heritage skills

Heritage skills: Looking backwards, moving forwards

I’ve never been entirely convinced by the term “progress”. It’s one of those weasel-words that politicians wheel out when they’re trying to convince you to buy into something controversial like fracking because it’s ultimately “for your own good” – even if you can’t quite see it yet.

It’s also the kind of word that companies like Monsanto employ to reassure you that their genetically-modified products won’t have environmental repercussions on an epic scale.

That’s despite the obvious risks in terms of generating monocultures and reducing biodiversity (a case in point being the Irish Potato Famine, where dependence on a single “lumper” variety of tuber made the spread of blight much worse than it otherwise might have been).

Then there’s the creation of almost-impossible-to-manage Frankenstein-like superbugs and superweeds. Not to mention the totally immoral issue that farmers are unable to harvest and sow seeds from last year’s crops. This means, of course, that they’re subject to the expense of having to buy new ones each year – something that can and does cause real hardship among people in the developing world.


So anyway, as I said, I’m not entirely convinced by the well-worn notion of “progress”. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am, if anything, something of a Luddite, a characteristic that frequently causes my Beloved to shake his head in despair over my unwavering ineptness in the face of even the simplest of electronic tasks.

The other side of this seeming inability to master life in the 21st century though is my attraction to all things heritage – an interest that was rekindled recently by applying for an editor’s job for the in-house magazine of a little charity called the Small Woods Association.

While unfortunately I didn’t actually get the position, at least they had the decency to inform me of the fact by email rather than just leave me to hang as so many organisations seem to do these days. An old-fashioned courtesy much appreciated.

Anyway, the Association’s remit is, as its name suggests, to represent the interests of the owners of, and workers in, small woodlands, which apparently make up 25% of all forest cover across the country – some 422 hectares in total.

The value of trees

While this may sound a lot, according to the Woodland Trust charity, of which I’m a member, in reality it means that a mere 13% of the UK is covered in trees, which sadly is less than almost every other country in Europe.

And this despite the untold benefits that forests provide in terms of offering rich habitats for wildlife, filtering and cleaning our polluted air and giving sanctuary to many a city dweller from the stresses and strain of modern-day living.


But this leads me on to what I found particularly appealing about the Small Woods Association. Although it’s certainly not the only one to do so in the UK, what it offers is a series of so-called “social forestry” programmes.

While there’s no official definition for what “social forestry” actually means, it could loosely be described as a way of managing and protecting forests that also supports social, environmental and rural development.

So what the Association does, among other things, is to run health projects in both Wales and Telford, Shropshire, for individuals with recoverable mental health issues, obesity and long-term cardiac problems.

It also offers people who are on probation, repeat offenders and youngsters who aren’t in education, employment or training three or six-month structured training programmes in practical forestry management skills such as planting, coppicing and felling.

The aim here is help people rebuild their confidence by connecting both with each other and with nature. But it is also about trying to pass on traditional expertise and encourage new entrants to take up an increasingly rarified career path.

The problem is that most woodland workers are now ageing and all too few young people are joining the sector to replenish numbers as they retire, despite the option of taking part in paid apprenticeship schemes.

Heritage skills

But the same, it seems, is true of all heritage skills these days, not least in the built environment. And it’s an important issue as, astoundingly, England alone has more than five million so-called “traditional” buildings that were constructed before 1919, with 20% of the country’s domestic dwelllings falling into this category.

But whether you’re talking about dry stone walling, thatching roofs or being a steeplejack leaping around church spires and clock towers, all of this traditional expertise is sadly in steep decline.

And in Saffron Walden where we live, a market town with one of the highest proportion of listed buildings in the country, this situation can undoubtedly cause problems.


For example, many of the houses in the town itself, including our own, are rendered with old-fashioned lime plaster. Which, because it’s made from natural ingredients and is very durable, makes it much better for the environment than the new-fangled concrete-based stuff. But just you try finding those skills in the Yellow Pages – and if and when you do, you’ll find that they certainly don’t come cheap.

But it really does make you wonder why the availability of these skills has ended up in freefall – particularly when rates of youth unemployment remain so stubbornly high at about 16% compared with 5.6% across the population as a whole.

Presumably a lot of people, including careers advisors, simply don’t know anything about them much, despite attempts by bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Heritage Craft Alliance to up their profile and fund more training places. Or maybe they just look boring or less well paid than allegedly more glamorous careers in investment banking or the media.

Then there’s the fact that, despite government plans to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, they still don’t appear to have quite the same kudos as going to university after years of such tertiary education officially being pushed as the only way forward.

But despite all of this, there does, thankfully, seem to be at least a rising, if grudging, recognition that the country will always need its skilled craftsmen whether that be joiners or blacksmiths. And maybe that is progress, of sorts.