RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Poetic words of a woodman in his ‘cathedral’

The enormous lime tree being felled in the photograph would soon end up in tiny pieces as bungs in beer barrels.

Michael Boxall is the feller, and the author, of its demise. He has written a fascinating book about 100 adventures in the forestry department of West Dean estate, near Chichester.

There were heart-stopping moments when magnificent but diseased beech trees lining the A286 main road through the village, had to be felled across the road.

As foreman, Michael had to stop the traffic for each fall, and with his team, clear the vast pile of debris in 20 minutes.

There were grand old trees which refused to die, and teetered on the edge of their hold on earth, making tractors skid at the ends of ropes as they tried to persuade the trees to fall.

There was the awful day when, to his horror, Michael killed the very last female mouse-eared bat in Britain as he felled a dangerous tree in which the rare bat was sleeping.

He writes with the keenest eye for detail and the reader is swept along in the adventure.

It is more than this – it is a valuable historic record of the crowning glory of one of the great estates of the south.

Trees are just that in this fine county. They make the landscape we love.

There are 2,000 acres of trees on West Dean. Some of this is still ancient, such as the medieval coppice at West Dean Woods nature reserve. But as on all estates, much more has been updated to beech and pine, to meet market demands.

Michael tells us in graphic detail how he helped plant the new crops, how he weeded them, and then how he cropped them.

In the midst of this back-breaking work around the magnificent park, he suddenly fell in love with a beautiful American girl on a book-binding course at West Dean College.

He very nearly chased her to New York, but luckily another lovely girl appeared in the nick of time.

She was Charlotte, and with other conservation volunteers, was helping me to make the dewpond on Kingley Vale.

It was love at first sight. Soon they were married, and their children today are both in the conservation business, too.

The whole book is an intimate story: of trees, flowers, mammals and birds, and the forest work that provides habitats for wildlife.

It is good writing – as detailed as Richard Jefferies or WH Hudson.

There are some especially splendid passages, for example one snowy Christmas Eve when: “Tiny slivers of ice slanted down through the trees, glittering silver and gold as they passed across the sun’s pale disc, hissing gently on to the carpet of frozen leaves.

“I stood for a short while listening to the sound of the snow, the crunching of seven pairs of boots making for the Land-Rover, and beyond, the silence of Christmas Eve in the whitened woods.

“I am not religious in a church-going sense, but there was something special in the bitter air, something indescribable which no

amount of present-buying, pre- Christmas bingeing or singing in a cold stone building could compare.

“I was in my cathedral, the sound of falling snow my hymn: for those few moments at one with everything around me and wanting for nothing.”

:: A Woodman’s Lot, by Michael Boxall, published by Brown Dog Books

ISBN 978-1-78545-001-3