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A Tale of Two Buildings

You may have read in the Ham and High that Bellway Homes, the construction company behind the ambitious housing development on Church Road, has very generously agreed to sponsor all the materials for our outside stage. I’ve been liaising with representatives from Bellway for several months now, which is about the amount of time it has taken for the development of 85 flats to take shape. It’s been an impressive feat of engineering and quite remarkable just how quickly it’s gone up. The walk to Forest school has been incredibly exciting for our children, who have been fascinated by the changes that have taken place each week and loved watching the Bellway crane at work.

Every bit as impressive has been the work of Alfie’s Auntie Ellen, who over the last two years has been building a log cabin for our children on the school’s allotment site. The contrast with Highgate Court couldn’t be any greater, as Ellen has employed the ancient building technique of roundwood timber framing. Every material has been locally sourced, with donations of green timber from Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery, clay from the foundations of an extension to a property on Storey Road – and all manner of materials liberated from local skips. Everything has been fashioned by hand, without a power tool in sight.

To watch Ellen at work, and help in a very modest way, has been an education and a privilege. It was almost two years ago that I helped dig the trenches for the foundations for the cabin, and filled them with reclaimed ballast. That done, logs were peeled for the timber frame. Sitting on a log with a draw-knife, stripping away the fleshy outer layer, is a very therapeutic way to spend time. Ellen then used her skills and expertise to prepare the ‘A’ frames, and enlisted family and friends to raise the frames in a scene reminiscent of an Amish barn raising.

The roof was clad in oak shingles, each one cleft by hand and fashioned to the correct shape with the use of a chisel and mallet, with the shingle held in place by an ingenious contraption called a shaving horse. This is medieval technology and it works brilliantly. Then my favourite bit – creating the wattle of daub walls, where a woven lattice of locally coppiced hazel was daubed with a good old mixture of clay and straw, and anything else to hand that makes it stick. At a recent staff meeting, this activity kept the teaching staff happy for several hours.

Since then Ellen has been adding all the finishing touches; a beautiful earth floor, the addition of coloured ‘bottle bricks’ and beautiful storytelling benches.

So, two years on, our log cabin is finished and ready to go. It’s been a labour of love for Ellen, who has been on the allotment, rain or shine, totally in tune with nature, working away as the seasons have come and gone. What has been achieved is absolutely astonishing and a thing of beauty. I feel very lucky to have experienced a way of working that has given me a different perspective on how things can be done and I can’t wait to see how our children respond to this magical addition to our school. Thank you Ellen – and thank you too Bellway Homes – because we are about to get started with our next construction – the outside stage at Highgate Primary School.