Living in the woods and working with trees is a way of life for Steph and Tim Fathers, who have made their home in Wark Forest.
TIM and Steph Fathers were penniless, homeless and expecting their first baby when they moved to Tynedale in search of adventure and a new life. Now they live deep in the heart of the forest near Wark in an old farmhouse, a mile off the road down a remote, stone track.
The forest is not only their home – it’s their livelihood as trees are their business. The upside is that they are their own bosses in charge of their own mini empire. And the demand for logs has gone through the roof as people embrace the log burning stove as an efficient way of heating their homes and, more often than not, their water. Tim, a skilled tree surgeon, also spends a good part of his working week climbing trees – his personal passion.
The downside is they appear to work all the hours God sends. But hard work doesn’t bother this couple who realise life could have been a very different story if they had stayed down South.
“I met Tim at 14 and left home at 16,” said Steph. “We were wild and we were mixing with all the wrong people. Then I fell pregnant and I realised we had to get out. When you find out you are having a baby it helps you make some big, life-changing decisions.
“We were city kids. We had never lived in the countryside, but I had his yearning to move up North, to come on an adventure. We arrived with nothing and no idea of what was going to happen to us. We picked up a copy of the Courant and saw an ad for a room to let in a farmhouse in Hedley-on-the Hill.
“I think the farmer and his wife took pity on us. We had been sleeping rough and we can’t have looked very clean. I weighed seven stone; I was very, very thin and pregnant. We needed a home and that’s exactly what we found. We also found a job for Tim, firstly on a building site and then on the farm.”
Steph gave birth to son Matthew on a cold, snowy, February day in 1978 and it was touch and go if they were going to get to the hospital. “I had visions of a helicopter flying in to whisk me away in the middle of labour but we made it.”
It was certainly the adventure Steph had been seeking and, as for Tynedale, it was love at first sight. “I couldn’t believe the sense of space, the wide, open fells and beautiful countryside. Down south you couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into someone else and there was always this roar of traffic. But here there was this overwhelming sense of peace and freedom. I just loved it – still do.”
Further work followed at various farms across Northumberland for Tim who, by then, was more than proving his worth. He was top student of the year at Kirkley Hall and a popular employee with a work ethic second to none. His reputation earned him a new job offer, but this time back in the South, in Hertfordshire. And the couple faced the difficult decision to leave. “It was just too good to turn down – a job on a big, arable farm, a house and, for farming, a good salary. But I didn’t want to go,” said Steph. “I hated the idea of leaving Northumberland.”
Tim and Steph did go, after a lot of restless nights, but vowed to return. In the meantime, there was a new job and new challenges to face. As it turned out, the move would throw up a new change in direction in a rather dramatic fashion. A hurricane would place Tim firmly in the spotlight as a much-needed tree surgeon and trusted worker.
“My boss asked me to clear some dead elm on the farm so I bought a chainsaw and then went on a climbing course,” said Tim. “I quickly discovered that trees, not farm work, were where I wanted to be.
“Then we had the hurricane in October 1987. It blew in from the Bay of Biscay and, overnight, flattened five million trees. The local council asked me to help out and it turned out to be months of work.” Tim worked flat out – for days and nights on the trot – and was promised more work on the strength of it. The couple then launched their first business, Ashwell Tree Services, and were busier than ever.
But the dream of returning to Tynedale still lingered. And, finally, in 2004, they returned. Friends found their farmhouse at Blackaburn in the middle of Wark Forest and knew immediately that it would suit Tim and Steph.
“The location was wonderful with trees everywhere you looked,” said Tim. “But there was no electricity and no mains water and an expensive oil fired heating system guzzling £2,000 a year. So we looked into renewables and installed a large log burner to heat our water and 22 radiators. We also built a wind turbine and installed eight solar panels. So, as long as we have wind and sun, we have power. And if all else fails the generator kicks in so we are never left cold or in the dark.”
In the early days when son Matthew and daughter Gemma were little, Steph helped out primarily with paperwork in the family business. But now she is very much in partnership with Tim in the family business, Wark Forest Landscapes, and can do everything he can – well almost. “I’m not a climber,” she said. “But I can chip, log and stack. And I can split logs with an axe if I have to.” Every good climber needs a trusted groundsman to clear dead wood away and keep the work space tidy, clean and above all safe, added Tim. “Steph makes sure the ropes don’t become twisted and drags fallen logs safely out of the way. I couldn’t do the job without her. She spends her life cleaning up after me, at work and at home!”
The demand for logs has increased tenfold since the couple launched their business in 2004 and they now sell an average of 300 tonnes every year. “I have constant phone calls in the winter asking for our help,” said Steph. “One woman needed two truck loads of logs – that’s three metres of wood – every 10 days, but she does have a big house. We always make sure the wood is seasoned and dry. And I will stack them for free if people are struggling.”
Steph makes sure the ropes don’t become twisted and drags fallen logs safely out of the way. I couldn’t do the job without her. She spends her life cleaning up after me, at work and at home!
The couple promote the use of soft wood as it’s readily available in the North of England and conifer timber burns well as long as it’s properly seasoned. Indeed, they use nothing else at home.
The challenging winters have certainly kept demand ticking over. It once took Steph four hours to deliver to a local customer, but it was worth it. “People were ringing in tears because they had no heating at all,” she said. “I hate to let people down.”
In the meantime there’s the tree surgery work with a number of projects including dead-wooding beech trees at Harbottle Castle in Northumberland National Park and looking after the iconic horse chestnut tree on the village green at Wark. “The parish council asked me to have a look as it hadn’t flowered properly for years,” said Tim. “It took me two days to get it into shape. I cut away the dead and diseased wood to promote healthy growth and keep it safe – which was vitally important with children playing underneath. It shouldn’t need any more work now for another 10-15 years.”
Regular tree inspections are vital, particularly in or near schools and roads and they form a big part of Tim’s work. “The Forestry Commission asks me to survey a section of the A68 from Rochester to Byrness every year. It’s vital to keep a close eye to make sure the road is safe.” Tim is also commissioned every November to fell trees in Kielder Forest for Christmas. The trees are destined for city centres around the world including Edinburgh and London.
Their life is busy and it’s not without its stresses. Tim is now 52 and he says the business has to change as he gets older. “You have to be physically fit to climb trees,” he said. “I have climbed up to 150ft and I can still do it and will be for some years yet. But that will change eventually.”
“There’s so much work out there. I can’t go anywhere without spotting a tree that desperately needs some work. Tree surgery isn’t just about trimming trees in people’s garden to make them look aesthetically pleasing – it’s a health and safety issue, especially with trees overhanging roads and buildings.
“There are so many scare stories of near misses and real tragedies involving trees falling down. I worked at a kids’ summer camp in Scotland where a giant cedar fell down, just minutes after the children had left. It covered their coats left discarded on the ground. It’s terrifying really.
People must have regular inspections by experienced and trusted tree surgeons to ensure their trees are safe. I cannot stress that enough. We can help save lives.”