they actually don't need to fell any trees. In this case however, an expert from the Woodland Trust had been along to advise on the management of the woodland and had advised on its thinning out. Joe does forestry work for the woodland owner from time to time and had been asked to find a buyer for the timber.

My first trip was to have a look at the wood. I took the WCBS van for the day, drove up the M6 and found Joe at his yard beside a gurgling stream near Tebay. We climbed aboard his elderly Range Rover and he drove me over the hills and down into the Eden Valley where we eventually turned through wrought iron gates and hooted as we passed the facade of a minor stately home known as Crossrigg Hall, then up a track through an avenue of Welingtonias

Sequoiadendron is a genus of evergreen trees, with two species, only one of which survives to the present:[1]

into the woodland.

Someone was cutting up a felled oak with a chain saw so we walked over to where he was working and had a chat, then Joe showed me round the woodland and pointed out the trees marked with the yellow spot of doom.

The expert had consistently marked the younger trees for felling. The strategy would be to take out the smaller trees to open up the woodland and allow the more mature tees to spread out. While this makes sense aesthetically, it means that the timber will not be very useful, at least, not for boatbuilding.

I was disappointed, but then Joe showed me a more mature oak that they had decided to fell because it had die back in its upper branches. This was of a useful size and had just the right curve in it. Another tree had caught my eye as, though of a disappointingly small girth it had some useful looking curves in it.

David, the owner of the estate came out to join us and we went to look at the relevant trees again. We agreed a price and got back in the Range Rover to return to Joe's yard. Inside the old caravan, nicely camouflaged with green painted wood, that he uses as an office, there was a nice warm atmosphere created by the woodstove. Millie, Joe's obsessively affectionate spaniel played catch the ball unceasingly as we drank tea, then I headed back home again.

A few weeks passed as I tried to find a reasonably priced lorry to move the wood. What a shame there's no canal to Appleby. With this problem settled I tried to get back in touch, with no immediate success. It turned out that David had gone on holiday. Ultimately, with Christmas fast approaching, the connections were made. Joe offered somewhere to stay.

Tom Kitching is an excellent fiddler and he's also part owner of the wooden tank narrow boat "Spey" Unusually he found himself with no fiddling or boating to do for the week before Christmas, so he offered to come and help with "Hazel". I suggested a couple of days in Cumbria planking logs.

The plan was to pick Tom up from his home in Chorlton at about 7AM, but with having to prepare the boats at Portland Basin for my absence and road chaos it was about 20 to eight when we finally got moving through the darkness towards the motorway. I had filled the back of the van with all kinds of things that I thought might come in useful. Somewhere around Lancaster I suddenly realised that I'd forgotten the chain block. This could be a problem if we needed to move the logs at all for cutting.

The long motorway drag ended at Tebay, where we took a B road through Old Tebay village in a roughly North Easterly direction. We passed the end of the track that leads to Joe's yard as I'd arranged to meet him in the woods. Tom had asked to stop at a shop and, spotting a sign advertising the village shop, we turned off into Orton Village. As I waited in the van and studied the map I'd printed out, a small woman approached and introduced herself as Joe's mother. I had briefly met her on my previous visit. She explained that she was going to see her grandchildren singing at a Christmas event at the church that evening but she would make us a hotpot and we could stay either in her house or Joe's office. I thanked her and introduced her to Tom, then we set off again.

Leaving the main road on high moorland we bounced and swerved along tiny stone walled lanes, over rustic hump backed bridges and through villages built along rushing streams. This part of Cumbria seems pretty much untouched by tourism, and perhaps I should shut up before I encourage more visitors to spoil it!

Eventually we turned in through wrought iron gates between stone pillars and down the gravelled drive to draw up in front of the grand porch of Crossrigg Hall. I got out and rang the bell, half expecting Jeeves to open the huge front door. I waited a long time, listening to Joe chainsawing away in the woods. I was beginning to wonder if the bell was working, perhaps I should use my mobile 'phone, when the door slowly opened and David, the owner, peeked out. A jovial man in his sixties, he greeted me jovially, and jovially handed me an invoice for the timber.

We drove on through an avenue of huge Wellingtonias to park the van behind Joe's Range Rover and Trailer. Joe had arranged to be there to cut up firewood from the various branches of the trees that were being felled. Walking over to the larger of the two trees my heart sank as I saw that it would need rolling before we could plank it as it was lying with its curve upwards rather than to the side.

There was a track leading to the log so I decided to try backing the van towards it. After about 15 yards the wheels sank into the mud and the van became immovable.

David came out with paperwork to settle up. He would have liked to have stayed to watch the fun, but a seasonal flight to the Mediterranean was calling, so, cheque in hand, he had to rush away again.

We carried our equipment the rest of the way. If I had remembered the chain block, rolling the log would be easy, instead, after Joe had lopped off the branches and cross cut the log at the place that I indicated,


we had several hours work with jacks, levers and a rather inadequate winch of Joe's before we got the log on its side.

The wooden guide rails that Bernard had made for this job were assembled and laid on top of the log, supported in places by lengths of 3"X3" to allow for the knobbliness of the log. I started the chainmill and made the first cut, mainly removing bark and high spots on the log. I re-set the guide rails and made another cut, this time getting into the meat of the log. We lifted off the guide and the first slice to reveal the beautiful grain of the oak. It seems a shame to cut planks from this then cover them with tar.

With the bark completely gone we were left with a flat surface for the chainmill to run on for the next cut, so the guide rails were put to one side. It was hard going though, harder than when I'd been cutting greenheart. This was probably because I hadn't got the chain quite as sharp as it might be. By the time darkness fell my arms were aching from pushing the chainmill through the wood and, worryingly, a couple of my fingers had developed a pins and needles sensation.

In the gathering gloom we carried the nickable items of tackle back to the bogged down van. With it loaded, and as much weight as possible on the back wheels, we tried to move it. Despite Joe and Tom pushing we could move no more than a few feet, the wheels making steadily deeper furrows. Joe uncoupled his trailer, now laden with firewood logs, and backed his Range Rover towards the van. A tow rope was soon set up and the vehicle persuaded on to firmer ground. Tom and I set off in the van, closely followed by Range Rover and trailer.

At the first road junction our routes diverged as Joe had clearly decided on the main road route. For my part, I love driving along tiny bendy roads. At one point on our route we passed a construction site where a considerable amount of floodlit plant was engaged on digging a large, square, steel piled hole in the ground. A strange industrial insertion into the rural scene. We wondered about the purpose of this.

The bendy roads nearly caught me out in the dark. A long straight avenue of trees, the best part of a mile long, suddenly ends where the road tumbles over an escarpment and turns sharp left round a tightening bend with an adverse camber. I wonder how many would be rally drivers have landed in the hedge here.

Catastrophe avoided by sharp braking, we arrived at Joe's yard and parked up, then, lit by head torches walked down the track to the main farm 3 abreast. Leaving our coats, bags and boots, we entered a proper farmhouse kitchen, heated by a woodstove. Joe's mum (JM) appeared, clad in a dressing gown, and got busy preparing the hotpot that she had promised us, accessing high cupboards by standing on a stool that she moved around the kitchen. I realised how covered in sawdust my clothes were and went to dig out some clean clothes from my rucksack.

With the hotpot declared ready, JM prepared to leave. I asked her where she was going. "To church" she replied "I'm very religious, you ask Joe about my religion". I imagined that religious faith must be a bone of contention between them.

The hotpot was excellent, and very generous. Tom suggested a visit to a pub. Joe was supportive of the idea so, with the hotpot polished off, we boarded Joe's Range Rover and headed for the Cross Keys in Tebay

The pub is a pleasantly old fashioned country pub with a selection of real ales. We sat in an alcove and discussed wood, boats, trees, the music business and various bits of putting the world to rights. Tom received a message telling him that he had been played on Radio 2. "I'll get £12 for that in about a year" he said. Another message told him that his band was among the top 10 most prolific bands of 2011. He explained that this was through doing absolutely loads of gigs very cheap and it nearly killed him.

I raised the subject of religion, thinking that this would be a lively subject for debate, bearing in mind JM's remarks. It turned out that Joe and his mother were not at all at odds over religion, it had just been her bit of fun. It seemed that we all shared the view that organised religion was more trouble than it was worth (though personally I have a lot of time for disorganised religion).

When Tom and I were happily loaded with beer, Joe having restrained himself as he had to drive back (I did offer), we climbed aboard the Range Rover and travelled by dark bendy roads back to the farmhouse. JM was already back and we sat in the farmhouse kitchen discussing religion, again, the work we were doing, the wonderful countryside around us and the extensive renovations that JM had carried out on the ancient farmhouse. JM showed Tom and I to our quarters. I got the nursery bedroom where her grandchildren stay, full of toys and childrens books.

The next day began early, well before dark, as we planned to be in the woods at first light. Tom and I breakfasted then said goodbye to the wonderful JM before walking up to Joe's yard and setting out in the van, Joe following with the Range Rover. We timed it quite well as it was just after daybreak when we arrived at the woods. Joe lent me an electric chainsaw sharpener and this, combined with regular hand sharpening, made the day's work a bit easier.

The routine was for me to start the chainmill and offer it up to the end of the log. With the guide running on the flat surface already cut I would push the saw, set at 2" depth, through the log. Tom would follow up tapping wedges into the sawcut to prevent it closing up and trapping the bar. After about 10 feet I would stop the saw and slide to back down the sawcut, with Tom levering the gap open and moving wedges to allow the machine through. I would then refuel and resharpen the saw, slide it back into the groove, start it and carry on. This procedure was repeated until the chainmill emerged out of the other end of the log. The resulting 2" thick oak board would then be lifted to one side and the whole procedure started again. By this means we cut a number of very useful looking oak boards.

Whilst Tom and I were planking the log, Joe was scaling various condemned trees and cutting the top branches out. They would fall intermittently with a great crash, before being cut up into firewood logs and loaded into the trailer.

It was still light when we finished planking the first log, but there was not enough day left to make it worthwhile starting on the other one. Joe's trailer was fully loaded too, so we decided to call it a day. Tom was interested in seeing Joe's yard, which is completely off grid and powered by wind, sun and wood, in daylight, so we decided to meet up there for a brew before heading for home.

On the way I stopped the van at the intriguing hole in the ground,hoping to find out what it was for. The hardhatted workers had already gone home, so it will be forever a mystery. The idea of seeing Joe's yard in the daylight didn't quite work out as it was pretty much dark when we got there. Nevertheless we enjoyed drinking tea and chatting about the joys and perils of tree surgery before once more setting out down the M6 towards Mancunium.

Getting Everything in Place 11th December 2011

Getting everything in place.

Over the last couple of weeks Stuart has been busy cutting and planing planks whilst I've been working on the sternpost. The stempost is now up and I could get the sternpost fitted today, but I've noticed that Janet, our neighbour, has just hung a line full of washing out in the sun. As I will have to heat some chalico on the stove to fit the post and the wind is blowing in her direction I think I'll put it off until tomorrow.

We've a new volunteer, a retired sheet metal worker called John. He's been grinding the knobbles off the knees, which are now back from being shotblasted.

For several weeks "Hazel" has been looking very bare. Her new bottom is in place and the moulds are up to give a skeletal trace of her shape, but she has no sides and only the apparition of a cabin propped up on sticks to remind us of the boat that she was, and shall be again.

Soon we'll be putting the knees back in place, then steaming the bottom strakes or garboards to shape, and so a new boat will rise from the crumbly rottenness of the old, new wood, but the same shape and the same spirit.

Talking of wood, we don't have quite enough of it. To make up for the shortfall I've found some oak trees that are to be felled in Cumbria. I will be able to plank them with the chainmill, but transporting them is proving to be a problem. They never completed the famous Taunton & Carlisle Canal. In fact, the nearest the canal system ever got to Appleby where the trees are was Kendal. Now that waterway is truncated by the M6 at Tewitfield, and anyway, our boats are all 10' too long to access it. There'es really no choice but to use lorries, and they're expensive. So, if you happen to have a lorry long enough to carry 30' lengths of timber, give me a ring on 07931 952 037.

First Planks Steamed 9th December 2011

First Planks Steamed

It was still dark when I arrived at Knowl St at 5 past 7. I opened up the container, switched on the lights and started to gather fire lighting materials and get them arranged in a crude fireplace. At 7.30 I put a match to the pile of paper, cardboard, shavings and sticks. When I could hear crackling noises, indicating that the wood was starting to catch, I started piling on bigger pieces of wood.
When Stuart arrived at about 8 AM the flames were climbing up and licking around the old oil drum that serves as a crude boiler. I climbed on top of the pile of scrap wood and started throwing pieces down to Stuart who piled them on to barrows for transporting to the fire. I learned my lesson about not keeping the firewood near the fire many years ago at Ellesmere Port where the fuel pile once caught fire when I was steaming a plank for Lilith.
I had asked volunteers to try to get there for 9, and people started to show up from 8.30 onwards. Wisps of steam began to rise from the steambox at 5 minutes to 9, so the time for bending the first plank was set at 5 to 11. A plank has to spend an hour in the steambox for every inch thickness.
Soon a goodly crowd was assembled, though with little to do except stoke the fire, fetch more wood and drink tea. Steaming planks requires a good crowd for just 10 minutes per plank, when it’s actually being fitted. The rest of the time there’s not much to do except be sociable.
Stuart had the excellent idea of doing a dummy run, using one of the planks for the fore end. We manhandled the plank through the boat and then carried it back from the steambox then forward into the hoodings, the people at the other end of the plank having to walk on a temporary platform sticking out over the water. Stuart clamped the plank into the hoodings and everyone pushed the other end towards the boat to bend it. I was just expressing concern about the amount of pressure being put on an unsteamed plank, when a bang from the sternpost end confirmed my worst fears. A bit of short grain near the end had failed and about a foot had broken away. I looked at the broken plank in horror, but Stuart was smiling. “It’s OK” he said “The plank starts behind the broken bit, I haven’t cut the end yet”.
We put the plank away near the bow where it belongs and got on with getting clamps etc ready. As the water boiled away in the oil drum boiler and the fire grew steadily more intense so the steam rising from the steambox grew thicker and hotter. Rather than using the electric kettle we brewed up by placing an old kettle on top of the brick furnace next to the boiler where tongues of flame were constantly playing.
Time ticked by, and at 10.50 everyone assembled around the plank. When time was called,Stuart undid the tarpaulin shroud that was stopping too much steam from escaping at the steambox entrance. We pulled the plank out and dropped it on to a row of trestles while Stuart screwed a block near the end to hold the clamp. We then picked up the plank, pushed it into the hoodings and, once Stuart had it clamped up, bent the plank so that it touched the knees. Getting the bend is not as tricky as getting the twist. Ryan manoeuvred the heavy planktwister into place and screwed it against the lower part of the plank to bend it into the V shape between the moulds and the bottom. The plank then had to be forced downwards by bonking it with a big rubber mallet. This didn’t quite do the trick, so we tried forcing the plank down with a hydraulic jack pushing on a piece of wood screwed to the knees for this purpose. It was to no avail, the plank stayed with a stubborn gap under it, which will have to be removed by planing away some of the lower edge of the plank where it does touch the bottoms. Other than this, the plank fitted really well.
With the first plank in place we began to prepare for the second one. Ryan unscrewed the small bung from the oil drum, producing a jet of steam. This soon settled down and, once some priming problems with the pump were resolved, it was refilled with cut water, the bung screwed back in and more wood put on the fire. We then had to carefully move the steambox to the other side of the boat, insert , the plank and steampipe, then close up the steambox entrance and wait for the water to come to the boil.
With a good fire already in the hearth and everything hot we had steam up in half an hour, and the time for bending the second plank was fixed at 5 past two. Time for everyone to have lunch and enjoy more beverages. As Steve the Viking had arrived there was proper coffee for those who wanted it.

The second plank was more straightforward than the first and, with the day’s tasks accomplished by 2,30, people started to drift away. A few of us stayed and enjoyed potatoes and sausages cooked in the embers, before packing away the tools and dousing the fire.

A quiet Day 30th September 2011

A quiet Day

After the hectic activity yesterday it was quite a quiet day on "Hazel", just me Reg and Ryan. Reg left at dinner time to go and visit his daughter in Leeds. To be honest, there's not much of "Hazel" left now. The new bottom forms a base to build the boat up on, but we've now removed most of the sideplanking after carefully spiling it and recording the plank edge bevels. Highlights of the day have been offering up the new stempost, it looks like it will fit, and removing the old sternpost to make a copy. As usual there was a bit of forensic archaeology involved, working out which bits of the boat have ben replaced in her 97 year history, and which bits (not many) are original. As I removed the bottom strake at the stern end I was surprised to find that it was made of oak and about 60mm thick.I was expecting 2" pitch pine. I decided that it had been replaced at the same time as the bottoms as there was only one set of ironwork in the wood, indicating that it had never had replacement bottoms fitted to it. The question is, when was this done? It looks likely that the sternpost was renewed at the same time. Was it 1951 at Rathbones dry dock in Stretfored or 1970s at Ken Keays in Walsall.