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Lucy Deedes from our food shop has been on her travels again, this time visiting the West Dean woods to meet local suppliers Alan and Jo Waters of Wild Wood.
The sight of a single spire of smoke curling upwards in the woods stirs something atavistic in us; it connects us with our forebears and our deep kinship with the earth. Mysterious forests and woodsmen feature in all the fairy stories and charcoal-making is one of the oldest crafts known to man – some 5,500 years old. It was used for smelting metal, later for making glass and gunpowder, as a water filter, a bleach and as a cleansing digestive medicine. Wordsworth, the old metrosexual, cleaned his teeth with charcoal.
In Tudor times the woods in Sussex and Hampshire were widely coppiced to provide timber for ships, and the way in which the woodlands are managed makes them havens for wildlife. Blocks of trees are cut in rotation and flowers thrive on the cleared ground, encouraging bees and butterflies, birds and dormice.
Alan and Jo Waters have been making Wild Wood charcoal in the West Dean woods, and elsewhere, for 20 years, using logs from the first trimmings of ash and beech. Ninety percent of the charcoal we use in the UK is imported, and has very likely despoiled tropical forests and mangrove swamps and been soaked with firelighting fluid so it’s imperative not only that we buy local charcoal from well-managed woodlands like Wild Wood (made using methods which have largely remained unchanged in thousands of years) but that we light our barbecues with paper, kindling and even dried orange peel, not beastly chemicals.
Over his 40 years of coppicing the Sussex woods, Alan has produced thatching spars, firesticks, wigwams and pea sticks, hurdles, besoms, rose arches and obelisks and ‘pimps’ – circular bundles of birch kindling. He’s a former marathon runner, rock climber and youth worker, helping disaffected teenagers find fulfilment by working with their hands. He’s the Grandfather of Charcoal making, and six years ago bought a portable retort, made in Exeter, which fits onto a trailer. The old traditional earthburning method takes 78 hours; the ring kiln method 48 hours and this retort takes just 24 hours to produce some 150-190 kilos of charcoal.
Firstly the logs are perfectly stacked in the inner container, the doors sealed and bolted tight and the two fires beneath it are lit. For two hours or so the smoke coming from the chimneys is wet and white whilst the water is driven out of the wood. Then the smoke turns blue and there’s a roaring sound; the gassing starts and Alan shuts off the chimneys to contain the gas. Then it’s a question of careful control of temperature and oxygen supply; CO2 emissions are safely absorbed by the surrounding trees.
Our dogs pootle about in the clearing, Jo cooks us a sophisticated rustic lunch of squid and bruschetta on her miracle stove and Alan grabs a mouthful and goes back to check the temperature. A tawny owl hoots in the trees and Jo tells me about night watches in August when they camp here with friends, listening to the night birds, watching the shooting stars and, once, the Aurora Borealis.
The idyll is broken by bicyclists rocketing down through the woods at the speed of light, to the potential destruction of anything in their path: ancient crafts and bonfires in the woods clearly hold no romance for them. The peaceable charcoal burners leap to their feet with robust cries.
Jo gives me a little parcel of drawing charcoal (they make artists’ charcoal from knuckles of vine trimmings, as the Tudor monks did) and I make my way home in something of a medieval trance, returning to the 21st century with some difficulty.
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