The LMJ Nostalgia Pages


The Big Stump

This website began as an exercise to do something indoors during the Covid-19 lockdown, and before long we also had a project on the go outside. For some time we’d been trying to think of a major task which could keep us occupied through the summer, and Gail suggested the stump on the bank behind our house.

That stump has a long history with us. It had been a large sycamore, branched into four massive separate trunks near ground level. Three of these had been cut down to about six or eight feet high but one had been left at about twenty feet. We called in the local tree-man to cut that one down to match the others.

Three trunks cut short, and useful as lookout seats. One trunk left tall.

Care was needed because a tangle of thin branches had grown out just below where it had been cut, and these seemed to have engulfed the telephone line to our house. The fellow with the chainsaw climbed his ladder and began trimming back these branches cautiously when he made a surprising discovery – the telephone cable was actually attached to the tree trunk. At some time, possibly when the house was built in the seventies, whoever had strung up that line had decided that it needed more support in the middle and had simply secured it to the nearest tree trunk. That cable had to be removed before the remainder of the trunk could come down, but who was qualified to do it?

For quite a few years I tried to arrange something but got nowhere. The phone branch of BT said that I must go to BT Openreach, which is a separate company; Openreach said I had to go to my phone provider (which was BT, the ones who had sent me to Openreach). Stalemate.

We were saved by a fault in the line; it had to be replaced, and the fellow led the new one to the other end of our house so that it was well clear of the tree. We called our tree-man who returned and cut the trunk down to the height of the other branches but was reluctant to do more. This surprised us; normally, he seems ready to tackle anything.

Usually he’ll tackle anything.

That left us with a big stump, and although it was still a good lookout point for some it was a nuisance in our efforts to terrace the steep bank.

All trunks now shortened, and still a good lookout spot.

That brings us to this year: could we eliminate the stump ourselves? It looked a big task, but then how long would the lockdown last? All summer? In May we sized things up.

It looks bigger than me.

The blade of my chainsaw was much shorter than the diameter of even the smallest trunk and so there was no chance of just slicing right through them. Also, although electric chainsaws have some advantages (they always start immediately!) they can’t match the power of a big petrol version. It would have to be a case of nibbling off much smaller chunks.

The chunks I nibbled off seemed tiny beside the whole stump…

… but they felt mighty heavy when I cleared up at the end of a session.

At my age I don’t work fast, and my dress code varied as we alternated between heatwaves and cooler spells. We’d started on the smallest of the trunks, and by the end of May we had them just about beaten. Now for the really big one, but the work so far had taught us the best techniques. Into June, and the size of it meant that we had to start by shaving off really small slabs.

That just leaves the fattest of all.

As we moved on to that trunk we discovered why the tree man had been so wary about doing this kind of job. He knew the way people sometimes treat big trees in a back garden, at a height that they can conveniently reach. As we worked our way closer to ground level we began to find all sorts of nails and staples, some near the surface and some deep inside, one even with a few inches of clothes line still looped around it – and all capable of wrecking the teeth on the chainsaw chain in seconds.

Bang goes thirty quid’s worth of chainsaw chain. This was hidden deep inside the trunk. Looking on the bright side, the iron staining around it has added some wonderful patterns to the grain!

Getting down to the roots brought a new problem, as we had to get most of those out too. If a chainsaw chain touches soil it can be blunted within seconds. There were several ways around this but none of them simple. As a start, digging away the soil was possible in some places but that still left a thin layer on the surface of the roots – and even that much is enough to blunt the saw teeth. Even where the roots are well exposed, there’s no telling how many pockets of soil they enclosed while growing.

The obvious method, try to cut carefully near ground level without letting the chain touch the soil.

Hammering a wedge into a halfway-slot cut by the chainsaw might produce a split running all the way down, but only if the grain runs the right way. The swirls of grain around a knot or fork will bring it to a complete halt.

Another variation is to cut into the section above ground, and then try to split the stump with wedge and hammer.

In the end I decided to live with the regular blunting of the chain teeth. Getting it sharpened by the local dealer used to cost about £6 a time and take up to a week, so for £15 I bought a sharpening kit on Amazon. Now I could sharpen it myself in twenty minutes, in the comfort of the greenhouse.

Or simply cut through the mix of roots and soil, and then sharpen the chain once more.

We were advancing, but very slowly, so we decided to try burning the roots. Fortunately we started early in the day because it was several hours before things were hot enough for the live roots, full of sap, to start charring. And on the topic of charring, we had to keep the nearby fence hosed down!

The cavemen knew this method - burn the roots out.

The burning undercut the remaining stump sections enough for them to be knocked over, if the hammer was big enough.

And if all else fails, try walloping it with a great big hammer.

This took us through July, and it was August before we had things cleared as far as we wanted to go. We now needed to get professionals in, to shore up the exposed face sturdily. The big fear was that the clay would soften in the rain, collapse, and then the garden next door would come sliding down under the fence. For that reason we left a few big roots close to the boundary, to provide a bit more support for the soil.

The stump’s gone - now, what do we put in its place?

As for all the slabs of timber, the idea was to cut them up for firewood to be burnt in our living room fire over the winter. Would I run into more nails, and damage the chain again? It needed to be checked, and it was just as well I did. The metal detector found several nails and screws that I hadn’t spotted while cutting the slabs from the stump.

Checking slabs for nails before putting them ready for cutting up.

Having an open fire in our living room is one of our winter pleasures – among other possibilities, if we wrap some potatoes in two layers of kitchen foil and put them beneath the grate, in an hour’s time they will be a delicious treat! It’s a small grate, though, so those slabs of timber will have to be cut up into much smaller chunks before we can use them.

Even if I get it all cut up, where will we store it?

Cutting all that lot up will keep me busy throughout winter and probably far beyond. How long will the Covid restrictions last?


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