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Shoot from the stick. After sprucing up an ailing woodland, Ben Porter hit upon the idea of turning his abundant wood crop into classic walking sticks.
Dry leaves rustle underfoot as Ben Porter picks his way through woodland near Crewkerne in Somerset, pausing to point to a thin, straight branch stretching skywards. “That’ll make a good walking stick in about a year,” he says. The vertical shoot is a centimetre in diameter. When it reaches the correct size (3in thick and 4ft tall), it will be felled, seasoned for several years, sawn, steam-bent and sanded into a beautiful rustic walking stick.
“Ooh, can you see that thumbstick?” says his daughter Charlotte Gillan, gesturing into the canopy at an ash tree, which has a shoot forming a natural ‘V’ shape. The fork in the wood is where the future owner, most likely a farmer, will rest his or her thumb – probably while leaning on it at market, chatting to an old acquaintance about the current price of cattle.
WALKING TALL A few yards along, the mature trees give way to leafy green shoots. “Baby walking sticks,” smiles Ben. Father and daughter look like they’ve stepped out of a Barbour advert; both good-looking, both wearing check shirts and khaki gilets, Ben in leather hiking boots while Charlotte sports riding boots. All they need now are the family golden retrievers lolling at their feet.
The Porter family has a 20-acre walking stick plantation on this pretty hill and, from log cabins deep within the woodland, they run their company Classic Canes Limited, specialising in all manner of walking implements but most notably rustic sticks made from coppice ash, hazel, blackthorn and sweet chestnut grown yards away and crafted in their workshop.
After 20 years working in the motor industry, Ben forayed into buying, improving and selling woodland in the 1970s. In 1979, he saw particulars for Warren Wood, a neglected woodland that came with a ruined Tudor hunting lodge. He and his wife Diana fell head over heels for it. “The roof had collapsed and trees were growing inside as well as outside,” says Ben. “Once we’d sorted the house, we started thinking about the woodland.”
They had inherited a mix of mature beech trees, young ash trees and some sickly pines (due to the chalk being too alkaline for them). When the Porters felled the pines, the clear ground allowed dormant ash seeds in the undergrowth to propagate. As these began to sprout, Ben wondered what they could do with the wood, as the trees would take decades to mature to the right size for large timber production.
He had an epiphany when he read a book on forestry practice by noted forester Dr Cyril Hart. “Towards the end of his book the old boy wrote about sundry woodland produce and mentioned walking sticks as a coppice crop,” says Ben. “I came out here and decided our ash saplings looked like walking sticks. We cut a few, loaded a pick-up and took them to a walking-stick factory in Surrey, where staff weighed them and paid us for them. We realised we had a crop.”
The factory told Ben and Diana that to grow a never-ending supply of high quality walking sticks from clean shoots, they should convert areas of the woodland to the centuries-old system of coppice with standards (regularly cutting the trees to a stump and letting shoots regrow while leaving mature trees that are not coppiced at intervals between them).
They did just that and have revived this country tradition and perfected the craft for more than 30 years.
It took a while to iron out any niggles, however. “Traditionally, a coppice stump is about six to nine inches high and the new stems grow from that,” explains Ben. “But we have lots of roe deer in the wood and the new green shoots are like fresh salad to them at that height. When we started, they nibbled these and our sticks grew as zigzags rather than straight rods.”
As deer can browse up to 3ft high, Ben decided to coppice the ash trees at shoulder height. “We joke that we do copparding, a cross between coppicing and pollarding.”
Ben and his team harvest the walking sticks every winter when the sap is low (too much sap affects the seasoning). They cut them usually at 4ft in length, when the rod is about four years old, heap them in a pile outside and then put them through a saw to remove any surplus wood before stacking them inside a moisture-controlled cabin for several years to dry out.
Ben opens the door to the drying shed, which has a sweet and earthy smell emanating from the soon-to-be walking sticks arranged on racks to the left and right. “Seasoning is critical,” he says, examining a couple of shafts labelled ‘2010’. “They’ll go back to their original shape after straightening if they’re still green.” Steaming and straightening is carried out in a tiny room tacked on to the side of the shed, where a couple of wallpaper steam strippers are connected to a small wooden box containing walking sticks. As soon as the rods have been steamed for about an hour to soften the wood, Ben takes one and gently levers it in various sized keyholes in a jig to straighten out the kinks and curves. “There isn’t a machine for this – you have to work it out for yourself,” he says, squinting down the shank towards a painted white wall for guidance. “Keep tweaking it and you’ll produce a dead straight shaft in the end.”
FINAL TOUCHES After straightening, the sticks go to the workshop where woodworker Alan White uses a combination of hand tools and machines to sand, rasp and file the stick to perfection. He’ll remove thorns from blackthorn rods, drill a hole and add a loop of cotton for a hiking staff, attach handles such as the popular black resin Labrador head or a piece of deer antler, varnish some and attach ferrules (a ring that strengthens the stick). “Each stick has its own quirks and you work with what Mother Nature has provided,” Alan says. “I try to capture the character of each one.”
Charlotte pores over the finished sticks waiting to go to the packing area (to be shipped to various places, including Abu Dhabi) and spots one of her favourites: an ash thumbstick with an indented spiral pattern. “This mark is made by a creeper such as wild clematis climbing up it,” she says. “I get excited when I see a twisted stick. These don’t come along often and they’re very special.” Charlotte and Ben talk about walking sticks as though the canes are living beings, referring to them as “he” or “a companion”. “Well, once you’ve had a thumbstick for 20 or 30 years, it is your friend,” says Charlotte matter-of-factly.
Great staff: Ben Porter and daughter Charlotte cultivate 20 acres of woodland. Each finished cane is a decade in the making.
www.countryfile.com – Credits – Words: Rosanna Morris Photos: Jason Ingram