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Dorset lives — Wootton’s woodmen

Ed Brooks uses wood in imaginative and unusual ways – and he involves his whole family in the business

Not just a master carpenter: Ed Brooks won the World Stinging Nettle Eating Championships at the Bottle Inn in 2005

Way out west, in the rural tranquillity of Wootton Fitzpaine, a remarkable family is doing remarkable things with wood. They describe themselves as furniture makers, but this is a usage of the word ‘furniture’ which goes considerably beyond what most of us would understand by that term. They do indeed make tables and chairs, but they also make garden benches, entrance gates, bridges and even treehouses. Even the description on their website of one of their benches stretches the definition: ‘a woodland glade may be enhanced by a large organic sculpture with seating using timber from the woodland itself’ – my italics. Clearly these are not run-of-the-mill carpenters.

The family in question are the Brookses, who have been in Wootton Fitzpaine for more than thirty years. Ed Brooks, who gives his name to the company they run, is the elder son of David and Marion Brooks; his younger brother, Alex, is the other member of this quartet. The boys were brought up in a highly creative rural environment, as their father had a multitude of practical skills: forestry, carpentry, building, landscape gardening – he could turn his hand to almost anything. Ed and Alex grew up in the days before the likes of Playstation tempted youngsters to stay indoors, so they spent most of their spare time outside in the west Dorset countryside exploring the woodlands and building tree-houses.

‘The landscape around here has been the greatest inspiration for us to do what we do today,’ says Ed with conviction. His love of the outside world, coupled with a natural flair for art and design, led him to a course in Landscape Architecture at Sheffield University. It was the perfect choice for him. ‘It was ecologically based and plant-orientated – we did a lot of meadow creation. I loved it!’

When his time at university was over, he began a career in landscape architecture, and although much of his work was based in London it was natural for him to want to return to Dorset. When a family friend down there wanted a new garden to be designed and built, Ed teamed up with his father and they did the job together; the results were satisfying to all concerned. Then a new complex of holiday cottages was opened in the village and when the management realised that the garden needed urgent attention, there was an obvious team for them to call upon. But this time David and Ed found that, in addition to their landscaping skills, there was a need for many new gates to be installed.

‘We all agreed that modern gates looked too straight and perfect – and therefore totally out of place. So there was only one thing we could do: build them ourselves. By chance we had had some chestnut delivered to make a circular seating area, and I realised that chestnut looks really good and natural when it’s split rather than sawn, and in fact fences are often made that way. But my father said that gates could also be made from split chestnut – and he was right, because we tried it and found that the posts of the gates had the same curves as the bowed roof or the sagging wall.’

At his workshop, Ed contentedly surveys a set of steps made for the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral

The gates were much admired and led to requests for more of them. This was when Ed realised that he could start a business doing something he really liked: making things out of wood. At this point his brother Alex joined Ed and his father. His experience of the outdoor life had likewise nourished a love of wood and he had always loved carpentry and furniture-making. However, he had studied psychology and marketing at university and then gone into the finance world; but he had never felt truly at home in it and he readily seized the chance to return to Dorset. The team was completed by the mother of the family: Marion, also able to turn her hand to a variety of skills, has run the office side of the business from the outset. They found some redundant stables in the village to use as a workshop and never looked back.

‘We still often get asked to do gates, but we can make almost anything anybody asks for,’ says Ed. ‘We usually buy our wood from round here – we know the local landowners, so we ask them if there are any wind-fallen trees on their land which they would be prepared to sell us. We’ll pay the going rate for the timber; sometimes they’ll help by loading or sawing and then we’ll repay that favour by helping to make their cider.’

Ed is a natural enthusiast, but at the mention of cider his eyes widen even more. ‘We all make cider round here! A group of us have just bought a redundant field nearby and planted two dozen apple trees, so we’ll be able to use those in the future.’

There are many more plans for the future, not all of them necessarily involving cider (although one suspects it will never be far away from the thoughts of Ed and his family). The business has already expanded sufficiently for them to take on an assistant, James Amato, who was trained as an analytical chemist and opted for a change of life. They have bought thirteen acres of local woodland within a mile of the workshop – a haven of windfallen trees and maturing, once coppiced chestnut.

They are keen to take on corporate work, having already installed benches and information plaques in the grounds of the Guinness headquarters in London; but Ed also wants to tackle larger-scale projects. He and his father are in the process of building a house from scratch using the best ecological principles, such as the avoidance of cement, the production of which leaves a huge carbon footprint because of the immense temperatures involved in its creation. He also wants to build houses using the ancient method of rammed earth.

A typical tree-house made by Ed and his family using timber from the estate on which it was built

‘Whatever we do, we try to achieve exceptional design using environmentally sound principles. And what’s more, we’re in a beautiful part of the world and we can enjoy ourselves. Fancy a glass of cider?’

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