ON my first day on site, I discovered the man I had named ‘The Unstoppable German' really was unstoppable. Not in regards to his Desperate Dan-type qualities or his gorilla-type strength, but in that he insisted on working bare-chested!

The location of the woods was hardly Scotland or Northumberland and the climate at the time was positively Mediterranean, so I could sort of understand. The fact he could do this in a densely-planted Sitka forest of first thinning was another matter. My experience of Sitka had been one of heavy protection. Long sleeves, collar up, visor down and I’d still emerge looking like I’d been in a fight with a mountain lion. Was he mad?

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His next act almost confirmed it as he ran uphill (bare-chested, of course) through unthinned Sitka to retrieve his pickup keys, which he’d left somewhere in the forest. He returned, not the slightest bit out of breath and with both nipples intact – very impressive, almost unstoppable and a bit German.

As though being physically impressive wasn’t enough, he was a very well-educated individual and was fluent in English, German and Swedish. Sometimes he would mutter to himself in all three. Though he’d worked up in the Highlands for several years, it was interesting that he still struggled to cope with my own Northumbrian dialect. I don’t consider my dialect to be particularly strong, but he still struggled with words like ‘muckle’, ‘canny’, and ‘gan’, the latter pronounced ‘gaaan’. It was reassuring to see he had some flaws.

He assured me that for the last 12 years he hadn’t done a single day in the woods alone without his trusty companion Katy. Katy, it turned out, was a small, intelligent collie who had more experience of working in the woods than me. She would watch me with a fixed stare and I could sense her disapproval if I made any kind of error. I recall I made one poor fell and I could swear I heard her tutting! She moved through the woods like a spirit, appearing and disappearing at will.

Forestry Journal:

The location of my accommodation – my caravan – was ideal. It was in the wood, but at the end of a loading bay with spectacular views. I suddenly thought of all those city dwellers paying hundreds of pounds a night to sleep in a shepherd's hut. I wondered what they would have thought of the location. My commute to work was roughly 200 metres, made so much easier by a newly laid road. A fresh batch of stone had been laid down on the existing road quite recently and, with the location of my caravan, it looked like I had my own personal drive. Not bad for 27 years old, I thought to myself as I surveyed the scene. I had to make one concession, however, and that was to allow the unstoppable German to park his forwarder at the end of it, which only slightly spoiled the view.

I was very much self sufficient in my new home in the woods. I had a gas shower and a petrol generator and yet, within 15 minutes of leaving the caravan, I could be in an Asda superstore or enjoying the benefits of a meal in Wetherspoons in Barnstaple. It really was a superb location. However, I wasn’t there to enjoy the scenery and the reality of the task quickly became apparent.

Forestry Journal:

My job, as it had been described, was to thin the wood by 90 per cent into 3-metre lengths. The downside was this was probably the worst block of trees in the UK. When I first set eyes on them, I wasn’t sure whether to tackle the job with a chainsaw or a machete (or to jump back into the pick and flee). You couldn’t actually see the trees.

Ferns covered the ground to waist height and a dense mat of ivy sat around and up the majority of trees so that you could barely see the trunks. This was the ‘friendly’ foliage I'd been advised of. Thistles, drawn by the light, grew head high and seemed to stare me in the face, while brambles competed with the ivy up the trunks, some climbing 12 feet. Somehow, as though planted strategically, gorse also flourished, adding to the difficulty of moving around and operating. One did oneself a huge favour by spending an hour or two in the evening with a brush cutter in anticipation of the following day's felling.

This was just the visual side of the job – an impenetrable jungle. Then there was the stench! Pervading one particular area was the stench of death. Having been raised on a sheep farm in Northumberland, I concluded it could accurately be compared to ‘a stinkin aud deed yaw’ (a stinking old dead ewe). Clearly something quite large had died and I was hopeful it was animal. 

Walking through the ferns one day, I discovered its origin. I was making my way downhill through the undergrowth when I slipped on something greasy and fell flat on my back.

The chainsaw fell from my hands and rolled off down the hill and, as I hit the deck, there was a terrible crack of bones. 

Forestry Journal:

It’s actually quite rare to find a dead badger above ground, as they usually slope off underground if ill. Unfortunately for me, this seemed to be an exception. As I turned my gaze from the canopy, I noticed my right arm was sticking through the creature's rib cage and I was covered from head to foot in a greenish-brown hairy sludge. The smell was overwhelming and I had to fight the urge to vomit. I couldn’t get out of the situation without placing my hands further into the gunge and, having got to my feet, I headed back to the caravan, made a fire and burned all my clothes. That night, I really struggled to eat my tea, despite having worked solidly all day.

The block of larch was priced as a break-even job at best, alongside the more profitable spruce. Three miniature forwarder loads were required to achieve this. However, after putting in some long hours (starting first and finishing last) I progressively brush cut and bench-felled my way across the wood, averaging four loads a day out of that jungle.

There were others involved. The boss's usual hand cutters seemed reluctant to take on the brambles, thistles and gorse. One guy claimed to run his own tree surgery business and another described himself as a forester. Neither appeared to want to talk to me and seemed to go about their work in a somewhat subdued manner. Whether this was due to my willingness to get in and get on with the job, I’ll never know. Most of the time I didn’t have a clue where they were or what they were doing.

The Unstoppable German, however, bashed on unstoppably. He was thinning spruce and moving east, whereas I was clear felling and moving west. There was little to no telephone reception in the wood and so, when the saws weren’t running, we would communicate with raised voices. This then progressed to full-on shouting, then whistling and I assumed it would only be a matter of days before we progressed to yodelling.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in Devon in what were very challenging working conditions. It was a particularly hot period and working in a dense wood with little air flow and full gear was hard. I doubt it'll be the last time I work with the Unstoppable German.