Make any comparisons with Poldark to head forester Simon Damant and you’re likely to get a brisk response most unbefitting of a pre-watershed period drama.
But protest though he might, he’s certainly dark, brooding, slightly mysterious and arguably the closest thing you’ll get to the hit television show’s 18th-century Cornish hero.
Damant is a man born into the wrong time, almost as if he’s woken from a deep, two-century-long sleep as he goes about his work on the 2,500 acres of National Trust land at Wimpole Estate a stone’s throw from Cambridge.
Sure, he’s got a smartphone and grudgingly catches up on admin or a spot of social media to shout loud about his work in the countryside, but the modern world isn’t really his thing.
Perhaps that’s why he decided to help shield two former military men who hid out in the Estate’s grounds in the new series of Channel 4’s Hunted, where teams of fugitives try to avoid detection by the authorities.
“If you gave me all the technology and money in the world to make this work,” he said, taking in the wide open landscape he manages, “I’d be bored rigid because I could buy it all in. I want to do it by being economical and resourceful.”
He’s good to his word. Time-saving modern machinery is used only to complement traditional countryside techniques that thrive under his tutelage.
Dreamy and haphazard in turn, he comes alive with illuminating clarity when espousing the virtues of ‘doing the right thing’… and that means forestry the tried-and-tested old-fashioned way.
From horse-logging, hedgelaying or smithy work at the estate’s 1840-built forge, he’s unequivocal in his belief that the demise of fossil fuel will one day justify his sustainable no-waste approach to the countryside, unless humanity can find the key to renewable fusion energy to save the day.
“It’s sad… everything is disposable these days”
“I’m keeping these old techniques alive because it makes a difference inside,” he said in-between rhythmic hammer beats on a red-hot slither of steel which will become a ram’s head wall hook in an hour. “Problem is,” he continued, “the time it takes to make something like this means it isn’t economic to sell, so I end up making all sorts of objects for Christmas presents.
“It’s sad because ironwork like this lasts an eternity and it’s a one-off. People say they could get a hanging hook or knife from Tesco for a quid and I say ‘go and get one from Tesco then, but it won’t be as elegant’. Everything is disposable these days.”
A former Special Air Service soldier – “only the TA version,” he stressed – Simon’s observations are like rustic machine gun bursts, skipping from one idea to another in quickfire succession, forcing you to listen in case you miss a gem. His mind works at 100mph, but there’s a more methodical, long-term vision in there too.
“I don’t like waste and want to use everything the countryside offers to be as self-sufficient as I can. I have a mobile, but it’s only so I don’t have to sit in an office so often and can stay outdoors for longer,” he said.
He shows us how John, a 900-kilo Dutch Trekpaard horse, still drags the logs from the woodlands surrounding the sweeping Capability Brown landscape to the rear of the 1640-built hall that hosted Queen Victoria in 1843.
Giant piles of wood are dotted here and there, some destined for a rudimentary, but no less effective, steel charcoal burner, complete with chimneys and inlets, that Simon uses to create a tonne of charcoal for every six tonnes of tree that he has, probably reluctantly, cut with a chainsaw.
“I use charcoal for the fire in the 1840’s estate forge. You can see how easy it is to operate using purely traditional methods. Blacksmith work is a great skill and you find that everyone who comes here wants to stand in the forge – there’s something very primal about it all,” he said.
Simon has been maintaining the 800 acres of wood and parkland at the Wimpole Estate since the mid-90s, after a ‘childhood and early career spent climbing trees’, a pastime that led to a fascination with flora and fauna and a degree in forestry, soils and water engineering.
“By running courses I want to share the long-established tried-and-tested countryside skills, such as keeping the forestry work alive”
“I’ve always had this overwhelming urge to explore, maybe because I’m very curious about things. I did my degree, climbed all over Europe, the Himalayas and mountains in Peru. Then at 35 I knew for sure I didn’t want to be stuck in an office, started here on a six-month contract and I’m still here,” said the tanned Simon, just back from a fortnight’s tree surgery work for the Jordanian royal family.
“We do use modern machinery because you have to be practical about things due to the sheer scale, but by running courses, I want to share the long-established tried-and-tested countryside skills, such as keeping the forestry work alive, and encourage people to do the same.”
Simon, reigning English national scything champion, runs courses in the blacksmith’s art, cider making, woodland management and pole lathing, among a host of other rural skills, to give a holistic view of the work that goes on behind the scenes at Wimpole.
He said: “When I first came here, the attitude was that there was little of interest beyond the hall and farm. People said there was no wildlife, but there’s absolutely loads of it. The estate is home to rare barbastelle bats, there are thousands of species of invertebrates, numerous uncommon woodland birds and a haven for flora, and that’s just in the woods.”
He added: “By maintaining the forest, we get wood to make stakes to do the hedgelaying or to make charcoal to fire the forge to make tools to make the stakes, so you can see from that chain alone how everything is inter-related.”
The woods he’s happiest in have been designated a Special Site of Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, and are now as much a part of the attraction for day trippers as the hall and its organic arable Home Farm, which accounts for the remainder of the acreage.
Simon added: “If fossil fuel runs out, I’ll be sitting pretty. If it doesn’t, I’m happy anyway, keeping the old skills alive.”