I feel a little like an imposter writing this since I only knew the man briefly, but it’s a story worth sharing I hope since it not only speaks of a world gone by, but also of a world that is still with us, and needs supporting.
I met Ernie (full name Ernest Steel) in 2020. He lived in a farm cottage on the Pitt Rivers Estate in Dorset. His cottage was on a route that I cycle frequently, but it was only in August of that year that I spotted him making a hurdle fence in his front yard (the images of him above and below date back to that time), and stopped to speak with him.
I dropped in every few months for a chat after that and even ordered some fences from him, but I hadn’t visited him for some time when I cycled past his cottage last weekend and saw his yard all tidied up and the cottage newly painted. I immediately feared the worst (Ernie was already 84 when I met him and I doubt he ever felt the need to clean his house or maintain his garden) and my worst fears were confirmed when my colleague Bexi found this heartfelt in memoriam piece on the National Coppice Federation website. I invite you to read it if have you have a moment.
You see, Ernie was a bit of a legend. Over 100 people turned up for his funeral in Salisbury to the surprise of his family, and it would have been one more if I had known he had passed away.
He was a master hurdle maker, unrivalled in hazel cleaving circles, an entertaining storyteller, a product of a different era, a hangover from a time when most of the woods in England were coppiced for fencing, thatching stakes, baskets, charcoal, tool handles, furniture parts, and more.
Coppicing has pretty much died out as a practice, but this has left our coppiced woodland in a poorer state than ever, and without us reaping any of the benefits. Making local charcoal saves us importing it from often questionable sources, the same goes for garden fencing, allotment stakes, baskets, and much more; coppicing also opens up the woodland floor to light and new growth, enhacing biodiversity. To learn more about the practice and its (long) history, the NCF website has this very well illustrated article: Coppicing in a Nutshell.
And this is why it matters to this day. With a little more awareness, perhaps next time we’ll buy a local bag of British made charcoal rather than one from B&Q, or find a local hurdle maker rather than buying an imported hurdle fence made with, horror, nails!
I enjoyed every visit I made to Ernie (and his cat, who had found Ernie and decided to stay) and whilst I never had a go at making a fence (I would have failed miserably, no doubt), I did learn a lot about the art of coppicing, and how it had become harder than ever to find hazel with the right amount of moisture for bending into shape, and he never failed to tell me how bad his knees had gotten.
“As Ern got in his truck to leave, I thanked him for coming and said ‘Mind how you go, as I hear you have fallen getting out of your truck a couple of times’. Ern said ‘Yes and I have had a couple of other falls too’. I said I would see him soon but wasn’t sure when. The following day I received a phone call to say that Ern was in Hospital having fallen at home sometime after locking up for the night. Ern roused from his coma on Tuesday, his brother & nephew visited on Wednesday, but Ern voted with his feet on the Thursday. He had always said that he would go when he could no longer support himself. He was always a man of his word – his last working day, five days before, had been amongst the click of cleaving hazel, mentoring & inspiring the young. Rest in peace ‘Ern the Hurdle'”. *
Ernest William Steel: 25 Nov 1936 – 19 Jan 2023