The world of oily mill boards and cattle housing.

A timber rail finally gave way. I’d nailed it elegantly in place in 1981. I know this because we were erecting the building during the wedding of Charles and Di. The rail acts as a barrier between some cubicles and some calving boxes. Actually there’s a steel pipe acting as a rail as well. The pipe stops anybody in the calving box getting into the cubicles. But because the cubicles are higher up, the timber was put in to discourage the occupants of the cubicles trying to jump down.
Anyway one of the occupants did. I looked at the timber when I came to do a running repair and decided she’d sneezed violently and it had broken. But look on the bright side, it’s been there nearly forty years. During that time it’s been chewed by generations of bored heifers and they’ve scratched their heads on it on a regular basis. In some places it’s worn smooth. Not only that but this piece of wood wasn’t new when I acquired it.

Back then the Farmers’ Guardian newspaper had a classified ads section that was sometimes thicker than the rest of the paper. One section was firms, mainly in Lancashire, selling reclaimed and second hand timber. At lot of the old industrial buildings were coming down and these firms went in to salvage the good stuff. This is before that sort of thing was fashionable or especially ‘green.’ People just did it because you could turn a pound. I know farmers who did out farm buildings with ‘oily mill boards’ at the time. This is long before they became the ‘must have’ floor covering for your fashionable loft conversion.

There was one company I dealt with quite a lot. They were good to deal with and as well as second hand and new timber, he carried a fair stock of chipboard and plywood as well. Also because they sold a lot of stuff into this area, provided you didn’t need something on a particular day, they didn’t charge haulage. They just shoved what you wanted on the next wagon coming our way.

Mind you, sometimes we managed to find things much closer to hand. I don’t know how we found out that the timbers were about to be available, but Father and I went down to where the old railway engine sheds were. A small demolition/salvage business was taking them down. We had a building job in mind at home. So we had a look at the roof timbers that were coming out of those old railway buildings. They were beautiful pieces of timber. Properly seasoned and everything. You cannot get new timber that good.

Anyway we asked how much, and the boss came up with a somewhat complicated scheme which meant that the good ones were going to be a bit expensive. But they were just what we were looking for.

Anyway we said that I’d be back after the weekend with a tractor, trailer and chequebook and he’d have the timbers down by then. So it was the following Monday when I turned up with the requisite equipment. In the meanwhile, the boss had apparently fallen through the roof and broken his leg. His foreman was expecting me. He had an envelope with prices written on in pencil.

The problem was that I don’t think he was a great reader, and his boss hadn’t been entirely clear what he wanted paying for what. The foreman stared at the envelope trying to make sense of it. The only figure that made sense was £2. So he gestured to the stack of 8 inch by 4 inch roof timbers and said, “How about two pound apiece.”

I just nodded. So he asked, “How many do you want?”

“All of them.”

So the pair of us loaded these sixteen feet long timbers onto the trailer, by hand. Back then you just did that sort of thing. Now I’d be looking round for the fork lift.

I then did the calculation for him and produced the chequebook. He looked a bit disappointed at that and asked, “What about cash?”

I just looked at him and asked, “Am I dressed like the sort of person who carries that sort of money about with him?”

So I gave him the cheque. As he turned to take it to the caravan he tripped over a long length of timber lying there. He stood up, picked it up, and put it on my trailer on top of the other wood I’d just bought. “Take the damned thing away, I’m fed up of falling over it.”
And thirty nine years later, that piece of timber has finally broken and will have to be fixed up again.

As it is the 8”x4” roof timbers are still going strong, doing a great job. My guess is that when somebody comes to take these buildings down, they’ll put those timbers quietly to one side, because good wood is hard to come by.

Thinking about it, if anybody asks, tell them that just growing trees doesn’t sequestrate carbon. Or at least not for long. Because trees are living organisms, they are born, grow, die and decay. Carbon is locked up and then carbon is released.

Felling the tree, cutting it up into timber, and then seasoning it, that’s proper sequestration of carbon. The timber I purchased had most likely been water seasoned, and then left to dry naturally. Given the age of the buildings that the wood had come out of, it was from trees that had been planted before the Napoleonic wars. It had probably been felled in the 1870s, and for the next century had been holding the roof up. Since then it’s had another forty years working for me and I have no doubt it could see out a second century.

When you think about it, ‘planned obsolescence’ isn’t an agricultural term.


And if you’re looking for something new to read, I’ve got a new collection of stuff out.

For this collection of stories, Sal is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

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21 thoughts on “The world of oily mill boards and cattle housing.

  1. rootsandroutes2012 October 21, 2020 at 4:40 am Reply

    Funny how particular dates stick in your mind. I was minding the car park by Porthtowan beach on the North coast of Cornwall when Philip George Arthur Charles (shuffle as appropriate) took his first bride. That made me very unpopular. You see, I was also engaged at the time, and the good lady – I’ll call her Kathy because, well that’s her name – really thought I should have been watching proceeding with her. My engagement went the way of all flesh… but I’ve still got the bottle of Charles and Di commemorative beer in a cupboard somewhere.

    • jwebster2 October 21, 2020 at 4:57 am Reply

      If I remember right we had a bit to eat during the wedding service then went back to work on the grounds we had to eat at some point 🙂

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt October 21, 2020 at 7:35 am Reply

    Halfway through Woolgathering – didn’t know I’d missed one.

    • jwebster2 October 21, 2020 at 8:27 am Reply

      You haven’t missed it, you’re an early adopter, it was just published yesterday 🙂

  3. The Story Reading Ape October 21, 2020 at 9:36 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    As well as learning something, Jim also introduces A NEW BOOK 👍😱

  4. Chel Owens October 21, 2020 at 8:55 pm Reply

    I love real histories.

    • jwebster2 October 22, 2020 at 4:34 am Reply

      It has to be confessed that my history is ominously real 🙂

  5. Widdershins October 22, 2020 at 3:29 am Reply

    Timber like that’s priceless, and not just from a monetary point of view. : )

  6. oldhenwife October 22, 2020 at 2:27 pm Reply

    “This is long before they became the ‘must have’ floor covering for your fashionable loft conversion.” Oh – and we used plywood for our loft which was to be the garret for art student son. Getting his drawing board through the hatch wasn’t easy. And we acquired some of those beautiful long, thick and heavy pieces of matured timber from somewhere, we were going to use them on the log burner but same son wouldn’t allow it. He bought a large van specially so that he could take them away, he’s now a designer/maker for anyone who wants anything, no idea where the wood is but I suspect he was paid lots and lots for their installation.

    • jwebster2 October 22, 2020 at 2:47 pm Reply

      Really nice timber is beautiful stuff 🙂

  7. Audrey Driscoll October 23, 2020 at 4:40 am Reply

    It’s infuriating to see modest bungalows built in the early 20th century hereabouts being knocked down and the timber wasted. That wood came from trees that were several hundred years old, close-grained without a knot to be seen. There is very little of it left on Canada’s west coast. I don’t know why it’s not being salvaged, or not much, anyway. I suppose because you have to pay several humans to do the job, not just one guy with a wrecking machine.

    • jwebster2 October 23, 2020 at 4:42 am Reply

      Sadly I suspect you’re right. Also I think you’ve got to build a tradition of using this sort of thing. We’ve had centuries of recycling, think of the rag and bone men with their carts in town.

      • Audrey Driscoll October 24, 2020 at 1:59 am

        True. In North America there was this idea that resources like forests and water were infinite. Many of us still live as though that were true.

      • jwebster2 October 24, 2020 at 5:52 am

        Culture is important and to be fair, the American continent has always been about ‘wide open spaces’

  8. Cynthia Reyes October 24, 2020 at 8:46 pm Reply

    And I love your storytelling. Who else could make such a story out of a piece of timber? Well done, Jim.

    • jwebster2 October 25, 2020 at 5:29 am Reply

      I like the phrase from Cannery row, “And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

      • Cynthia Reyes October 25, 2020 at 1:53 pm

        I do too.

      • jwebster2 October 25, 2020 at 2:53 pm

        I love it when it happens 🙂

  9. […] The world of oily mill boards and cattle housing. […]

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