I arrived at Bron Haul in mid-November, although it didn’t feel like it, the crowns of the trees still thick with green and orange. Over the month that I would spend here I would see the landscape transform into a frozen kingdom, snow and ice laying over the hills like a heavy blanket. I had come here at the invitation Ruth Pybus and David Brown to help out with the projects they were undertaking on their parcel of land and learn what I could from how they lived and managed the woods. The accommodation was basic but cosy, and there was no shortage of food, books or firewood. In the long evenings I read, wrote or whittled, sometimes going for walks in the woods where the full moon lit up the Elwy Valley as clear as any daylight. Before inevitably finding myself back huddled up to the woodburning stove, hands cupping a warm mug.
Although they might be reluctant to accept the label, Ruth and David are doing something quite revolutionary at Bron Haul, by bringing broadleaf woodland into Continuous Cover Forestry management, and being a model for how small-scale forest ownership can provide a supply of high-quality hardwood timber, while also keeping the structure of the broadleaf woodland intact. Within a relatively short space of time the woods here have turned from almost nothing to diverse, rich habitat that has great potential to be a resource for teaching, timber and wildlife.
The main piece of work that I got involved in during my time at Bron Haul was helping with the third and final thin of the woodlands, which would leave the final crop trees enough space and sunlight in the decades to come, where they would grow into (hopefully) wide, straight, knot-free timber trees. Ruth and David guided me through the process with great care, showing me what we were looking for in the stems, how to consider spacing, species diversity and tree health. The thin itself felt brutal, getting the woodland to the desired density required many trees to be felled, trimmed and stacked, leaving the canopy with wide gaps for the favoured trees to spread into. Even though I know that this is what’s needed to create a healthy, enduring ecosystem as well as a productive woodland, the act still feels wrong, like some kind of small blasphemy.
I learned so much simply from being around Ruth and David and immersing myself in life on the farm and in the woods. Everything at Bron Haul is small scale and personal. Ruth and David have raised the woodlands from pasture and gorse-land and have been involved in every step along the way; planting, pruning, thinning, felling, fencing, carrying out grey squirrel and deer control. There are many skills that run alongside and intertwined with woodland management that I was able to get hands-on with, helping to butcher a deer that Ruth shot, getting as much use as we could from the carcass. We did fencing, hedge planting, cladding on the woodland cabin, making fenceposts. I generously shown how to prepare material for hazel basketry after hearing the inspiring story of how Ruth and David brought the art back from the dead.
Ruth and David were very proactive at putting me in touch with other people in the local area; the valley has a strong community of crafters, woodspeople, and folk musicians, with places like the Woodland Skills Centre acting as a hub for skills and courses. I got involved with a frame raising with the team from Elwy Working Woods. It was a great pleasure helping the joint, precisely cut into the huge oak and larch beams fit together, and seeing how quickly and smoothly the structure came together.
The four weeks that I spent at Bron Haul flew by, and while I learned a lot, it still feels as if I only scratched the surface of the place, as well as Ruth and David’s experience. The place has a wealth of knowledge, whether your interest is in ecology, woodland management, woodcraft or many other areas of expertise. And I’m very grateful for how generously that time, knowledge and hospitality have been shared with me here.