A brief look back at 2017

So far as Abbotts Living Wood was concerned, 2017 wasn’t as bad a year as everybody else seems to have experienced. From a personal point of view, my participation in a number of successful collaborative projects has given my semi-retirement a whole new direction.

Apart from one course in June, when we had to wrap up the shelter in a huge tarpaulin to protect us from a cold, wet north wind, the courses went well and are currently fully booked for the 2018 season.

A cold day in June

A cold day in June

The Exhibition at Tinsmiths celebrating Philip Clissett’s bi-centenary went OK and my talk attracted a hall full of people, who seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t sell any of my chairs though.

In October I took some chairs across the county to the amazing home of Ed & Rowena Waghorn, who’s house build claims the record as the longest build in the whole history of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. The results are absolutely stunning.


An armchair by Ben L for Grand Designs

Hoping for a bit of product placement I took across 5 dining chairs made either by assistants or myself but I was hoping the armchair made by Benny Lawless (assistant from 2007) would catch the eye of Kevin McCloud, reminding him of his favourite episode at the build of Ben Law’s woodland house. I think there were 3 split-second glimpses of the green wood chairs but no flood of orders!

Having re-established a working relationship with Gudrun during the Clissett exhibition, we collaborated again on a weekend of activities entitled Winds of Change celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Great Storm of 1987. Our belief was that this storm marked a new awareness that wood (the most sustainable of raw materials) actually does grow on trees and can be used for a wide range of fulfilling crafts. We worked this in as part of the prestigious sculpture exhibition entitled Out of Nature, run by Jenny Watts together with Bronte Woodruff at the magnificent Newport House, north of the city of Hereford.


This biennial exhibition raises funds for a project called The Cartshed, which provides a range of outdoor activities (including green woodwork) for local people with mental health issues.  We were fortunate to be joined by Jackie Morris, who gave an enlightening talk on Sunday about her work, writing and illustrating books, the latest being her joint work with Robert Macfarlane, the best-selling Lost Words. It was a surreal few days, with tropical balmy weather over the weekend, followed by a storm on the day of the anniversary, which hit Ireland full blast but struck Herefordshire with an unworldly red sun – seen here balanced on Jackie’s finger.


Jackie Morris with the red sun balanced on the tip of her finger

As soon as we had we recovered from the weekend, I dived headlong into my new role as political agent for the local Green Party in a by-election campaign for the local council. When we moved here in May 1997, not only had New Labour swept to victory in the General election but we also discovered that we had a Green local councillor called Guy Woodford. Our Utopian vision was later shattered, in part by the Iraq war and in part with Guy’s defeat by the Tories in a subsequent election. So now at the age of 82, he leaped back into life in support of the new candidate, Ellie Chowns in her attempt to regain the seat for the Greens.

Beneath the pear tree

Green councilors, past and present

Ellie made for a great candidate, intelligent and articulate, with many years experience in working for underprivileged people around the world.  She was surrounded by a great team with decades of experience provided not only by Guy but also by Pete Blench who has masterminded three recent Green victories in nearby Leominster. West Midlands HQ provided support from the effervescent Peggy Wiseman, who worked long and hard to encourage the country-folk to adopt some smart, modern campaigning techniques. My job was to make sure that the word reached every household in the ward by coordinating a small army of volunteers, who appeared from every corner of the surrounding countryside to distribute election literature. Much to everybody’s astonishment, Ellie won with a substantial majority.

At 66 years old, I have spent over half my life encouraging enthusiastic volunteers to help construct a series of sylvan idylls in Bristol, Devon and Herefordshire. I now see that in my new-found semi-retirement, I can put this experience to a not unrelated purpose; helping in a small way to continue a gentle political transformation in a quiet corner of rural England.


An exciting October!

Autumn will kick in with three exciting events, which should appeal to anyone interested in this blog. Click onto the links for lots more details:

Out of Nature

The biennial sculpture exhibition is back again running from 1st to 22nd October, with a special Winds of Change weekend over the 14th & 15th, marking the 30th anniversary of The Great Storm of ’87, when trees crashed their way back into the consciousness of the English nation, easing the way for the resurgence of interest in woodlands and related green wood crafts. This weekend will feature an all star cast including Jackie Morris, Archie Miles, Rob Penn (all signing their latest books – lovely Christmas presents!) and several leading wood crafts people (including myself).

Chapel Lawn Woodland Fair

A one-day event in Shropshire on 7th with a host of woodland activities. I shall be going along in the afternoon with one of the three chairs I have made from a wych elm tree that grew in the village of Chapel Lawn.


An exhibition of art inspired by the work of Lewis Carroll starting on 21st. Tamsin is helping organise it and will be entering some of her imaginative glass panels.

Drink me bottles

I am pulling together some other chair-makers to enter a selection of hand-made chairs (to go with the Mad Hatter’s tea party), which will be for sale. Details are still to be finalised but tickets are now available for a couple of fascinating evenings related to Alice.

I hope to see some of you at one or more of these.

Making chairs by hand

After the successful launch of the Chair exhibition at Tinsmiths in Ledbury, I took a trip to visit a couple of colleagues who run chair-making courses to take some photos for my forthcoming presentation on 15th July about Philip Clissett and his chair-making legacy.


First I called on Tim Gatfield, who had attended a course with Gudrun at Clissett Wood about 15 years ago and after a few years as her assistant, he purchased a woodland just north of Bath. With the help of many volunteers, he has built a beautiful set-up of workshops, round-houses and cabins in which he hosts a series of green wood courses at The Cherry Wood Project throughout the summer.


I arrived during the last few hours of a 9-day chair-making course. Three participants had already left but the others kindly posed with Tim and his two apprentices, proudly displaying the splendid results of their time in the workshop.

A couple of years ago, after quite a struggle, he obtained full planning permission, not only for his woodland work and the courses but also for a large yurt in which he lives with his wife and their two children – a well-deserved reward for years of hard work. After an evening meal with Tim and Debs and a night in one of the cabins, I lit the fire for a cuppa and some breakfast ready to set off for my next port of call at Westonbirt Arboretum.

One of my last photos at Cherry wood was the compost toilet, situated across a suspended walkway among the trees. I couldn’t help but contrast this with a structure linked to the recent extravagant tree-top walkway recently installed by the Forestry Commission. 24 years ago, I spent a few weeks in the autumn at the arboretum with my then girl-friend Tamsin, producing baby-rattles on the pole-lathe to sell to the streams of visitors coming to see the autumn colours. How things had changed since then! Instead of a tiny kiosk with one attendant, I was greeted by a huge entrance building with automated turnstiles.


I found my way to what until recently had been Westonbirt Garden Centre, which closed and was then used as a builders yard during the construction of the spectacular tree-top walkway.


Now the yard was in operation as the base for Windsor chair-making courses run by my colleague Paul Hayden, who had attended one of my courses way back in 1989. I couldn’t help being stuck by the contrast between Paul’s ‘builders yard’ and Tim’s ‘woodland idyll’ but they are both equally valid embodiments of a genuine enthusiasm to convey the delights of working with greenwood.


I took this photo looking down from the walkway as Paul was just getting underway with the start of a six-day chair-making course. Although he has been running courses at Westonbirt with his colleague Peter Murray for several years, Paul’s enterprise is about to take a leap forward when he hopes this summer, to gain planning permission to turn his ‘yard’ into a full blown green wood centre with a permanent workshop, a sawmill and a shop. With the arboretum catering for around half a million tree-lovers each year, most of whom will walk across the tree-level walkway to gaze down onto Paul and his chair-making students, I’m sure Paul will play a major role in keeping alive the tradition of making chairs by hand.






So much for a peaceful retirement!

We are now at the end of June 2017 and I haven’t got round to blogging for seven months, so here’s a quick catch up. In  February we decided to replace our living room wood-burner with a new stove that had a back-boiler, so that we could also get rid of the dear old Tyrolia cooker that lived in the kitchen. With the space liberated we then set about refitting the whole of the kitchen, a job that took over a large chunk of our spring.

I managed to fit in a sunny day levelling the floor in the shelter, where I now run the courses and I made a model of the proposed new dining area.

At one point I felt so relaxed that I spent a blissful March morning weeding a small piece of the raspberry patch outside my workshop.

weeding raspberry patch

April saw the erection of the new dining area with the help of a few friends from time to time.

I cobbled together a makeshift table out of two walnut veneered headboards in time for my eldest daughter, Hannah and her husband, who arrived after Easter to partake of their wedding present – a week making a chair each. This they achieved, and in the process helped me get up and running for the following courses.


In the meantime I had collected several loads of beautiful chair-making ash from various helpful colleagues around the county.

So the courses took place during alternate weeks in May and June, with the weather fluctuating from a record-breaking heatwave to cold , wet and wind, for which I had to envelope the shelter in a huge tarpaulin. Whatever the weather , everybody managed to make a fine chair and seemed to have enjoyed their week.


So now it is time to to turn my mind to the exhibition, Country Chairs Today that commences at Tinsmiths gallery in Ledbury this weekend, 1st July……………….but more of this and other events in another blog, coming soon.

Hereford Contemporary

The first day of Hereford Contemporary was greeted with a crisp frost followed by a morning of almost warm sunshine at the Left Bank overlooking the River Wye in the centre of Hereford today – a very different backdrop from my usual rural idyll.


Chair 20

My latest settin’ chair in the morning frost

I spent the day shaving bits of ash wood to make back legs for my next chairs, while my neighbour, Sylvan was working on some of his round-wood structures using his magnificent shaving horse.

Sylvan's super horse

Sylvan with his super long shaving horse – with wheels on the back legs

After some heavy overnight rain tonight, we are hoping for a dry afternoon at least, followed by another dry day on Sunday, so get yourselves along to see our demos as well as a host of lovely crafts indoors.

Farewell to the Summer

Bishops Frome versus Trafalgar Square

For the last couple of years we have arranged a disco/party to celebrate the ‘Return of the Sun’ and to raise a few quid for some good causes. This spring it didn’t happen, a major reason being the clash of dates with the Anti-Trident demo in London. Leaping about in the village hall would have been much warmer than standing in an icy wind in Trafalgar Square but I’m glad we had been there to listen to some inspiring speeches about the insanity of spending a fortune on something that no sane person would ever envisage putting to use.

Alright Now

Doing my best to ignore the crazy world of politics, I actually enjoyed a very successful summer of courses in my new shelter at Greenwood Cottage. So to celebrate, I took it on myself to organize ‘Farewell to the Sun’, as one last fling before winter set in. Stevie and his young crew were happy to run the disco. I tracked down AleWrightNow (I only just got the play on words relating to Free’s big hit), who were happy to lay on a licenced bar with all the works plus 3 staff if we could reckon on about 80 adults. As the date grew near, I realized I had been a bit lazy with publicity and invitations, on top of which lots of people had planned trips and other events to coincide with the half-term hols.

Dashing away

The evening arrived and I turned up having collected a couple of friends, Emily & Paul from the train, to find the AleWright crew chomping at the bit, waiting for the previous kids Halloween party to vacate the kitchen. One benefit of this quick change-over was that we inherited a load of pumpkin and bat decorations to compliment the colourful bunting that Tamsin brought along – having dashed back from a day with her artist friends at the opening of the latest fabulous exhibition at Twenty Twenty gallery in Bridgenorth.


Graham Arnold with his artwork at Twenty Twenty

Our first guest was Felicity, the recently retired mayor of nearby Leominster with her husband Pete, after whom a steady trickle of both expected and unexpected friends and guests slowly dispelled my fear of the event being a damp squib. A selection of 70’s disco was followed by some electronic music and when the rock playlist kicked in, the place started buzzing. When the last few guests arrived, they were greeted by a sweaty, frenzied but very happy old greenwood chair-maker, of whom I’m sure Philip Clissett would have been proud. Enough friends stayed on to help clear up – many thanks to Lois & Ben and especially Jo & Colin. This just left Tamsin, Paul, Emily and myself to find/wind/wend our way through the broccili field back to Greenwood Cottage for the night.

A good old fry-up

After counting up the £300 takings to be shared between the two charities, Practical Action and Peace Direct, the following morning was spent enjoying a mild morning in the garden around our splendid fire pit (made for us by Andrew Findlay). A huge fry-up was donated and cooked by old friends David & Smiffy. This brought back fond memories of many such morning breakfasts in the woods, stretching back beyond Brookhouse Wood to the days of Clissett Wood.

Breakfast the morning after

David, Emily, Paul & Smiffy (and Linny looking for leftovers)

Thus fortified, Paul leapt into action helping with my earthworks, extending the lawn below Tamsin’s ‘creative nest’ at the top of the garden, much to the delight of Tamsin’s ‘familiar’, ZaZa.

Top of the garden

Paul & ZaZa levelling the lawn

It’s now head down for me to get some chairs made for Hereford Contemporary in a couple of weeks, while Tamsin creativity is unleashed in fulfilling the many demands for her work in the run up to Christmas. – see Tamsin’s website for more details.

Some serious chair production

With a picture in my mind of mornings in a spacious workshop and afternoons on the beach, I had agreed to spend a week or two in West Wales this summer helping my colleague Peter fulfil his order of 40 chairs to go to a hospice in Denmark.  The best laid plans and all that…………

By the time we had reached early October, we agreed that I should do my bit in my workshop in Herefordshire, then just spend a couple of days delivering my produce and assembling a few chairs together in his workshop. I spent a week making and bending a load of crests, cross-rails, laths and back legs, then loaded them along with some more ash logs into my van and drove over to Pembrokeshire. I arrived to find Peter and Nikki working away in what he had referred to as a barn – not some romantic timber structure but it did have a roof, 4 walls and a pair of doors that opened wide. On my arrival we carried the fruits of my labours into his workshop for Peter’s inspection.

For somebody who had just spent 6 months assisting running courses, Peter had established an impressive chair-production workshop, with an eager team of co-workers, Nikki, Merlin and Alec, who all spent various lengths of time gaining invaluable experience in a production situation. Alec was now back home and Merlin was away for the week, leaving just Peter and Nikki, so the three of us spent the remainder of the day assembling back panels. Most impressive to me (and well-placed in the autumn sunshine) was the work-bench, made out of a fire door that he had bought for £5, with a leg in each corner and a little bracing – simple but effective. At one end hung his F-clamps, within easy reach when needed. (When I arrived home to my own workshop, I put this idea to use by adding a rack for clamps to help hold down my bench when steam-bending.)

I stupidly left my camera tripod in Peter’s workshop, so was unable to take a decent photo of the spectacular collection of 24 chairs, which Peter and his gang had already assembled. Some of them had already been seated, using knitted polypropylene cord, making for a very light, attractive, comfortable and long-lasting seat.

Two dozen lath-back chairs

Chairs stacked in Peter’s spare room

Seeing these chairs stacked and ready for shipment brought to mind Philip Clissett’s contract for 100 or so chairs for the Art Worker’s Guild in London in the late 19th Century. Could it be that Peter’s project is the largest single order for hand-made greenwood chairs in the last 120 years?

The following day we returned to the ‘barn’ where we squeezed together numbers 25,26 & 27, briefly assisted by Britte (sorry if I got the name wrong), the lady who had placed the order.

25,26 & 27

3 more chairs assembled, leaving 13 to go.

Peter and his team now have 3 weeks to complete the chairs before they set sail for Denmark, after which he & Louise with their Welsh-born baby daughter, Gwen re-locate to Sweden on the next phase of their remarkable lives. I look forward to seeing some pictures of this collection of chairs in the hospice ……………..and to following the progress of this inspiring young family.