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A Visit to Ben Law's Woodland House

Maddy Harland
Wednesday, 30th April 2003

I park my car under the trees just off the leafy Sussex road and start the familiar walk up to Ben Law's place.

Ben and house

Walking near the neighbour's house, a rabbit, startled, bounds off into the pasture. I notice how the young broadleaf trees Ben planted about ten years ago are doing, many over ten feet tall. Then up the slope and into the chestnut wood, dark and still on one side, and light and open with freshly sprouting coppice stools on the other. 

The path has been reinforced by local sandstone and the pond has been excavated for the mud to build cob walls, but the place still holds the sense of sanctuary, a timeless quiet so deep, it's hard to imagine I am approaching what was, until recently, a building site. I reach the big old oak tree with a bell, resonant of Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, and walk through the chestnut coppice up to an arch. Behind it rises the new house, suddenly in view.

Built by Ben Law and a team of volunteers during 2002 in just six months, this is a beautiful handmade house. Made of a sweet chestnut cruck timber frame with straw bale walls and sweet chestnut roofing shingles and not a brick or pantile in sight, it is entirely a house of the woods. It blends in with its surroundings, the most 'natural' house I have ever seen. I remem-ber the old leaky caravan it replaced, tucked into the side of the woodland and camouflaged green. I wish that all old leaky caravans that woodland folk have to endure could be replaced by beauties like this!

"Those were tough days full of mud with only an outdoor solar shower and a walk through the coppice to the twin vault compost toilet."

The walls are finished on the outside with wavy edge oak and chestnut boards. Ben invites me through the handcrafted front door and I can't help marvelling at how the cruck frame rises majestically into the roof. I am reminded of the cathedral builders in Dark Age Britain, with their substantial stone arches that symbolised the meeting of earth and sky, matter and spirit, a divine union celeb-rated by the mysteries of sacred geometry. This place has that sense of magic and human endeavour, raised by human skill with ropes and pulleys, rather than by a crane.

Inside, the fire set in a huge cob chimney, flickers light up the limeplaster walls, rounded and hinting the width of the bales beneath. The internal walls are built from chestnut lathe and cob and every window frame has been lovingly made from coppiced ash and the catches fashioned from yew. To the east is a balcony, waiting for its hot tub to be installed, and we laugh about the deep pleasure of living in this house, with a shower and a bath, an indoor dry compost toilet with a drop chamber that is emptied from the outside, and Ben's simple kitchen with an old carved cupboard I remember from his yurt dwelling days.

My supper is bubbling on the Rayburn and the kettle is hot for tea. We browse Ben's library, packed away for all those damp yurt and caravan dwelling years. Somehow, it feels like he has reclaimed a part of himself he had to leave behind to pioneer his woodland way.

Those were tough days full of mud with only an outdoor solar shower and a walk through the coppice to the twin vault compost toilet.

Rainwater harvesting, solar heating and a hot tub!

Today, rainwater is collected via copper gutters off the roof and is used for the hot water system via a twin coiled hot water cylinder. The wood fired Rayburn heats it in winter and there's a solar water panel for the summer. There's also an impressive solar voltaic display recycled from the first Channel Four TV's Big Brother house supplemented by three small wind turbines that together provide ample electricity. No more slopping out buckets from under a sink either as the grey water is piped to a reed bed system.

There is the strong sense that this house stands in its own landscape, a complete product of Ben's hard-fought vision. Much of the wood used was grown in Ben's woodland that surrounds the house and the mud for the walls is from his own pond. Everything else was sourced as locally as possible, and no skip was used to dispose of any waste – indeed there wasn't any – making this one of the most ecologically sound builds in Britain.

Ben makes his living from his chestnut coppice and grows much of his own food within the woodland. Indefatigable, this year he plans to extend his home gardens, grow edible vines up the sides of the house and sink that hot tub in the balcony so he can relax and survey his beautiful permaculture realm! I don't know anyone else who could deserve that privilege more and, as I listen to Ben's typically robust, spontaneous laugh, I know he won't keep it all to himself.

About Ben Law

Ben describes how he came to own Prickly Nut Wood in Sussex, his long but successful fight to live in his woodland and build a house there in The Woodland Way. In this book, he presents a radical alternative to conventional woodland management and demonstrates how to create biodiverse, healthy environments, yield a great deal of value added products, and provide secure livelihoods for woodland workers. His vision is transforming our perception of woodlands in Britain by marrying low impact living, sustainable livelihoods and conservation within a framework of permaculture design. The Woodland House, all about how he built his home was published by Permanent Publications in 2004. The Woodland Year is an intimate account of Ben's yearly cycle of work, his naturally attuned lifestyle and deep emersion in the very fabric of the nature of his woods and these books are all available from the Green Shopping Website.

In 2010 Ben built a woodland classroom at the Sustainability Centre and wrote a comprehensive guide to Roundwood Timber Framing, there is also a DVD with the same name that documented the build.

The building of Ben's house was the subject of a Channel 4 Grand Designs episode, which can be watched on their website.

For information about Ben's products, open days, courses and talks, see www.ben-law.co.uk

Help spread the permaculture word...

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