Interview with Ben Law: The celebrated woodsman of Lodsworth
- Credit: Archant
Have you ever daydreamed about jacking in the day job and fleeing to the woods? Then meet Ben Law, who lives and works in woodland between Midhurst and Petworth. But as winter segues into spring, is he really still living the dream?
No-one is anticipating spring more than Ben Law. The celebrated woodsman of Lodsworth says it's his favourite time of year and marks a turning point in the woodland calendar.
“I don't mind cold, crisp days but winter here is muddy and quite hard work,” he admits. “When you get that amazing flush of vibrant colour in spring, it really lifts your spirits.” At Ben's Prickly Nut Wood much of the winter has been spent coppicing. And soon the temporary clearings created by this ancient form of management will be bursting into life with delights such as primroses, wood anemones, bluebells, early purple orchids and yellow archangel.
Long-tailed tits, chiff-chaffs and stonechats will be making themselves known too, and then there is the arrival of the nightingales and nightjars in May to look forward to.
These woods are both Ben's home and his workplace. He has carved a name for himself as a traditional craftsman who has chosen to work in partnership with nature, harvesting and regenerating in equal measure. But how did it all start?
“At the end of the 1980s I got a leaflet in my letterbox saying an area of Amazon forest the size of Belgium was being destroyed by loggers every week,” explains Ben. “It made me decide to visit the Amazon. There I met traditional forest dwellers and looked at their pattern of living. What I saw was a different way of understanding and working with forests, and I came back home with that.
“I then thought that if people worked the woods more in places like the UK, he rainforests might get left alone.” With that Ben moved into an eight acre wood between Midhurst and Petworth and set about making his living in ways that most of us only dream about.
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By March coppicing is almost complete here and the annual crop of young sweet chestnut and hazel shoots has largely been gathered, so Ben is turning his attention to other activities. “This is when I start making garden items such as rustic furniture, rose arches, trellises and treehouses. By now people are looking out of their windows at the garden once more and thinking about that sort of thing.”
There is also the year-round demand for fencing to satisfy and Ben makes post and rail fences, traditional chestnut fencing and woven wattle panels. And soon the first charcoal burns of the season will be taking place, producing branded Prickly Nut Wood charcoal that sells throughout the summer in local shops such as his local community store, Lodsworth Larder.
In May the construction season starts. Since making his own house, which was featured on Channel 4's Grand Designs, Ben has championed the use of roundwood – whole tree trunks – in building. He runs his own firm, the Roundwood Timber Framing Company, specialising in producing jointed timber buildings. Lodsworth Larder, the outdoor classroom at South Harting Primary School and the Woodland Hall at the East Meon Sustainability Centre were all made by Ben and his team.
“Building gives me a lot of satisfaction,” he enthuses. “Roundwood is much stronger and the aesthetics are in its favour – people like big tree trunks.”
Late spring to autumn is the main building period. “I've no idea why anyone tries to build in winter – the days are too short and it's too muddy. Everything I've ever built has been done on time and part of that is not working in winter.” And the finished structures are here for the long term too. “I like to think roundwood houses have the potential to last for 150-200 years.”
Ben is keen to pass his skills on to others. He has two apprentices working with him for much of the year and roundwood building is the focus of his flagship education course. “People come from Australia, the US, Scandinavia – all over the world – to learn how to do wood jointing, and then they go back home and build.”
Other courses coming up include charcoal burning and production, woodlands and permaculture, sustainable woodland management and the intriguingly entitled “I've bought a woodland – what do I do now?”
Ben also writes books, again with the aim of passing on his own hard-won experience. His most recent work is Woodsman: Living in a Wood in the 21st Century and this summer his specialist manual Woodland Craft is due out. But for a man who always seems to have some sort of practical woodsman's tool in his hands, when does he find time to use a computer? “Writing is for the long winter evenings,” he says. “I also write in the early morning, between 4 o'clock and half past five.”
Early morning academic work aside, it all sounds an enviable lifestyle, particularly considering the surroundings. “This area is a very unspoilt part of the south-east. It's a hidden gem,” confirms Ben. “Sussex is well wooded and it's partly down to the large estates such as Cowdray, Petworth, Goodwood and West Dean. A lot of land is held by just a few people. That has meant that the woods have, on the whole, been looked after fairly well.”
Ben's year follows the life of the wood closely and he values the connection between his work and the seasons. It has helped him to forge a bond with the land. “I feel I belong here – I have put roots down. I don't really have any interest in going anywhere else. I don't even have a passport anymore.”
But does it not get too quiet here at times? “I don't get lonely, far from it. Life is busy – I'm working with apprentices, meeting people on courses, and of course organising my children, Zed and Tess. It's rare that I have a day when I'm here on my own. And when that does happen, I quite enjoy it.”
And as the spring flowers begin to reclaim the bare ground of winter and the woodland regains its serene beauty, Ben's sentiment is really not too hard to understand.
To find out more about Ben Law, including Prickly Nut Wood open days, visit www.ben-law.co.uk