Our veteran volunteers who played their part in the Friends of Ashridge will remember the late John Wilson with admiration.
He was a gruff Yorkshireman drawn to the South to take a challenging job and was both feared and respected in equal measure doing a wonderful job moving the Ashridge estate forward. He lived to the ripe old age of ninety, passing away last year in his National Trust cottage in Ringshall.
Born in 1928, John Wilson began his career as a trainee forester on the estates of King’s College, Cambridge. In 1957 he was appointed Head Ranger for the Ashridge Estate and retired in 1991 after 34 years service.
“I always say that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t like trees – all they wanted to do was sit down and have a farm and clear all the forest land around the farm. But all my life I’ve liked trees and it was all I ever wanted to do. My mother wanted me to be a land agent, but I didn’t like office work – in all my time I’ve done as little of that as I could possibly get away with. There again I’ve always been a bit of a loner so I’ve never lived next door to anyone in my working life. That’s part of the gamekeeper’s lifestyle, that you can come and go and no one knows your movements.
The thing about the Ashridge Estate is the variety – I had everything I wanted here. There’s roughly 1,000 acres of woodland dedicated to growing timber for the nation, about another 1,000 acres which is not dedicated, like wooded commons, another 1,000 acres of heathland or downland and another 1,000 acres of farmland, but out of the 4,000 acres there’s literally 3,000 acres with timber on it.
Ashridge is also special because it was bought for the Trust by local people. It was always run as a country estate with it’s own management committee, and the public had access to it and the houses on it were lived in by estate workers or people connected with the countryside.
I’ve always thought that if you’re telling men to do a job you should be able to do that job yourself. If I send the men to fell a tree, I should know how to fell that tree properly. If I send the men to put up a fence, I should know how to put that fence up and how the job should be done. You need a damned good training on various private estates before you come into a job like this. I had my forestry but I’d also done gamekeeping, deer management and building work. Certainly you need qualifications, but I don’t think a qualified forester need be a university man as a lot of it is passed on by word of mouth.
Working for the Trust I never did less than 54 hours a week, and then there was the paperwork on top of that. I’d get up at half past five and go out round the estate looking at jobs I wanted to do for the rest of the day before I saw the men at eight o’clock. In early spring I’d be finishing off my plantings and then I’d get into my nursery work. In the summer I’d be going round doing fencing jobs and cleaning the plantations, and in autumn I’d prepare my plantations for planting again in the winter. Year round I’d go during the morning to see the three gangs working on the estate and make sure they were all right, and I’d go again in the afternoon.
Thunderdell Lodge, where we lived for 14 years, was the centre of operations. During the day when I was out Barbara would take all the calls for orders at the sawmill. She had people at the door constantly and she’d have to deal with all sorts of problems like road accidents, suicides, injuries to the men. We were on call 14 hours a day, which did mean that the days got awfully long. It was part of my job to know every crook and rogue in the district, and I had a good network of informers, a lot of whom are now little old ladies and little old men. They’d ring me up at three in the morning – “John, John, there’s shots on the common” – and I’d be out right away. We’ve always had poaching problems on the estate, but we’ve always caught them as well.
I’ve always been a hardwood forester rather than a softwood forester, which is why I came to the National Trust. I wasn’t terribly interested in going to the Forestry Commission because I didn’t want to deal with large-scale pine. I thought it was bloody boring, to be quite honest. Not to say I haven’t planted softwoods, yes I have, but hardwoods were my line, good old English trees. That’s what I’m really going to miss, looking after my plantations. I’ve always tried to get the best possible tree on a given area of ground, aiming for a good sound oak for timber. By planting oaks with conifers growing around them you get the oaks growing upwards to the light instead of ending up with a tree looking like an umbrella. In 100 years’ time you’ll have a tree that’s got a perfect bole, that goes up for 30 foot without any branches on, a beautiful tree for timber. You’ve got to be able to look at them and imagine what they’re going to be like a century from now.
Whatever job I went to do at Ashridge there was always something beyond the forestry: it could be birds, it could be flowers, it could be local history or archaeology, or providing picnic areas for the public or access for the disabled. I’ve always liked flowers, and I’ve always enjoyed birds, but where I went to school you didn’t go around shouting to your mates “I love flowers”. In 1963 I did a Field Studies course at London University, and before that I helped Phyllis Hager from the Hertfordshire Natural History Society set up a nature trail on the estate. It was the first nature trail on National Trust land and I think it was only the second in the country.
I see it as a way of life: the trees are grown, the trees are felled, and you replant them. I think life’s got to go on. If the trees are felled, that’s fine – you’re having their beauty for the time being and then they’re felled and you start again. I’ve always thought that whatever trees I’m looking at, and there were beautiful trees I was looking at when I came here, they were planted by some chap before my time, and he was looking at somebody else’s beautiful trees. It’s a cycle. When you get to my age, of course, you’re reaping your own benefits – some of the trees I’ve planted are 70 foot tall now, and that doesn’t half make you feel old!”
Interview by Sarah-jane Forder
The above interview is reproduced from the National Trust Magazine – Spring 1992.
Thanks to Janet Staples for her contribution.