Woodcock Linocut – John Fox

BARN STORIES 3 …The great oak frames came from ancient trees which used to grow on the shores of Windermere, felled as part of essential forest management. Hauled out by tractor, the operation involved heavy machinery and a churning up of the tracks and rides as the timber was extracted.

One day, Mike Smith, Head Forester, stepped down from his tractor, and accidentally trod on a woodcocks nest, cracking an egg. He had been driving over it, unaware of the hen and her eggs crouched down beneath the axles as they passed overhead.

Mike changed his route, going right around the other side of the forest, to get the timber out. Although woodcocks usually abandon a disturbed nest, he removed the damaged egg and hoped for the best. To his delight, and relief the hen returned, hatched the eggs and fledged the rest of the brood.

Story from WSI leaflet: Engineering a future for the arts in ulverston

I cut the beams for the cruck frames out of the oak trunks freehand with a chainsaw specially resharpened to rip length ways rather than the usual cross cut. Some days were so hot that with the temperature at 30 degrees plus and wearing full chainsaw protective gear I was sweating like I was doing heavy manual labour in a sauna. I was dehydrating so much that I took to lacing bottles of cheap lemonade with salt to re-hydrate. It seems it’s no good just drinking water on it’s own you need to replace sugars and salt as well as water when you are sweating that much. I was drinking two or three 2/1/2 litre bottles a day. It was also the only time in my life that I have experienced stress incontinence through the shear impact that the concentrated physical labour was having on my body – you don’t want to know. Bob Sproule from the Hardwood centre came up for ‘busmans holiday’ and took over chainsawing from me for a week and cut the matching main curved posts of the central cruck frame out of a single tree.

While we worked hard we also enjoyed ourselves in the evenings with a series of talks by different people, watching films, evening swims in Coniston Water and nipping across to the Stan Laurel pub for the odd pint or two.

We showed WITNESS one evening – deserves an Oscar for the best Barn Raising in a movie.

We did contemplate raising our cruck frames by hand, but the confined nature of the site made it impossible. Our second plan was to winch them into place using the existing building as an anchor, but we decided that we might well pull half the back wall of the building down that way. So in the end we hired a large crane along with driver Dave ‘The Rocket’ to help us.

The day of the frame raising was the point where construction and performance intersected. In a one-off never-to-be-repeated event we erected the three main frames – in one take with no rehearsal. The giant A frames, held together with wooden pegs, were swung rather majestically one by one though the air and carefully dropped into place.

The frames were held in position with temporary ‘scabbing’ until we could crane the connecting beams into place. An operation that went without a hitch with each beam slotting into place and getting secured with oak pegs at the first go – much to Dave the Rocket’s surprise – and if I’m honest to my surprise as well.

1st Frame in place with scabbing

…with one tap pushed the six inch peg into two perfectly aligned holes. The crane driver gasped. Our street cred rose instantly. The woodworking boys couldn’t contain themselves. They rushed into the barn space, leaping and shrieking and vigorously shaking cans of beer. As they ripped the ring pulls, beer splattered in arcs as high as the beams.

john fox Eyes on stalks
The crew – Job done!

After the timber frame was completed by the summer volunteer program a smaller team stayed on to finish the cladding and the roof. In the end it was reckoned that it cost as much as it would have done if the build had been done by a contractor. But I’m not sure about that: Yes if you simply looked at what it would have cost to build simply by the square foot you could have got a builder to put up a similar sized workshop building for the same price. But I doubt you could have actually found a ‘cruck frame contractor‘ and if you could my guess is it would have cost a lot more than it did – and anyway we had more fun doing it the way we did, than if we’d got a contractor in to do it.

Looking back on the whole BARN project now I do wonder if there was a certain amount of conceit in it on my part ? On WSI’s part? While it was an amazing thing to do in itself, it was a bit of an incongruous structure to build in the back of a Victorian School building – though arguably less so that the workshop it replaced. In the following phase of redeveloping the building the Architect we worked with first wanted to knock the barn down (Not possible as it counted as match funding.) and then proposed that we built two further matching cruck barns along side it. In the end it was integrated into a larger modern structure which though it worked as a space in itself always felt to me that it compromised the integrity of the original vernacular barn structure. But without the BARN project demonstrating that a prototype of Artists, Builders and Performers collaborating could actually build a real building the next phase of the HOUSE project might never have got funded.

We had an Open Day for the local community to come and have a look at what we had been doing all summer. As part of the day the Ulverston Town Band came along and played Hearts of Oak.

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