One big job we had to get done before the winter was over was cutting down some of the big trees that were either blocking light or lurching at worrying angles. There were four huge ashes and one ugly conifer that we’d identified as the most urgent.


I briefly thought about doing the cutting myself but immediately ruled it out – too many powerlines, too near the house, too little skill on my part.

So on one of the few non-miserable days in February, the tree surgeons arrived. They decided to take the trees down piecemeal, from the top down (obviously). With chainsaws dangling below their harnesses, the two men each scaled a tree and began the laborious and, frankly, dangerous task of bringing these beasts down.

It was like watching a circus performance. Using ropes to secure themselves, they swung around the canopies with live chainsaws alternatively hoisted for a quick cut then dangled below their feet while each man manoeuvred into a better position. And they were incredibly swift. Within four hours, the trees were reduced to manageable branches and slices for me to saw and chop into firewood for next winter. But the increase in light and openness was the added bonus.

And so my next task was to reduce the trees even further – into lengths suitable for the wood burners. I’d not really chopped wood before but my parents had given me a splitting maul for my birthday. This is basically a sledgehammer with a sharpened end – a massively powerful wood smasher.

I used one of the stumps as a chopping block and had a go. The first few attempts were woeful – glancing blows that nearly took a foot off. But after a while, I began to get my eye in (shamed by my wife’s immediately successful efforts!). As every woodsman will tell you, it’s about timing rather than raw power. And there’s almost nothing more satisfying than splitting a massive cross-section of trunk – the two halves flying off in opposite directions with a delicious thwack.

In the evenings, I’d read up on how badly I’d got things wrong in these two excellent books The Backyard Lumberjack and The Wood Fire Handbook. Delightful reads full of great advice (though you have to wade through a lot of anecdote, which only really makes sense after you’ve done the job).

With chainsaw and maul, I worked my way through three of the ashes, leaving only a huge pile of brash – the upper twigs – to dry as kindling for next winter (or May, if this endless cold never ends!). I was almost working in a T-shirt in the snow by the end.

The fourth ash I’m going to leave for visitors to prove their manly/womanliness and the conifer chunks might make nice stool and benches.


They say wood heats you three times – once when you chop it, once when you stack it, and finally when you burn it. Infact, wood heats you four times – I enjoy a warm glow of satisfaction when I look at the huge piles of our own firewood seasoning (drying) in our woodshed. I did that – I keep telling myself. Well, the easy bit, anyway.


Fergus CollinsEditor, BBC Countryfile Magazine