Alex Huxley’s famous grandmother helped him to appreciate the countryside long before he relocated to our area. Alfred met the coppice worker and walking stick maker and heard why he feels so at home in Semley.
Alex Huxley led me down to his shed and workshop at the end of the long garden behind his Semley home. He held up an ornately carved hazel walking stick, fashioned into the shape of a hare’s head. It had realistic and piercing eyes, bought from a taxidermy supplier.
Alex keeps this age-old country woodcraft alive as a member of the Dorset Coppice Group. Although he grew up in London, Alex became fascinated by rural ways and wildlife during his many visits to see his grandmother at home in the Cotswolds. “I always went down to granny’s house rather than being in London. I feel much happier in the countryside,” Alex said.
His grandmother, Elspeth Huxley, was a keen environmentalist and was best known as author of the best-seller ‘The Flame Trees Of Thika’. “I got a love of nature and a love of the countryside from granny. I suppose the stick making came out because all children pick up sticks and make walking sticks. It got to the stage where dad used to put them in a wood burner because he got so sick of them. I had the things everywhere,” said Alex.
Alex believes that another member of his family encouraged his skill with wood. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was the brother of Andrew Huxley, a Nobel laureate. He was a barrister, a tank commander and, at one point, he was the Attorney General. He was also the Acting Governor of Bermuda. When he wasn’t doing that, he was a carpenter. That’s what he did to relax. He was always playing with wood. Everybody has an affinity for something. I think I’ve got wood in my veins,” he said.
Alex attributes his love of trees and woodworking to his family tree. And the former stockman feels connected with Semley, living on land that was once in his ancestors’ ownership. “My grandmother Elspeth’s father was a Grant. Her mother, Eleanor, was a Grosvenor. She lived at Port Regis School. The family owned most of the ground in this area, including where we live now. I’m working in the woodland that was owned by the Grosvenors 200 and 300 years ago. I am related to the Grosvenors, so I’m working family land.”
Alex is a coppice worker. It’s an ancient forest and woodland management practice. “Coppicing is where you’re cutting down hazel in a rotational growth, down to nearly ground level and at a slight angle, so the wood re-grows,” explained Alex. “Ecology wise, if you don’t cut it properly and don’t harvest and look after the woodland, it goes to ‘rack and ruin’. When you are coppicing an area, you’re doing it in sectional pieces, which you do once every seven years.”
Alex says that careful coppicing helps wildlife and biodiversity flourish. “If done properly, you get a high proportion of animals and flora as well. You get better plants and all the bluebell woods. It gives the glades that the woodland needs, so it lets the light in and it allows the wood to get better.”
Alex believes man has to intervene to help achieve the best balance of nature. “We cannot leave things unmanaged. This is how it has been for several hundred years, but since World War Two, a lot of woodland became unmanaged because there weren’t people there anymore. They got killed off in the wars.”
Alex has an arrangement that allows him to work coppices near Hawkers Hill Farm. “There’s a local farmer called Chris Martin, who lives in Motcombe and who allows me to coppice his land. I don’t charge him, and he doesn’t charge me. Anything I cut is mine to use. I’m managing his woodland and making it better. I’m getting firewood and hazel,” said Alex.
He says that bluebells and wood sorrel are thriving in the areas he has coppiced. And he’s not alone in this ancient activity. He is a member of a group of woodworkers continuing this centuries-old practice. “The Dorset Coppice Group represents coppicing in general. We have bowl turners, stick makers, hurdle makers, charcoal makers and everybody who is working in the woodland or who has part of their employment based in a coppice.”
Alex attends many country fairs and rural craft shows and he’s pleased that there’s renewed interest in the unique and lovingly made walking sticks he crafts. “This is not a throwaway product. People are starting to understand what you do, rather than making something in the sweatshop that takes five minutes. You’re going to spend a bit more money but if you’re at a show making something, people have more affinity for what you’ve made because they can see you making it,” he said.
Alex says people like to buy something unique and not mass-produced. “We’re all craftsman. We put something different into what we make. You can make the same sort of stick as somebody else, but you’ll do it in a slightly different way to them. It’s going to be a different product each time.”
Making the perfect walking stick takes time and patience, as well as skill. “You’ve got to get the wood the year before, coppice the area, collect the timber, sort the timber out, bundle it up, take it home, then you have got to spray it off with a woodworm killer and then you’ve got to leave it for at least a year. Hazel is a year. Blackthorn or hawthorn is a two-year season. Holly takes three seasons,” he said.
Alex says the process of seasoning is critical. “Seasoning is where you’re keeping the stick undercover in a controlled atmosphere, allowing air to circulate in that area. It’s halving its moisture content down to a point where it can be worked. As a stick seasons, its fibres contract. I steam sticks to make them straight. It makes the fibres expand. You can bend a stick straight where it was bent before and it will stay in that position because the fibres will contract as long as it’s seasoned properly”.
Alex enjoys patiently handcrafting walking sticks and he says he recommends the craft as a therapeutic pastime. “There was a chap a few years back who was a policeman in the Met. It was ten years before his retirement, and he was getting a bit stressed with it. I suggested taking up stick-making as a hobby,” said Alex. “I saw him ten years later and his wife hugged me and said, ‘This is what kept him sane’. He’s retired now and he’s doing it as a hobby but it’s something which has allowed his mind to focus on something different from work.”
You can find Alex and see his work at Facebook.com/Huxleysticks or look out for him at shows around the region next year. “I’ll be doing things like Melplash and the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show and the Oak Fair at Stock Gaylard in August,” said Alex.