Kielder Forest: the North-Eastern edge of this constituency. From the Bloody Bush stone, 160,000 acres of dark trees flow into every hollow in Tynedale. It appears almost as a blank space on the map, without roads or villages. As a walker, it is almost impenetrable: a slow push for five hours, on steep broken ground, through the tightly planted trees, parting soft branches and sharp needles, in semi-darkness.
Banksy and Olly stood in a clearing. They were forestry workers, living in forestry cottages. Banksy’s father, and father-in-law had been foresters. So had Olly’s father, brother, and son. Banksy’s wife had worked planting trees. Their nearest town was Bellingham. From the bottom of the hill, it was 18 miles away. Banksy’s wife’s family had originally been sheep farmers on this spot. The government began to plant the slopes with trees after the First World War: to provide pit-props for trenches, in a future war. Once their pasture, walls, and sheds had been swallowed by trees, the family had become foresters. When Olly’s brother began, the men used axes. By the 1960s, they were using the Bowman saw. At 17, Banksy was given a jacket and some steel-toed safety boots, and at 18, a chainsaw. At 20 he had rebelled, and tried to become a farmer. It had not worked out, and he had come back to chain-sawing. There had been hundreds of forestry workers.
He had worked in a pair, “I was put next to one of the best chainsaw operators in the North Tyne valley.” They worked, in sight of each other, and met every twenty-five minutes to refuel the chain-saws. ‘Malcolm told me, “learn how to sharpen your saw, present your wood, and fell your trees: always keep it tidy and you’ll make money.” I carried a spare T-shirt for the rain. And at the end of the day I brushed away the branches, to prepare for the next day. I go to a masseur now,’ he added, grinning, ‘every two months, for my back.”
Harvesting machines had been introduced when Banksy was in his 20s. Now instead of hundreds of men, they needed ten. Banksy had moved into supervision. Olly had trained as a harvester operator. “He won’t mind me saying this, he can’t understand the computer side of it, but Jason his son is up to speed on it, so they work together.’
I watched Olly. He was in the cab of the quarter of a million pound machine, peering out of the bullet-proof glass. He pushed it forward, over a carpet of branches which he had laid, to keep it above the boggy ground. Its robotic arm swung at a 90 foot tree, grabbed it, twisted it, yanked it forward, stripped its top branches, and then immediately began to cut it into sections. Jason measured the diameter and length with an electronic instrument, and fed the data into a computer, straight to the sawmill. One man could now cut and finish a hundred trees in a day.
‘‘OlIy and Jason came at 4.40 this morning, they do an 11 hour day. Operators are working 2 or 3 trees ahead, working out what they can get out of the branches. In the winter, they come in the dark and leave in the dark. They’re not very talkative of an evening, because they are brain dead, just staring at trees all day. Olly’s wife works late, so when he gets home, he prepares the dinner.’
‘What happens if the tree falls on top of him? I asked.
“He gets jip off me for damaging the cab.’
Now there was talk of new technology, needing fewer forwarding machines and operators. ‘Sons and daughters aren’t interested in staying in the forestry industry” Banksy said. He had decided his daughter needed to get out of the North Tyne valley. She lived in York, had a psychology degree, and a teaching degree, and was looking for work. The school which Banksy had gone to had closed. They tried to always use the village shop, to keep it running, because if they were snowed in, it was the only shop they could reach.
Banksy walked me down the hill to introduce me to his collie. As we came onto the road, an old shepherd pulled up next to us, looked at the dog, and said ‘Ay, you’ve got one of those stylish dogs!’ ‘How do you mean?’ Banksy asked. ‘We got dogs that bark a lot’, the shepherd replied. ‘He though it was a party dog,’ said Banksy, when the shepherd had gone, ‘but it’s not.’ Banksy used his dog on his small-holding. They had 100 sheep and six cows.
Banksy seemed now to be spending a lot of time commissioning wooden ramps through the forest for mountain-biking. He marshalled fell-running races. He was working to develop patches of wood for owls and ospreys. He talked of the ‘dark sky’ that they preserved over the forest, and the Forestry Commission star observatory. I wondered whether he disliked this change from chainsawing, to recreation services. But he seemed excited by it. At his cottage, he had changed into his Ron Hill track-suit. He was going fell-running. He pulled a sled full of sand behind him, because he said the hills weren’t high enough here. I said goodbye to him at the reservoir. It had been built to power the manufacturing industry in the North-East. The manufacturing had not come. There were now hotels and lake bungalows along its shores. Banksy’s father’s cottage lay somewhere deep below us, buried under the water of the reservoir.