A tale of five benches

Last summer, Paul and Will cut a few steps up to the high tier of Quarry Wood – our Bird Watchers’ Mountain.

It’s something that has been talked about since the very first inception of this plot as a nature reserve – a four-and-a-half acre scrap of woodland purchased by the village for the village in 1999. It’s mostly a flat area, but indelibly linked to and shaped by the carving of the Crowhurst to Bexhill railway line (1902-1964): the curve of the quarry face, the bridge, the long straight tree-lined avenue, and the steep cuttings that created the groove for the train track route. At the northern-most end, there’s a slim strip of land at the top of the bank, and it’s this we wanted to open up to enable people to view the Reserve from a canopy-level position.

Once we’d cut the steps, we stood back and wondered. How would visitors most enjoy this space? We knew we needed some seats. We thought long and hard, but with little or no funding, we weren’t sure how to proceed.

In April 2017, we found ourselves cutting some precariously balanced fallen Chestnut, lodged at a perilous angle against the Victorian brick railway bridge. Suddenly the notion of splitting logs hit us. Armed with an axe, a mallet and a stake, we split a six-foot length with the most achingly glorious peeling sound…  and we had ourselves two longish/straightish half-arc planks.

Fashioning a pair of legs for each, we erected two benches at either end of the upper tier, now a perfect bird-watchers’ paradise, sitting in the tree-top canopy, eye-level with the avian activity. One is at the far end, overlooking the Y-shaped path where the Reserve narrows, a direct view into an Oak that has forced its way up to the sunlight; one sits at the top of the steps, with a view out and across the marshes.

Now in our stride, and with a bit more of that Chestnut to hand, we split another length, and built a pair of benches for the old Viking Camp. This was an area that was developed back in 2002 for an early Crowhurst Community ArtsQuarry Wood festival – an enclosure, a fire, a hut…

The hut had been gradually disintegrating, but at the 2013 Family Fun Day, we resurrected the enclosure and camp-fire, and our two new benches serve to really reclaim the space. One sits between a perfectly parallel pair of curved trees, one underneath an architecturally ornate right-angled tree.

Happy and satisfied, our attention turned to the big old bench by the pond: a tidy-up around it required. This  seat was built as the finale of the 2002 festival, local stalwarts pitching away till late at night with only hand tools and candlelight. We’ve all enjoyed sitting there over the years, gazing across the pond, taking in the vista and the birdsong. But this feature bench is fifteen years old, and can’t last forever.

We weeded and cleared, hard and hot work in that early summer heatwave. Exhausted, I sat down on the bench: “This isn’t so wobbly,” I said.

It collapsed underneath me. Literally. A pile of planks.

As Paul pulled himself out of a combination of concern (short-lived, I was fine) and laughter (I’m not bitter, it was classic Laurel and Hardy), it dawned on us… we had to extend our bench-building skills. Sure, maybe we could have done some fundraising and bought something, but having made four little benches out of home-grown Quarry Wood wood, we wanted to do the same again. To make an original, authentic, artisan, locally-sourced seat.

We had a couple of straight lengths of that Chestnut left over. Duly split and designated for verticals. Just opposite the old bench, a big Silver Birch had toppled last November (after Hurricane Angus), requiring some emergency path clearance, and the timber lay waiting. We cut that into lengths and split it for the horizontal slats – seat and back. Splitting revealed a stunning shiny white interior, it couldn’t have been more beautiful, and simply serendipitous, re-used within metres of its origin.

But we’re no joiners or carpenters and we knew that ups and acrosses with six inch nails would not suffice. We revisited the pile of Chestnut under the bridge and found a curved log. Could we split it? Paul and Will wrestled for what seemed like hours, wedges on top of wedges, splits splintering around knots, no satisfying peeling apart… this was a ferociously challenging job, but they eventually produced a pair of arches. These were attached to the back of the bench as strengthening back-braces, a functional measure that suddenly turned into a rather cool design feature.

We did a little planing and sanding, but we never expected this to be perfectly flat or smooth (it really isn’t). It’s solid, surprisingly comfortable, and a welcome replacement for the pond-view seat. The interior white of the Silver Birch is gradually goldening, and we’re gently outraged by a bit of bird poo, but surrounding plants are beginning to settle it in and people are enjoying sitting there. There’s a “Visitors’ Book” perched next to it – do let us know what you think.

Five benches. All made with entirely locally-sourced wood. All a little curvy, wonky, home-made and proud. Enjoy.

And you never know, there might be a few more on the horizon.

Lorna Neville