Essex and Suffolk account for three quarters of all UK cricket bat willow production, and there are only four growers nationwide. Our host today started off in what he imagined would be a part-time diversification from the family farm near Woodbridge, buying out a local grower who wanted to retire. Twenty-nine years later he's growing patches of willow across the country. Sometimes he supplies young trees to landowners and they do all the work thereafter until he buys the finished trees back, but increasingly he and his team of three plant and maintain the trees as well, renting the land. With increasing field sizes farmers are finding they have odd headlands and corners they can't do anything else with and might as well get some income from, but they don't have the workforce or expertise to tend the trees themselves.
It takes a good while before you get any cash out of a willow plantation. The trees are grown from cuttings, so first of all you have to produce your cutting material, which you do by planting fat living willow posts about three inches across, and harvesting their long whippy side shoots the following year. You choose your propagating material from your best trees, and correct spacing at this stage will ensure the side shoots don't fork or have large side shoots themselves. The side shoots are stuck in the ground at their final spacing ten metres apart, working from December through to February assuming you can get on the land, bearing in mind willows grow on damp ground.
As the young trees grow you have to clean their stems to a height of about twelve feet. If large side branches are allowed to develop they will leave knots, which will reduce the value of the timber. Once you know that the difference in sale price between a top quality and a bottom quality cricket bat blank is around forty-five pounds versus a fiver, you can see that keeping up quality is key. The trees are ready to harvest when the trunk is fatter at breast height than the span of a grown man's arms, about 56 inches. It takes an average of eighteen years to reach that size. So you are looking at around two decades from the start of production until you have anything to sell. Willow is a fibrous wood requiring careful handling during felling, otherwise it will split, and twenty years of investment will be reduced to a pile of not very good firewood. A fully grown tree should yield enough material for about thirty bats.
What is counted a good quality piece of wood is a strange mixture of the scientific and the arbitrary. Closer grains coming from a slower grown tree is objectively speaking better because it will be mechanically stronger than a coarser grained wood. Uniform whiteness is also prized, on the other hand, and that is purely cosmetic. Professional cricket players know that areas of brown staining make no difference to the playing qualities of the bat. The manufacturers have their tricks, such as using strategically placed stickers to cover up cosmetic irregularities.
Once felled each trunk should yield five sections each capable of being divided into several bats' worth of pieces. Our host debarked one for us, and a puddle of sap formed beneath. It's a wet wood. The initial cleaving is done by hand or using a mechanical splitter, rather than a band saw, to ensure the grain runs straight down the bat. Then the blanks are roughly shaped on one saw bench, and finished to a uniform profile on a second, before being kiln dried over six weeks to get the moisture content down. They are so wet to start with that the air in the kiln has to be constantly circulated and the excess moisture condensed out, or the wood would go mouldy in the heat. The end grain of each blank is sealed with wax before drying, to make sure the moisture is lost evenly over the whole piece.
Ninety per cent of the finished blanks are exported, largely to India, so there's a little slice of rural Suffolk doing its bit towards the UK's balance of payments. We were both absolutely fascinated.
We saw something else fascinating but terrible. Walking down from the timber yard to one of the host's own plantations by the Deben our route took us through a small area of mixed woodland. It had been stripped of most of the good trees before his father bought the farm, and he'd been replanting it. Many of the young trees were ash, and eighty per cent of them were dead. At a casual glance you might not have realised that anything was wrong, since it's a little early for ash to have leafed up anyway, but he pointed out the vertical cracks in the bark, and patches of faintly pinkish discolouration in the bark near the base of the trees. So that's ash dieback, Chalara fraxinia. I have seen it with my own eyes. I dutifully sprayed Mr Muscle kitchen cleaner on the soles of my boots when I got home, but it was a mainly symbolic gesture. It's on its way, ash dieback, on the wind, on the feet of birds, the tyres of vehicles. No wood is an island.