That evening the wood was alive. Children played on the flat tree stumps, jumping on and off in an enormous natural gymnasium. Some young ones sat solemnly round a tea table laid with a toy china tea set and extra acorn cups picked up from the ground. The householders and the older children were gathering winter fuel. Branches were carried off and secreted in gardens all along the road, though how they would cut them nobody knew. Many pieces were far too thick for the tiny saws most people owned. Children rested them between stones and jumped on them but only ricked their ankles. Some branches hung about for years, too long to fit into any fireplace, and were finally burnt in some Guy Fawkes blaze years later. Small twigs were gathered in baskets and sheets, to be stacked near the coal sheds to dry. By the next day most of the area had been cleared.

After a few days, when plenty of trunks were ready for moving, the timber wains arrived. Not lorries as I remember it, but horse-drawn wains with two pairs of wooden wheels joined by enormous curved axles, which swept up between them. When the wains were drawn forward over the trunks, the curves of the axles stood higher than the trunks. The trunks were winched up below the axle curves to be held suspended a few inches above the ground and the wain was ready to move. Then a team of two, or four, huge shire horses drew the wain away slowly to the local timber yard. At this period London still had its small timber yards, with their power saws and stacks of timber being seasoned slowly in open-sided sheds.

Years later, in 1987, when the great hurricane struck London, a wealth of timber was felled but by then there was no local equipment to deal with it. In the end large amounts of good timber were turned into mere fibreboard, soulless and dull, because there were no saws to cut it up.

In 1925 England was still in an early manufacturing age, doing many things as they had been done a century earlier. Building and construction were still largely hand­worked, with processes carried out by traditional handicraft methods, using long-­remembered skills. These 1925 trees would be cut in local yards to make oak fencing for perhaps quite local use.

Ever since they had begun cultivating their gardens, the householders had made secret attacks on the wood for leaf-mould. This litter layer, far thinner then they had expected, had been taken in small amounts. A pail here and a pail there to help a particular plant, or lighten the soil along a row of beans. Now, with the area cleared and building about to start, this was their last chance. People went out with pails in both hands and returned to build small heaps of rich black leaf mould to enliven their heavy clay.

We children were fascinated by the flat tops of the tree stumps. We tried to count the annual rings to find the age of one large tree. We knew that a tree adds one ring each year and these ones were clear to see. Start at the middle and count outwards. That gave the age of the tree, but we continually lost count. In the end I went back to the house and collected the nails left over from making the rose pergola and the full collection of tools the house could provide - a coal hammer and a gimlet. A ludicrous kit. There had been a proper hammer, used to build the pergola, but I could not find it. Presumably it had been left in the garden and would turn up later, rusty, perhaps useable. The coal hammer, which weighed about a pound and a half, was very far from a carpenter's tool. A rough forged head, straight from the steam hammer, with a straight pane like a blunted axe blade at one end and a four-sided point at the other. It would break coal well enough, but hitting a nail was another matter, while the gimlet was a tool of the devil. It was like a corkscrew, with a wooden handle across the top. In theory one pushed the point into the wood and slowly twisted so that it screwed into the wood, cutting a neat hole. In fact the point was blunt and we were too weak to make it penetrate, so the tool skidded across the hard stump. We were not well equipped, but fortunately we did not realise this.

 

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