The Slow Burn
Long Reads 12.08.2018
Ben Short gave up an advertising job in London to become a charcoal burner and hedge-layer in Dorset. He isn’t a craftsman, he insists, more of a semi-skilled labourer devoted to The Old Way. ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do,’ he says, ‘but I knew I wanted to be useful.’
In West Dorset (the flank of the county often overlooked before Bridport became Broadchurch), the broad, tame hills of the east give way to wilder downland. It is bleak, soft chalk beneath but almost moorland underfoot; driving on a back road from Dorchester towards Crewkerne, say, you find yourself on narrow, unfenced single-track roads with 20-foot drops either side and only bored sheep to see you fall.
From these high ridges, the landscape looks ungovernable and ghost-ridden; Iron-Age ramparts, indisciplined woodland, patches of ragged gorse. Netted across it, the black hedge-lines appear as an attempt to impose order; a squat, thorny living network that links woods, windbreaks and coppices, and runs irregularly between places like history and rumour. Follow them, and they will take you somewhere, if only from wood to wood.
It is this sort of unkempt countryside, as opposed to the tidily enclosed kind, that you most feel the greenwood-allure that Roger Deakin described in Wildwood, the mystery and mysterious kinship that humans can feel with trees and hedgerows. Obviously, not all humans feel it – one doubts that, say, Jeremy Clarkson, or any adult member of the Kardashian family, spends all that much time contemplating a kinship with oak, ash or willow – but some do. Sometimes it draws them to a place, and sometimes it teaches them, and sometimes it scares them; once you slow down and open yourself to the woods and the landscape, strange things can happen. Ask Ben Short.
Ben Short is a charcoal burner and hedge-layer based in Powerstock, a village that lies at the end of one of those strange single-track roads: ‘the sky road’, he calls it. In the winter he does some coppicing, and lays hedges in the traditional way, hacking out the unwanted brambles, foliage and branches, then pinning and pleaching what remains. The wood he cuts out is his to take away; he sorts it and turns some into kindling, firewood or beanpoles, then seasons the rest in stacks for 12 months, and burns it for barbecue charcoal in a steel kiln in the spring and summer. The charcoal is bagged – in handsome brown paper sacks, with his ‘The Old Way’ branding – and mostly sold through garden centres.
He isn’t really a craftsman, he says in a soft, buttery West Country accent, ‘more a semi-skilled labourer. Coppicing and hedge-laying is quite skilled, but the most impressive thing about making charcoal is the physical doggedness it takes; the lumping wood around, being among the smoke and dirt, jumping in and out of the kiln, grading and bagging, harvesting wood in winter… there’s a certain endurance required. But I think everyone could learn to burn the charcoal in a steel kiln.’
He learnt. Having grown up on a smallholding in Hampshire, he moved to London in the 1990s to work in advertising – one of that army of young people who for three decades from the late 1970s onwards marched from the British provinces to express their un-provincial ideas in the metropolitan style and media industries. In those days, those industries did ideas: then, as Short says, ‘the clients took over’. The work grew less creative, he grew unsatisfied, then anxious, then depressed. He got a new job as Creative Director of an offshoot agency of M&C Saatchi, but soon realised he couldn’t do it any more. ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be useful. And I wanted to get back to the countryside.’
That was seven years ago. Three months into the new job he quit, and got a job with the National Trust in Cambridgeshire, working with a forester. A year later, he moved first to Somerset, where he worked in forestry, then to Dorset. One day in spring, driving home from the building site where he was labouring, he noticed a woodsman’s yard in some trees, and in the yard a sign advertising for an apprentice in a new agri-forestry business. He got the job and learnt to coppice, lay hedges and burn charcoal.
Twelve months later, he set up on his own, living in an old electricity-less wagon to save money, and using some of his old marketing skills: a brand for the charcoal, beautiful home-made, handpainted signs with a feel of
Eric Ravilious, even a hand-restored tumbrel (‘I had visions of selling direct to the public in market towns. It sometimes works, but sometimes I sell one bag. With farm shops I sell 200 bags straight off.’)
Looking back, he wonders if he might have been drawn to charcoal by a memory from his childhood. In Hampshire in the autumn of 1979, when he was eight, he was taken on school trip to some woodland. They found a few kilns burning, and charcoal burners tending them and just wandering around the woodland. The men, who seemed ‘happy, gypsy-ish’, talked to the boys, and made Short feel, as he wrote in a piece for The Clearing website, that ‘ there was a magic in that wood; the magic of men living and working in Nature, practising an ancient craft, while the rest of society hurtled towards the 1980s and the escalating madness of the modern age. Even as a child I felt this, an intuition that such a life was more beautiful.’
This is, as you may or may not be aware, a good time to be in the charcoal business. There is the popularity of barbecues, of course, but also its increasing use in medicine, and as biochar, which is the name given to it when it is used as an organic soil improver. There are ongoing scientific explorations of its capability to absorb carbon dioxide, and it has even become a fashionable culinary ingredient.
‘Charcoal has become the hot new flavouring in everything from cocktails to meat and mash,’ one national newspaper declared in April. ‘If you want to be in on the latest trend in Britain’s restaurants and bars, you’re going to have to feel – and indeed taste – the burn.’ I do not mention this to my interviewee, as I suspect the thought of, ahem, fuelling a ‘hot new trend’ would make him want to chuck himself in the kiln. He does, however, tell me that British wood makes superior charcoal, lighting more easily and burning longer than the mass-market varieties, which tend to be made from dryer and less dense tropical trees.
Short makes £400-£500 from his usual two-burn week in summer – hedging actually pays better – and is content enough with that. He lives with his dog, a bull terrier-Jack Russell cross called Clanger, in a one-bedroom flat in a large, partitioned house in the village; one day, he hopes, he might get a tenancy in one of the cottages owned by the estate, for whom he does a good deal of work. Life is local; he rings the church bells, drinks in the pub, and both his yard, and his wood stacks and kiln, are a couple minutes’ drive away. ‘I’m not what I call a widdly-diddly woodsman, with his little place in the woods. You know, like those guys you see with their pole lathes at agricultural shows? I’m a bit allergic to that sort of thing. I just like fires, I like charcoal, I like cooking with charcoal. I’m not a member of the pole-lathe fraternity.’
We ride out to the kiln and woodpiles in his old Land Rover Defender, Clanger defensively seated between us. The piles sit in a hollow sheltered by trees along one side and do indeed look workaday, if pleasingly coloured and curious. The rusted steel kiln with its pointed cone resembles the visible tip of a buried steampunk space rocket; the neat-ish piles of trimmed, lichened grey and green branches make the area resemble an open-air ossuary for giants.
The kiln essentially bakes the wood, using heat to drive out the water and the volatiles to leave pure carbon, and the trick is to let in enough air in to allow the fire to grow hot enough to bake the wood without letting the flames grow sufficiently fierce to burn it. Before steel equipment was adopted in the 1920s and 1930s, charcoal makers built ‘earth burns’ – vast piles of wood – and covered them with sifted earth and sand. Steel kilns make the process easier, but it still seems more like craft than semi-skilled labour.
To begin with, you have to get the stacking right. Burners have their own methods, Short preferring to start by making long batons of wood that he forms into a cartwheel shape at the bottom of the kiln. Leaving some charcoal from the last burn as a charge on top of the cartwheel, he then loads wood to the kiln’s brim. The charge is lit with a burning rag on the end of a stick, and there follows the ‘free burn’, this the period when plenty of air is allowed to flow into the bottom of the kiln to get the burn going, and a 12-foot pillar of thick white smoke rises among the trees. Once the fire has taken hold, he fills the space around the kiln base with sand to limit the air coming in, puts on the lid, and leaves it for 15 hours while he prepares the wood for the next burn. After seven hours, he attends to the six ventilation points. Three will have been chosen as chimneys, three as intakes; to get an even burn, they have to be switched halfway through.
Using a six-foot-diameter kiln like Short’s will reduce a full kiln to 180 kilogrammes of charcoal in 15 hours. You know it’s done, or rather when the wood is properly burning, when the white smoke thins and becomes tinged with blue; at that point, the oxygen supply is choked off by stopping up any places air could get in with soil and sand. Then, once it is cool, comes the grunt work of clambering into the kiln among the blackened wood, shovelling out, riddling it and bagging it up. This sooty, pungent labour means that all summer long Short smells of bonfire and the strength sometimes attracts strange looks. If the hard graft ever had any romance, it lost the quality a while back, he admits. ‘I really have got over the novelty of putting on the breathing mask and bagging up, which is grimy and uncomfortable. That, and working outside in the dark, wet days in the winter when it’s dark at 3pm. That can test me. I still love the smell though.’
Talking to Ben Short, you realise that his relationship with the woods and his environment is more complex than simple sensory loves, or feelings about craft. His flat is full of old and new books about nature, and he writes himself. The practicalities and genuine, economic viability of his life and work are clearly important to him, but his conversation leads into the spiritual as inexorably as a path leading into a forest. ‘I know it sounds strange…’ he’ll say, or ‘I don’t want to sound poncey, but…’ or ‘I think when you come out of the city and slow down, you notice and feel more…’ And then he’ll explain that he has always felt the energies of the countryside strongly, that he remembers ‘having these feelings when I was playing in coppices as a kid, or when I went into some old farm barns that were quite isolated, and feeling it was like stepping across the threshold of a church; the silence, the feelings, the ghosts.’
Years ago he went out with a girl from Irish travelling stock who was a seer and felt tuned in to the energies of places. She refused to go into certain woods because of their dark energy, and she seems to have made him more respectful and contemplative of those feelings certain places seem to instil in us. ‘I often have to sleep overnight in woods when I’m burning charcoal or cutting trees,’ he says, ‘and doing that you appreciate there are woods that have happy, good energies and those with have bad energies. I have been very scared on a couple of occasions.’
Once, coppicing in a semi-ancient 50-acre wood in Somerset, he began cutting down some self-seeded holly trees. Holly has a superstitious charge for woodsmen, and even today many of them refuse to cut it. When Short bent down low to cut a narrow trunk at ground level, he felt a weight pressing on his shoulders, pushing him down. ‘You can laugh, but I switched off the chainsaw, and felt cold around me, and just felt I wasn’t welcome. I told someone about it later, and they pointed out it was the winter solstice, and given that holly is seen as a kind of green spirit, the winter solstice certainly isn’t a day when you’d want to be cutting it.’ His partner, the seer, had previously refused to go into the wood, he adds.
We drive out to look at one of his recently-completed hedges, a cut, laid and pleached weave of hazel, field maple, blackthorn, ash and a single wayfaring tree, ‘left in because it was quite rare.’ It fences in a field on the estate, which is unsurprising because these days, sadly, a conservation-minded estate owner is more likely to spend the extra money to have decent hedges than most farmers, who make do with tractor-mounted mechanical flails. Within view are a stretch of the sort of sprawling, brambly untrimmed growth that Short tamed and laid, and a brutally splintered flailed hedgerow. The contrast makes his work, with its pinnings and knottings using tin branches, look like a work not only of craftsmanship but of art. When I say so he bats away the compliment but does say that he can sometimes see an affinity between proper hedge-laying and some of the land-art works by people like Andrew Goldsworthy or Richard Long.
Certainly, it is something you want to stop and look at, and in looking you see both the control of and collaboration with nature. As it runs away into the distance, you think of it joining the other worked-at hedges that stretch across the fields around us, right down to the sea a few miles away. As I look, Short picks up a hazel twig and throws it high and far into the air for Clanger to chase, so that it spins in the sky above the landscape like a sort of charm. ‘It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?’ I say pathetically, cursed with the urban urge to fill silences. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘especially when you stop to look. It’s amazing what you see and feel when you slow down.’