Rambles in the Woodland


As, in talking over these matters, we had generally been guided rather by objects that happened to lie before us than by any regular and arranged plan, such as would be adopted in a book, we did not think it needful to continue any part of our subject longer than it seemed useful and interesting to the young people; and when anything a little different from the matter in hand came in our way, we noticed it in the best manner we could; and we often found the attention relieved by so doing.

It chanced, as we were walking in the Forest, and before any regular conversation had commenced, that we came to a spot where a number of men were busily employed in felling a large tree; and we were led, from this incident, to turn our attention to the subject of Work In The Woods and the Management of Timber Logs.

Some time before, the surveyors had been through the Forest, numbering and marking such trees as were supposed to be ripe, or, in plain language, best fitted for the purposes of timber. We observed the marks, and were almost grieved to see the principal beauties of the Forest thus condemned; knowing that their leafy honours would soon be laid low.

There was to be a considerable fall of timber this season; and a number of woodmen were engaged. For several days they had been at work, clearing the underwood away. We took our station on a spot where we might see the whole process without danger or alarm.

We had expected to see the whole tree cut down and fall at once, with all its branches on it; but we were told, that, although such a method was sometimes taken, when the mere timber was wanted for public uses; it was not a good mode, as many of those branches, called top and lop, were sure to be split, and rendered unserviceable.

This tree had been sold for private use; and the purchaser was there, to see that all was done in the way most likely to prove beneficial to himself. Accordingly, two men ascended to the largest arms,—the lower arms first. These they carefully took off, either with the short chopper, which they call a bill, or with a hand-saw. The branch, we observed, was first cut a little underneath, and then above, that it might not split and fall before it was cut through. By this, care and skill, many valuable knees, and other shapes, of useful timber, were preserved entire.

As these preparatory operations occupied some time, our young friends began to be somewhat impatient; for the grand fall of the whole tree was the event they were longing for. When they saw it stripped, branch after branch, they feared that nothing worth looking at would be left for the last. They were amused, however, by a great hallooing amongst the workmen; for one of them had seated himself, by mistake, on the branch which his companion was cutting; so that, had he not nimbly sprung to the neighbouring one, he must have fallen with it.

And now there arose a little difference of opinion between the master and his men. The latter wished to proceed against the tree itself with axes; he insisted upon the saw being used; the reason was soon explained. The chips were the perquisite of the men, and they well knew that the axe would reduce a large portion of the timber to these chips, whilst the saw would give them nothing.

The master, too, was quite aware of this, and calculated that perhaps a square foot of oak would be saved him by the saw. As he would not give up the point, they rather discontentedly obeyed; and two of them, taking a pit-saw, with a handle fixed at each end, set to work; of course commencing on the contrary side to that towards which the tree leaned; nevertheless, as they had done with the larger branches, they made a small beginning first at the part where the saw was to come through, to prevent the mischief of splitting the butt.

Whilst they were at work thus below, a man, seemingly quite unconcerned at their operations, climbed up, with a rope in his hand, as near as he could to the top of the tree; and having, as we understood, been a sailor in his younger days, he briskly descended by that rope; and offered, when half way down, for a pot of beer, to continue there half an hour; they working the mean time as briskly as they pleased; but the master said that he did not pay him to win wagers or to lose them, and found him a more safe employment below: —nor were any of us sorry for the turn he had given to the proposal.

Nothing shows the great strength of oak timber more than the process of sawing the trees down; for, as in the present instance, the saw will go so far through, that scarcely an inch appears to hold the tree up, and yet it continues to stand. At length, a peculiar cracking was heard. Two men now took the rope’s end as far off as it would allow them, and pulled, gently swaying the tree backwards and forwards, whilst two more drove in wedges at the gash where the saw had entered, and thus relieved greatly the labour of the sawyers.

At another loud crack, they suddenly desisted—we all stepped backwards. Three or four of the men now went to assist those at the rope, who took care to stand a little sideways of the expected fall. The headman cried at each pull, “One—Two—Three” —that they might all act together. At the third cry, all bore with their whole strength. Now, a low bursting sort of noise succeeded— the mighty trunk swayed fairly over, and, with a thundering crash, descended! The woodland ponies were now seen taking to their heels; rooks, with loud cawing, left their nests in swarms; and we ourselves had involuntarily started behind a huge elm, for protection.

After a momentary pause, we all stepped forward most courageously. The prostrate giant had uttered his last groan, and all fears from him were at an end. Our surprise, particularly that of the young persons, was great, at the unexpected bulk of the tree. Whilst standing, and deprived of its branches, it looked comparatively inconsiderable: but now, Frederick and Harry found that they could not see each other, when standing on different sides of the trunk, near the root. It was, in fact, more than five feet in diameter at the thickest part.

“Oh Sir,” said Harry, “see! it has made itself a grave to lie in!”
It was seen, indeed, that a projecting part of the tree had deeply entered the earth, which the proprietor said he was very glad to see; for, had the ground been sufficiently hard to resist this, the timber would undoubtedly have been split up the middle, and thus have made him a loser of many pounds.
“But why not dig the tree up by the roots?” said Harry.

“We call that stocking it up,” said Mr. Woodgate, the builder, who, seeing our curiosity, very obligingly satisfied us upon many points. “I did not buy the stock; and, if I had, I am not sure that the extra labour, which is great, of proceeding in that way, would have paid me. Here, the stumps and roots are perquisites of the verderer, or overlooker of the Forest. He perhaps may send men to take them up, or perhaps he will not; for many of these tables are left to perish in the soil.

When timber is sold by a landlord on a farm, these parts are usually the perquisite of the tenant. There are men called wood-stockers, or splitters, who make it their business to get up the roots and stumps of trees that have been taken down. I think, if you wish to see them at work, young gentlemen, there is an opportunity only a few paces off; for I heard gunpowder at work this morning, instead of beetle and wedges.”

An explosion had, indeed, that minute been heard; and, had it not been for this and the mention of gunpowder, I question whether the young gentlemen would have felt any desire to see the operation which had been referred to. However, they were now impatient to proceed thither; and as Mr. Longhurst explained to the ladies that the explosion had taken place, they were induced to follow; perhaps hoping as much that this process would not be repeated as the young gentlemen wished it might.

A prodigious block of a tree was soon perceived, at which three or four men were busily employed. They had dug and cut a deep trench all round the stump, at some distance from it; and, by working regularly and neatly through earth, wood, and stone, and then proceeding under the mass, they had apparently detached it from the soil. But this was not really the case, as one of the men confessed, to his sorrow. “Four of us have been at this two days,” he said; “and we have not got at the tap-root yet.”

“The tap-root,” I explained, “is that which strikes perpendicularly down from the middle of the great root; and, in the shape of a tap, or spigot, often descends some feet. This, of course, is the most difficult to get at and to cut.”
“Then, I suppose, they put gunpowder underneath, to blow it up?” said Frederick.
“No, no, Mister,” said Jack Heavem; “that wouldn’t do no more good than lighting a pipe aneath it.”
“Because, I suppose,” said I, “it could obtain plenty of vent all round.”

“Just so, Sir,” said the man. “When we split ’em with powder, we bore into the solidest part we can find, and plug it up as tight as a post. We thought to have split this sheer down in that way, and then we could have cut the tap-root a-two in a wink; but, howsomever, the powder flew out at a crack, and only split off a bit as big as one could carry.”
“And what are you going to do now?” asked Mr. Longhurst.
“Take another penn’orth o’ patience, Sir,” said the woodman. “We must dig a little deeper, and cut the limb in two with the saw, if that be all.”

One man now set to work with the spade and mattock for this purpose; whilst others applied themselves to splitting off the sides of the block with wedges.
“The Wedge,” said Mr. Longhurst, “is the first of the mechanical powers; and its effects, indeed, are surprising, as you will soon see.”
A wedge was then held, touching the wood, by one man, while another struck it rather gently with the wooden hammer called a beetle. “Gently! gently!” cried the man with the wedge.
“I suppose,” said Harriet, “he is afraid that his hand will be hurt.”
“O, no, Miss,” said he; “but, if we hits too hard, the wedge won’t draw.”

I explained, that such was the extreme resistance of the wood against the smooth sides of the iron, that its tendency was to throw the wedge out, and that, if they struck it too hard at first, this was sure to be the case. The man, encouraged by the iron seeming to have a hold, now hit harder, when it jumped out, and the operation was to be repeated. They now rubbed the sides of the wedge with chalk, and putting it in the same place, at length succeeded in driving it firmly in. Each man then took a beetle, and, with the greatest regularity and truth of aim, smote it alternately, till the wedge was fairly buried in the wood.

“Oh!” said Frederick, laughing, “now what is to be done? Nobody can get the wedge out, I am sure: and the wood is not in the least split!”
“Let us see,” said Mr. Longhurst; “the men do not seem at all concerned about their wedge.”

They now took another wedge, and placing it as close as they could to the one already in, they drove the fresh one also completely down and level with the first. Not to make too long a story of it, however, it is sufficient to say that, when they had thus driven four wedges down, the wood gaped widely, and a blow or two of the beetle against the part they aimed to remove, detached it entirely, and the wedges all at once jingled out.

“You see,” said Mr. Longhurst, “that skill and knowledge, as well as strength, are required even in the breaking up of the old stump of a tree. I dare say that, in an hour or two, this will be cracked into convenient pieces for the fire.”
“It is like in less time than that, Sir,” said one of the men, touching his hat; more particular if you please to give us a drop of drink.”
“I thought that was coming,” said Mr. Longhurst, bestowing the needful shilling: “There—Now tell us how much wood you think this will make, when split.”
“Why, I reckon two good stacks, Sir.”
“And how much is a stack?”
“A stack, Sir, is twelve foot long, and three foot over, and three foot high, and we lay ’em as squarish as we can.”

“And as hollow as they will let you,” added Mr. Longhurst, aside. “These men are vastly cunning in building those stacks, and will not only make two feet six go for a yard, but will construct you a very capacious log-house instead of a solid stack, unless they are well watched. I believe they have six or seven shillings a stack for their labour; and severe labour it certainly is.”

We now returned to the fallen tree, and found Mr. Woodgate employed in examining and measuring the timber, whilst the men were farther lopping the branches which lay around. We found that the stick, or stem, of the tree was forty-six feet five inches to the first arm stump; that its circumference at the bottom was nearly sixteen feet, and at the top about seven. Some of the limbs were praised by the builder for their shape and substance. Many of them were a foot in diameter, and would make nine inches of timber when squared. We endeavoured to count the rings; but they became so confused towards the edge, that we quite lost our reckoning: however, we counted one hundred and eighty-seven.

“Now, Frederick,” said Mr. Longhurst, drawing out his watch, “can you hear this tick?”
Frederick scarcely could, for a breeze was just then stirring amongst the branches.
“Go to the other end of this tree, and you will hear it better.”
Frederick smiled.
“Now lay your ear down as close as you can to the flat end.”

Mr. L. then placed the watch against the large end of the tree, being distant from Frederick’s ear about fifty feet.
“O, dear! I can hear it now quite plainly, indeed!” said he. “O, Harry, and Amelia, and Harriet, do come!”
They all did the same, and every one was surprised at this curious fact.
“If that tree were ten times as long,” said I, “I believe you would hear it just as well; so easily and certainly is sound transmitted through many solid feet of timber.”

“That reminds us,” said Mr. Longhurst, “to find the contents of this trunk. How shall we set about it?”

Mr. Woodgate obliged us by showing the builder’s mode of rough measurement. Taking his chalk-line, he ascertained the girth of the tree at about the middle; then measuring with his rule the length, (the girth in the middle being sixteen feet,) he took one quarter of that (four feet), and so multiplied by four the length, forty-six feet, and found the result was one hundred and eighty-four cubical feet. “But,” said he, “we must make allowance here for bark and waste; so we should say there are about one hundred and seventy-eight cubic feet of real timber. We call forty solid feet of timber, just as the tree falls, a load; and fifty, if it be barked, hewn, and squared with the axe.”

In another part of the Forest we came to a scene a little different, but very busy. The men were forming the smaller parts of the tree into proper quantities and shapes, for sale.

“The principal branches, or limbs, like those we have seen, are of value as timber, however bent or unsightly in their form.”
“The smaller wood they call timber-tops and brushwood. This is made up into faggots, for the farmer’s hearth and the oven.”

“How much rope it must take to tie it all up in bundles!” said one of the little ladies.
“Or rather,” said Mr. L. “none at all. See, there is not a bit of rope employed.”
“Oh! they tie it with sticks,” she replied. “How can they double them and make knots?”

I pointed to an old man, who was just then twisting several pliable long twigs of oak for the purpose. He laid this straight on the ground, and then placed across it an arm-full of the wood, which had been chopped into lengths of about five feet. All the smaller wood was put into the middle. When he had thus got as much as he thought proper for one faggot, he doubled the small end of the withie into a loop, which he twisted round a few times to confine it; then, putting the stout end of the band through this loop, he drew it as tight as he could, pressing the faggot with his knee, to make it compact and firm; then he doubled the stout end, and tucked it in amongst the branches: all was then sufficiently close and firm for conveyance to any place where they might be wanted.

The exact quantity, we found, was not very nicely attended to, all being guessed at by the wood-binder: but a faggot ought to weigh as much as a truss of hay, which is fifty-six pounds.

As for the chips, we saw them carefully gathered up, and packed into a little homemade donkey-cart, driven by an old woman, who appeared to have purchased them of the labourers. She intended to take them round to houses for sale. Her usual profits on these speculations she did not acquaint us with; perhaps she might gain eighteen-pence a cartload for her trouble and the outlay of her capital!

Mr. Longhurst had learned of the good natured builder, Mr. Woodgate, the day on which he purposed moving the timber-tree which we had seen cut down. On the morning of that day, we assembled at the spot, as agreed. We all felt the more interested in these things, the more we attended to them and understood them; otherwise, perhaps, we should not have felt motives sufficiently strong to pay such frequent, and, as some would say, unseasonable visits to the Forest.

A lively discussion had taken place at the breakfast-table amongst the younger part of the family, respecting the way in which the tree in question could be moved away. Little, however, could be thought of by any of them, for that purpose, but multitudes of men and horses.

“It may be,” said Frederick to his brother, “that they cannot get a hundred men and a hundred horses to help them; I only say, that that would be the best way, if they could.”
“And I say,” replied Harry, “that a steam engine, if they could have one there, would lift it up in a moment. I think that would be the best way.”
But Mrs. Longhurst suggested, that it was not only to be lifted up but carried away—so Harry’s thought was a bad one.
Amelia and Harriet both thought that it would be cut to pieces as it lay, and then it would be easy enough to carry the boards.
“I think,” said Mr. Longhurst, “that the best way for us will be to move ourselves to the spot, and see what is actually going forward.”

They all, therefore, set out, each sufficiently eager to see how the thing was really done; and each, perhaps, entertaining a distant hope that his or her plan would be, at last, the one nearest the truth. No doubt, it is very gratifying to be able to say—”There, you see, I was right! I told you how it would be!” It is better, however, when persons are less anxious to see their own opinions thus honoured. They are more likely to form a right judgment when they have no wish but to know the truth.

As they went along the narrow shady lane leading to the wood, they met a timber-truck, with three horses, conveying a pretty large tree in a way that had not occurred to the wisest of them. The heaviest end was chained up between two great wheels, whilst the other end trailed along the ground, and thus proceeded. They were obliged to stand up close to the hedge, as this passed by them.

“That,” I remarked, “is called a timber-drag, or, in some places, a whim. You saw how the tree was slung to the axle of that machine by strong iron chains, which passed round it several times. That sort of carriage is not employed to convey them to any great distance, but generally to take them out of the way, to some more convenient place, either for lying or for being loaded.”

We came to the tree itself, just in time to see the operation; for, the debate having been as to the power by which it could be lifted on the carriage, or how it could be moved at all, it was needful to see the very commencement of the business.

They were first surprised to see a couple of men move a large tree, seemingly with great ease to themselves, only by putting, each of them, a pole underneath it; as they raised their end of the pole, the tree rolled along. Sometimes they placed a block under the pole, close to the tree, then depressed the end they held, and that really lifted up the heavy timber log. Harry soon saw, that one thousand men, if they had been there, could only have stood still looking at each other; and that as many as could conveniently have taken hold of the tree could not have lifted it as those two men did by means of their poles.

Frederick was the first to ask an explanation of this wonder. “How can it be, that a thing like that can have so much power?”
“That,” I replied, ” is the simplest of the mechanical powers, and is called a Lever. You see that he placed the block on which the pole pressed as near the tree as he could; because — now attend—just so much as the part of the lever on this side the block is longer than that beyond it, which goes under the tree, so much more power has the operator with it.”
As my explanation seemed to want something to make it satisfactory to my hearers, I determined to call experiment to our aid. “There,” said I, “lies an arm of the tree; see if you can lift up the thick end with your hands.”

They tried; but could by no means stir it. I desired one of them, then, to take a light pole and a block to assist him. He did so; but accidentally placing the block under about the middle of the pole, he gained no power; he was still unable to move the load. His brother saw the mistake; and, moving the block, or fulcrum, as it is called, closer to the timber, they found it easy enough, by one of them bearing upon the end farthest from the block, to raise this log, as the workmen had raised the larger one. The victory seemed as pleasing to them as the knowledge. Yet both of them said in a breath, “I shall think of that again.”

Affairs of still greater interest, however, arrested our attention; for preparations were now making for lifting the tree, which had been the object of so many inquiries.

They saw there a machine composed of three long and stout beams, or legs, open at one end, at the other joined by iron hooks and eyes. This was set up and made to expand widely over the butt end of the tree. A double cluster of pulleys, with a prodigious hook, hung from the top of this three-legged machine. This was lowered, so that the hook might take hold of the huge chain, with which the timber below was many times encircled.

A long rope, which connected the two boxes of pulleys, by passing in and out to each, was now fastened to one of the horses. When they led the animal forward, the under block of pulleys rose, and with it the huge butt end of the tree, high enough to permit that part to be hitched upon the timber-carriage, which creaked and groaned beneath the weight. By changing the situation of the chains, and bringing the carriage gradually under, it was at length made to sustain that prodigious mass, which, but for the application of the simple mechanical powers, must have lain and rotted where it fell.

The lads turned inquiring eyes towards us; and I then said, that these Pulleys were exactly on the same principle as those of the old-fashioned wind-up jacks, the weight of one of which I remembered to have seen hanging from Mrs. Heathfield’s house. The mechanical principles by which this astonishing force was gained, I did not attempt to explain, because they could not be understood without a measure of mathematical knowledge, which it was impossible, at their early age, they should possess.

We next examined the carriage, and found that it was composed of nothing more than two pair of very strong wheels, kept in their proper places by a very long and strong beam of oak-timber.
“But what is the reason,” asked Frederick, “that this beam projects so far behind the wheels?”
“Because,” replied Mr. Woodgate, “we sometimes have longer trees than this to move, in which case we bring the hind wheels farther back. The axletree is made moveable on purpose: so, you see, we lengthen or shorten the carriage according to the extent of our load.”
Harry asked how many trees that one carriage would take away at once?

“We reckon,” said Mr. Woodgate, “that five loads at a time are enough, if in separate trees; but, in the case of a single tree, we must take it, let it weigh what it may: but five loads of timber and five horses are quite enough for men, horses, and carriage to manage, and for the King’s high road to sustain.”

Jefferys Taylor

The Forest, or, Rambles in the Woodland – 1835

—Jeff Burks

The Woods in Autumn By Henry Jutsum – The Illustrated London News – March 5, 1864
This entry was posted in Historical Images. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Rambles in the Woodland

  1. Note that this a tale well told by the rabbit facing us all with his ears perked up…look for his image on the trunk of the tree to the left. A truly good woodlands story well told Bear Rabbit.


Comments are closed.