Mark Hawes quit the London rat race and moved to the Shaftesbury area to pursue his dream. He wanted to work with trees. His Semley-based tree-climbing business now operates across England and at prestigious summer festivals.
Alfred visited one of his sessions at Stourhead.
Mark Hawes was in the pub when he made his life-changing decision. “We had a few drinks and we asked, what are we going to do now?” said Mark. It was the year 2000. He was an estate agent in the capital, working in a career he didn’t enjoy and living where he didn’t want to be. Mark’s wife Eloise was employed in publishing.
After a few pints, a plan was hatched. Mark started a tree surgery business, Hawes Arborists. Eloise changed direction, too. “She teaches yoga now. We’ve got a studio where we live. It’s a complete life change,” he said.
Mark soon realised that tree surgery work can be seasonal, so eleven years ago he branched out with his Great Big Tree Climbing Company. “Tree surgery is always busy in the winter and then in the summer, it gets a little bit quieter. We thought, why not get kids and grown-ups up trees? It takes over from February through to the end of October,” said Mark.
Now the tree climbing enterprise takes Mark and his team all across England to country parks, luxury holiday sites and education providers. “Five or six years ago the National Trust started their ’50 things to do before you’re 11¾’. The number one thing was tree climbing, and that launched us. We do a lot of National Trust sites.”
Mark says the tree climbing is now as important as his tree surgery business. “They’re neck and neck at the moment, but this is becoming a bit of an animal. It’s really successful,” he said.
Close to home, Mark has helped climbers scale some of Dorset’s tallest trees. “Bryanston School is not far away from here. They’ve got three London plane sentinels, the tallest broad leaf trees in Europe. We measured them with the kids. When we did it three years ago, they were 49.5 metres. We’re going to try and do it again this summer and we reckon they’ll be over 50 meters,” said Mark.
It was a misty, drizzly Wednesday morning when I met up with Mark at Stourhead. He had attached ropes and climbing equipment to a tall tree at the side of the lake, near the iconic bridge. “We chose this tulip tree because it’s in a fantastic location and a great tree to climb,” said Mark. “It’s surprising. Sometimes when you go to sites and you think there are going to be hundreds of trees to choose from but when you start looking closely, it’s not quite as obvious as it may seem. You want a big tree with big broad branches, just like this. That’s not always the easiest thing to find.”
This tree wasn’t chosen randomly. It was selected with Stourhead estate manager Alan Power on a previous site visit Mark made. “I’ve been here twice to have a look around, so I did a survey on this tree a couple of weeks ago just to check if it was all right. There are a few bits of dead wood that I took out,” he said.
Obviously, safety is of paramount importance. Climbers are kitted out with a harness and a helmet and they are fitted to a safety line. “All the kit is checked three times a year. It’s an independent person that comes and inspects. It is ropes biting into each other, so it is a friction device. We keep it simple and don’t put any mechanical devices in. It is easy to put them onto a rope and it’s very easy to get them off a rope,” Mark said.
The strict health and safety checks mean that Mark’s insurance premiums are surprisingly affordable, considering his business activity is helping people climb trees. “They’re okay because we demonstrate that we’ve got all the bases ticked, so they’re happy with what we do,” said Mark, adding that the premiums were ‘not cheap-cheap!’
Claudia Clune from Motcombe was at Stourhead on the tree climbing experience. It was a half-term surprise treat arrange for her and her brother by her mum. The 9-year-old Motcombe Primary School pupil found the experience of scaling the tall tree, ‘a little bit scary’ but says that the safety checks gave her confidence. “I knew they wouldn’t let us do this in public if we were going to fall,” Claudia said.
Mum, Sarah Clune, was watching as Claudia and her seven-year-old brother Jonty rose towards the top of the tree. “I thought I might be quite scared as they reached the top but they’re nearly there now. It’s just great because it feels really safe and they’re having a great time. I am proud,” Sarah said.
Claudia is a keen climber and practices in the trees near her Motcombe home and at her grandmother’s house in Australia. “My daughter climbs up most trees – unfortunately without a harness and quite often appears to be quite high up. They go climbing sometimes on a climbing wall in Yeovil. This tree is much higher, but I knew my daughter would be quite fearless and she would just shoot up.” Sarah didn’t fancy following in her daughter’s footsteps. “I’m getting neck ache just from looking up,” Sarah laughed.
It’s not an everyday experience sitting on the branches of a tree, looking down on mum standing 40 feet below and Mark says sometimes climbers have a ‘bit of a wobble’. “They are hanging on a rope. They feel that the rope is holding them and then they sit on a branch and get slack in the line. You’re up in the tree and you’re sitting there. Some people just get a little bit of ‘whoaa’ moment, but we clamber up the tree and help them. If we need to get them out, we get them out pretty quick, but we just go up and reassure them and hopefully they’ll be fine in the end,” he said.
Mark has a great rapport with the young climbers. He stood on the ground and teased the kids reaching the top branches about the presence of two squirrels that, apparently, ‘enjoyed eating nylon climbing lines!’ “He said there are some very keen squirrels who will come and nibble the rope,” laughed Sarah. “That’s Barry and Harry. We always joke a bit about that,” said Mark.
He continued to joke, shouting up that he would need to chop down the tree to get the climbers down. He mimicked the chopping sound to laughter from within the leaves above our heads. “Who wants to come down,” shouted Mark, as the half-hour session reached an end.
There wear mixed responses. Some climbers wanted to stay, others had achieved their goal and wanted to get back on the ground. The climbers descended slowly. Jonty was beaming as his feet touched the grass, back on solid ground. After removing his hard hat, he told me he’d enjoyed the climb but he found it tough. “You had to put your foot in a foot lock and take it out, slide the foot lock up, put it back in, slide the hand lock up and carry on doing that,” Jonty said.
“I didn’t want to go any higher,” continued Jonty, who said it was ‘a bit scary’ at the top. He accepted that his sister had climbed higher with good grace. He said he was looking forward to talking to his Motcombe School friends about his holiday fun.
“Well-done team,” bellowed Mark, full of enthusiastic praise, as the first group removed their helmets and rejoined proud parents and grandparents who had been taking smartphone pictures from the ground. The second climbing party of the day was now eagerly queuing for their turn.
A quick glance at bigtreeclimbing.co.uk reveals how Mark’s company is in demand at venues across the country, from Shropshire to Suffolk. Mark’s team will be attending some of the biggest summer festivals including Bestival, Wildwood and Latitude. As the business grows, Mark is determined to continue working with people rather than dealing with paperwork. “I love being on the job and doing it. That’s why I did it in the first place. But you get to a point in a business where you have to start being behind a desk a bit more, so that’s kind of where we are at the moment.”
I hope he finds the right balance. Mark’s business is an inspiring example to anyone who is unhappy with their current situation and would love to do something completely different. He has turned his passion into a profitable business, but it’s more than just a livelihood for Mark. “Trees are my life,” he said, adding that they have even inspired the choice of names for his children. “I’ve got a daughter called Willow,” he smiled.
The Big Tree Climbing Company’s next events in Stourhead are on the 6th, 13th and 20th of July.