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Wednesday 9 August 2017

Building a shelter/gazebo at the allotment garden using reclaimed materials

allotment shelter

Recently, work slowed up a bit. It's a natural part of the cycle of being a self employed maker but can certainly be stressful - wondering when the next job will come in. However, it does give a chance to catch up on things like website updates and also doing projects that are a bit different.

Luckily, this period of free time coincided with some redevelopment work at the woodyard where I have my studio. As part of this work, a quantity of reclaimed European larch was up for reuse. This larch timber is very durable outdoors and so I decided to use it to build a shelter at the allotment that I share with a friend.

building using reclaimed wood

For those who don't know what an allotment is, most towns and cities in the UK have areas that are owned by the local council which are rented out to local people for them to grow their own flowers, fruit and vegetables. There are usually regular inspections and some rules about what can be grown. I find the allotment a great place to unwind - digging all day certainly clears the mind.

Our allotment really needed somewhere to shelter from rain (ah! British weather!) as well as a place to just relax and enjoy the place. As well as the larch lumber and some slab wood left over from milling timber, a couple of larch trunks were available which had been drilled full of holes by wood wasps (horntails) and so were not suitable for use by the businesses that had bought them originally.

I set to making the structure. All of the work was done using hand tools (apart from a couple of battery-powered drills) as there was no power on site. There was also no one else to help with the build but that was quite nice - being free to just do it by myself.

After a few days of work, the main structure was finished. I then fitted a small jettied platform going out over the pond. It was lovely to sit and watch the wildlife around. Brightly coloured damselflies flitted over the water and several different kinds of wasp and bee flew around the posts. Some were large, strange looking parasitic ichneumonid wasps - harmless to humans and looking to lay their eggs on the wood wasp larvae. Others were small bees investigating the holes as nest sites. They were no threat to me and some, in fact, were helpful predators on pests feeding on the plants. Another welcome creature that is happy to eat garden pests is the slow-worm. It's neither a worm nor a snake, being a lizard without legs. I think that they are very beautiful animals and they can live for around twenty years.

slow worm

The next stage of construction was to fit a roof. This meant buying two sheets of FSC-certified plywood - the only timber bought for the project. Getting the sheets up onto the roof was a bit of a struggle but once in place, they could be covered with offcut strips of tough butyl rubber. This was reclaimed waste material left over from building bike sheds. Joined with Sikaflex EBT+ adhesive, the rubber is a perfect waterproof covering.

allotment shelter made from larch timber

That's the shelter done for now. I may fit some removable walling to protect from driving rain that can get under the roof but I'm happy with it the way it is at the moment - simple, natural and understated. The local allotments officer likes it and it is definitely a relaxing spot to appreciate the plants growing and wildlife busying around you.

Thanks very much to Roundwood Design, Touchwood Play and the Bike Shed Company for kindly donating the materials used to make this structure.

Thursday 3 August 2017

When you wish upon a tree... the curious tradition of wishing trees in Britain and Ireland

coin tree

Uley is a small village on the edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. It is overlooked by a large Iron Age hill fort named Uley Bury: rings of large ditches and earth banks that are over 2500 years old.

I got the chance to explore Uley a bit more through a guided walk with Cotswold Guided Walks. As we climbed up towards the hill fort, a fallen tree across the path revealed a strange decoration - dozens of coins hammered into it.

wish tree (coin tree) Uley

None of the coins seemed older than the twentieth century, indeed the tree would probably have rotted away by now if it had fallen that long ago. It was completely dead. Not all the coins were pocket change of low value either - there were a few commemorative coins bashed in, with their edges following the line of the woodgrain.

This is a wish tree. These particular ones are known as 'coin trees' and can be found all over Britain. People hammer coins in and make a wish, usually for the end of an illness. The trees may be stumps or fallen, or sometimes living. Apparently the metal toxins may sometimes even be concentrated enough to kill the living trees. 

It seems to be a surprisingly recent phenomenon, the first examples of these being recorded in the early eighteenth century. The one at Uley also shows an example of Christian and Pagan beliefs mixing, as some coins have been added in the shape of a crucifix.

coin tree mixing Christianity and Paganism

This wasn't the first coin tree that I'd come across. There are also some at Portmeirion in Wales. The coins inserted into some of these are so densely packed that, from a distance, they seem almost like a chainmail coat around the timber.

Coin tree Portmeirion

There is another kind of wishing tree in Britain and Ireland. These are the 'clootie trees'. Clootie trees are, I think, an older tradition than coin trees and are trees that are more usually associated with a place that pagans would consider to have particular power: springs of water, ancient burial sites etc. 

A clootie tree will have rags and ribbons tied into its branches, sometimes many of them. The name 'clootie' comes from the Scottish name for a small piece of rag or cloth.

Thorn trees (Blackthorn or Hawthorn) seem particularly likely to be so decorated, perhaps because they are quite commonly found and are also considered to be powerful trees in Paganism. A small clootie tree can be found directly in front of the blind 'entrance' to Bela's Knap Neolithic long barrow in Gloucestershire.

Clootie tree

This little tree is certainly not very old but is already decorated with brightly-coloured rags and ribbons.

clootie tree bells knap

I've also seen clootie trees at Berry Pomeroy in Devon and also the thorn tree on Wearyall hill in Glastonbury in Somerset, which I'm very sad to say has since been badly damaged by vandals.

Why tie things in trees? Some suggest that it could have similar roots to traditions in the Far East. For example, followers of Shintoism in Japan hang paper streamers called shide from ropes around or in trees that are considered especially important and sacred. The two could be an example of ideas spreading along ancient trade routes or may not be directly linked, being instead an example of similar traditions arising in different places.

I certainly like to come across a clootie or a coin tree on a walk: a strange testament to the way that humans perceive and interact with the power of trees.