Easter weekend 2015. With annoyingly uncanny accuracy mother nature was once again serving up a disappointing mix of murky skies and drizzle. As we meandered along the country lanes of West Sussex I spotted a gathering of caravans perched on a grassy bank on a wider patch of a double switchback. As I brought the car to a halt it was clear to see this wasn’t your average impromptu and likely illegal settlement. My wife and daughters knew there was little they could do, by way of protest and moaning, to stem my curiosity to find out more. My initial reconnaissance confirmed what I knew to be a vintage Cheltenham caravan; something that resembled a section of aircraft fuselage with wheels; an ageing Suzuki Jimny and a couple of trailers.
So with my car safely on the verge, engine still running, (you can’t be too careful) I tentatively approached. Once I was close enough I made my presence known – a voice responded to my “Hi, anyone at home?” from within the compound. This was soon followed by barking and the sound of steel chain unravelling at speed – much like the sound of a medieval drawbridge closing when under siege. It didn’t take long to see what was creating the din, when a dog of great proportions appeared from behind the caravan. Thankfully, the hound’s progress was halted by the lack of chain it was leashed with.
A yell of “Brutus” from his master, whom I’d yet to see, brought him back under control. I honestly didn’t know what I was to be greeted or possibly threatened by. It was somewhat of a relief when a bearded gentleman, of slight build, appeared and summoned the dog to his side. I made my introduction, which to my relief was reciprocated and soon myself and Baron (a name that is more often is associated with that of nobility) got chatting about our mutual appreciation for vintage caravans. In a tone of voice was less condemning and much more inquisitive, I asked what he was doing setting up what for all intents and purposes an unofficial roadside camp. In his dulcet tone he explained that he was a coppice and had tended to woodlands for the past twenty eight years. And seeing that he was between jobs he saw fit to set up camp.
He was more than happy to show me around when I asked to see more of his compound. Despite reassuring words of “he’s harmless” I tentatively nudged my way past Brutus, who was still wary and rightfully protecting his master and home. Once I’d shimmied through the tight gap between mobile dog kennel and caravan I was able to garner a true understanding of this man’s existence. It was primitive, no other word to describe it – nothing more than what he needed on a daily basis was present. I struggled to comprehend that someone, in this present day, could live in such a way – especially through what appeared to be choice. He put a positive spin on the fact that many assume he must be cold within the confines of his caravan – yet it’s quite the contrary, when every window of his caravan was blocked with sofa cushions to quell the heat loss from his oversized log burner. However, no amount of spin could push to the sidelines the fact that without access to running water and basic sanitary facilities his existence was harsh.
I’d caught him in the midst of building a small wooden stool – whittled from the remains of a felled tree. As the conversation flowed I
soon learnt that despite appearances this was just an everyday man seeking an alternative way of life. His dog also proved to be harmless
as by now Brutus had preceded to lean his ten stone plus bulk on my leg, whilst he looked up longingly for a chin scratch – I’m not stupid, I obliged.
We briefly touched upon his personal life; I learnt that he was born in Beaconsfield in no less than a showman’s wagon. His father, also a woodsman, taught him the trade and when old enough, Baron acquired the relevant woodland management qualifications to pursue his career. Having suffered a marriage failure, he took to the road, initially in a traditional horse drawn, bow top wagon.
When he revealed his aged I was momentarily shocked, due to either my own failing in accepting my true age, or the fact I’d wrongly assumed that he was more senior in years. Likely, it was a bit of both, but the weather beaten but characterful face before me was in fact that of a fifty five year old. I doubt that I’d be the fresh-faced gent I like to imagine I am, after nearly three decades of similar existence.
The travellers we’re all familiar with (that serves the genuine travellers no favours) are forcing the authorities arm. New powers allowing the police to move travellers on from roadsides every 24 hours are soon to be in force. Thus forcing travellers onto private land – which in turn passes the problem onto private landowners. Further lining the pockets of the legal profession with the issuing of eviction notices – not before the land has been ravaged at the owners expense. Baron’s preferred approach is asking before settling in for the night. Open minded landowners soon realised he’s a world away from the travellers that have blighted our landscape for years and more often a gentleman's agreement can be reached. In fact as he travels the countryside it’s not uncommon for him to revisit villages and be welcomed back with open arms. However, when this isn’t possible he’s unceremoniously lumped into the same negative category. Chances are that he won’t be able to live out his dream of carrying on this way of living for life.
His profession is one in decline. Little consideration is now given to the fact that a forest left to its own devices will, given time, strangle itself through a lack of light. He takes no benefits from the state and survives purely on what he earns, topping up his meagre income by selling logs from felled trees or whittling them into greenwood furniture, such as sheep hurdles (split and wooden hazel) which were once used to pen flocks but are now more likely to adorn gardens. “If I don’t have the money I don’t buy it” – was his reply to how he copes these days. Even his paltry tobacco intake is now subject to self imposed rationing. Dragging out, in more ways that one, a rollup – he took a puff or two before stubbing it out and setting it aside for later. When asked what the future held for him he declined to go into details – instead responding with a simple yet thought provoking “I really don’t know”.
His life is untouched by the complications of the modern world. Living instead in a way that his profession’s ancestors have for generations. In the time I was in his company I learnt that although he lacked possessions his enjoyment of life wasn’t the lesser for it. Much like his namesakes of wealth or nobility, Baron the coppicer is also rich – not with possessions but life. Sadly the modern world hasn’t left room for those of his ilk and eventually his kind will be lost forever.