Most men find at least the idea of chopping wood appealing. In America the axe is an emblem of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Henry David Thoreau.  It’s the great symbol of the settler, the outback, of rural survival, self-reliance and the frontier spirit. (Seven Presidents of the United States were born in log cabins.)

Maybe stockpiling wood is in our genes as hunter-gatherers. Stacked wood bespeaks security, cosiness, preparedness for winter.  Perhaps it’s because it’s exercise with a purpose, or a way of clearing one’s head.  ‘I chop wood,’ the Victorian Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone declared, ‘because I find that it is the only occupation in the world that drives all thought from my mind.’ 

Maybe it’s all the associations that come with an axe: the forest clearance, the ancient oaks of England on which a navy and an empire were built. 

Or the perfection of its form.  If an hour’s wood-chopping is soothing work, it must be because quite so much hopping around, swearing, trying to extricate the wedged head has taken place over the 1.2 million years of steady R&D devoted to this, the prototypical tool.  

Though in fact it’s not a tool, it’s a simple machine, using leverage to ramp up the force at the cutting edge, and dual-inclined planes to enhance the splitting action.

That head is drop-forged from medium carbon steel (the flaring cheeks averaging twenty-nine degrees): hard enough to hold an edge, yet not so brittle it shatters.  The shaft (of ash or hickory so it won’t splinter or split from the strain) is kinked for easy swinging by anyone of average height.

And it’s a philosopher’s axe—not rake or broom—over which we puzzle: is it still our grandfather’s if our father replaced the head and we the shaft?  The Director of the British Museum recently called the axe ‘the most successful piece of human technology in history’.

Not bad for twelve quid from Homebase.

Chapter 4, A short detour about wood-chopping


Part of wood chopping’s pleasure, undoubtedly, is in the art of getting cosy—what my mother called ‘granny-bugging’.  This is a talent you either have or you don’t, and doubtless Freud would have had plenty to say about it.  You can tell instantly on entering someone’s house whether they have the gift, and it is unconnected to sex, race, wealth or education.

One of the forces driving my country hideaway fantasy from the start was a mysterious yearning for both wild weather and the open fire I never had as a child.  Emerging, in London, to another day of listless Tupperware skies, I craved 'proper' weather: screaming gales, rain to rattle the windows, biblical tempests.  But most of all I wanted snow, ideally of Siberian proportions, to cut us off for weeks.  

It wasn’t until I read Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-eater (1821) that I realized I wasn’t alone in this.  The nineteenth century smack-head and (according to the Sunday Times) ‘most unpleasant writer in literary history’ included in that work a prose hymn to the joys of winter that read, for me, like a personal creed:

‘I petition annually for as much snow, hail, frost, or storm, of one kind or other, as the skies can possibly afford us. Surely everybody is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a winter fireside, candles at four o'clock, warm hearth-rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies on the floor'—not forgetting the laudanum, of course—'whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.'

It was only then the penny dropped: my lust for wild weather went hand-in-glove with my craving for an open fire, because they were both part of the same thing: the pursuit of cosiness. The offbeat French philosopher Gaston Bachelard put his finger on it: ‘We feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors.  A reminder of winter strengthens the happiness of inhabiting.’

Which is why, of course, a sure way to feel extra cosy in bed on a dark winter night is to listen to 'The Shipping Forecast', and imagine deep sea trawlermen in Force 10 gales and giant seas.

Chapter 4, A short detour about wood-chopping


With much to-ing and fro-ing, we positioned the tractor. We chocked the wheels and connected up the tractor’s pulley wheel, setting the belt turning. Then I pulled the iron lever on the saw, which slid the belt across to drive the blade. The saw cranked into life.

It was simply terrifying. I’d never been so close to a machine that was so blatantly lethal. The belt flapped and slapped between the pulley wheels, hungry to snag any loose clothing or inquisitive passing child.  

The blade whirred and squeaked like a giant bacon slicer, though the sound was quaintly soothing and almost musical: the rattling rhythm of the Fergie’s engine, the regular ting-ting of the staples in the belt as they passed over the iron pulley wheels.

I found some small branches and pushed them towards the blade to warm it up. The saw scarcely noticed.

After a few of these I pushed a thick old stump forwards with a stick. The blade screamed as it bit into the wood, and the tractor engine chugged harder, reverting to its gentle clatter as the cutting finished, the blade ringing as the severed timber thudded onto the ground. The smell of sawn wood filled the air.

It was sensational.

Chapter 4, A short detour about wood-chopping


Savouring the joys of winter



All photographs and text except where otherwise stated © Antony Woodward and Verity Woodward.