Updated: Dec 10, 2018
In deepest Dorset, the ancient craft of charcoal burning is undergoing a revival. (Johann Tasker) A great plume of smoke billows across the field, hugging the hawthorn hedge before rising into the Dorset sky. It was here, in the heart of Wessex, that Thomas Hardy set The Woodlanders, a classic tale of love and rural rivalry played out in a landscape of ancient trees and apple orchards.
Jim BettIe, a modern woodlander, rolls a cigarette and turns towards his battered blue van. It has been a long day. Three tonnes of wood have been chopped, and two giant charcoal kilns have been filled, set alight and sealed. The smoke disappears into the dusk as Jim clambers into the driving seat. Time to deliver some bags of charcoal, have a pint at the local pub and then go to bed. Tomorrow he'll be back at dawn. A pheasant scuttles across the path as the van trundles down into the vale and onto the main road.
This is Jim's sixth season as a charcoal burner. He's one of about 300 woodlanders across Britain keeping alive a rural tradition that is thousands of years old. It's a difficult life, but long hours at the mercy of the elements are slowly starting to payoff. "I'd appreciate it if you don't reveal the exact location when you write your story," Jim tells me. "I like it here. It's one of the most beautiful parts of southern England and I've built up a good relationship with the owner of the estate. I don't think he would appreciate a horde of visitors tramping through his woods to see what is going on."
Britain's barbecues burn 60,000 tonnes of charcoal a year. But almost nine out of every 10 bags of charcoal are imported. It takes seven tonnes of wood to make one tonne of charcoal, so 420,000 tonnes of timber are needed to produce those 60,000 tonnes and much of it comes from environmentally sensitive areas or endangered forests in West Africa and South America.
British charcoal burners are fighting back. Our charcoal may be more expensive, but it has its advantages. It relies on good woodland management and therefore comes at a cheaper environmental cost, and it burns cleaner and longer than imported charcoal because it is denser. It is also ready to cook on in 15 minutes and does away with the need for firelighters or lighter fuel.
Charcoal comes from coppiced woodland. Young woodland species such as oak, ash, hazel and chestnut are harvested to give the higher canopy a better chance of maturing. The cleared wood is stacked, left for a year to season and then packed into kilns. Each kiln holds one and a half tonnes of wood. Once full, it is set alight and left to burn for 10-16 hours until the wood inside is carbonised. A series of eight vents around the base of the kiln control the air flow. These are opened and closed to regulate the burn so all the wood carbonises evenly, whatever the direction of the prevailing wind. Long pipes are attached as chimneys to every other vent so clean air is drawn through the bottom of the kiln and smoke is allowed to escape.
Complete carbonisation turns the smoke from the chimneys blue. This is a crucial stage. The kiln must be sealed immediately and all air inlets and outlets be blocked to suffocate the fire, which stops the charcoal from burning completely and turning to ash. The kiln is left to cool for 24 hours before the lid is removed, and the charcoal inside is graded and bagged ready for sale.
Charcoal has provided a natural fuel source in Britain ever since man discovered that new growth sprouts from the stumps of previously felled trees. In the right conditions, coppice stumps, which are known as stools, can live indefinitely as long as they are not overshadowed by larger timber trees that block out the light. In many Dorset woodlands there are stools that are up to one thousand years old.
Coppicing adds value to timber which, in Britain, otherwise has little or no market value. It is an unusual example of sustainability in action, since it creates a richly biodiverse habitat. Jim became interested in coppicing while he was working for a local thatcher. When a local estate needed some woodland cleared, Jim jumped at the chance and enrolled on a course with the Green Wood Trust, a charity that promotes the traditional management of broadleaved woodland. The trust runs 40 courses a year teaching traditional craft and coppice management from its base near Ironbridge in Shropshire. An apt location: during the 18th and 19th centuries coppiced woodlands in the area provided charcoal for iron ore smelting, and the industrial revolution was born.
Since making his first charcoal in a converted oil drum in the ‘90s, Jim has expanded and now has three mobile kilns. The work is good for local employment as well as the environment. Most of Jim’s charcoal is produced within a 15-mile radius of Sturminster Newton, he employs two part-time assistants and also works with a local forester. As well as garages, shops and camp sites, there are unusual orders. Jim recently supplied charcoal powder to be used for soap. He also provides local artists with willow charcoal. "I have had a great response, especially from artists who want to create local scenes using local materials,’ he says. ‘People just can’t seem to get enough of it."