Jo Denbury, Features Writer
An aged stable block comes into view; high grass surrounds it, a fifteenth century dovecot and maybe a house. All sheltered by the tall spire of Trent’s village church. An old black lurcher potters about oblivious to the whir and buzz of cutting wood.We are standing outside Matt Belfrage’s workshop, a disused stable in the middle of an ancient farmyard. Not far from here is a room where Charles II hid while on his escape from the Roundheads and the area still retains an eerie sense of rural quiet.
Sixteen years ago Matt took over the stables. At the time they were packed to the rafters with old tractor tyres and Matt spent three days clearing them out, not to mention the mice who had made it their home, and stripped the space back to its whitewash walls and bare floors. Then he set up his workbenches and tools as well as a wood-burner - that now doubles as a stove for a hot lunch - and began his business as a bespoke furniture maker using only sustainable and local recycled wood. His passion for trees began as a child, when Matt spent hours climbing and building treehouses.
Before disease set in and the penultimate ‘cull’, Elms were his favourite trees ‘they have low branches which makes them particularly good for climbing,’ he recalls. But a brief spell as an architectural model-maker took him away to London and ultimately Sydney. Then in the mid-90s he moved with his wife to Trent and Matt rediscovered his passion for working with wood. Matt’s self-taught voyage into working with wood began with reclaimed pine planks from the disused Babycham Factory for a range of coffers and chests. From that he started to look further for unwanted wood. He recalls the moment when a neighbour narrowly missed being killed by a bough from a Beech tree that stood in his garden. As Matt puts it, ‘the tree shed an arm’ - his choice of words only proving his love for the trees further - but it was decided that it should be cut down. The tree produced four tonnes of wood but rather than sell it for firewood the neighbour wanted to create something that would commemorate the tree and Matt suggested making a bespoke kitchen from the wood. So began Matt’s career of recycling wood that would otherwise be burned.
It is true that a carpenter is dictated to, by the wood that he works with; by its grain and its purpose. Matt explains that when he sources a tree he always knows where it has stood, he counts it growth rings and gains a sense of what it has witnessed. The wood tells a story of its life – the hot summers and cold winters that it has seen –the pips, burrs and ripples in the wood all create a grain that has to be worked with. As Matt says it is his job to work with what nature has produced and strike a balance between practicality and beauty. To let the straight grains become planks and the twisted knots decorative. It is a waiting game as it takes a long time for seasoned wood to dry out. Sometimes it is years before Matt can use a favoured piece of wood and his clients have to be patient. But what they can be sure of is that they will have a piece of furniture that has heritage and provenance, that can be passed down to their ancestors.
He lifts up a piece that he is working on. It is walnut and in it you can see the marks from gun-shot lodged in the wood, intentionally left by Matt as part of the tree’s legacy. Another part of it was burned and this leaves a further dark patina. All these moments in the tree’s lifetime will be incorporated into the table. It’s what makes the work so particular and special. No piece of furniture is ever the same thanks to the tree from which it came.
Among the coffers, tables and sideboards is a range of individually designed bespoke combbacked Windsor chairs made in a variety and mix of timbers including elm, sycamore, walnut and burr elm. The seats for three chairs sit side by side on the workbench, each bearing the deep grooves gouged out of the wood to make the soft curve of the seat that so typifies this chair. It’s musclemaking work, especially if the seat is made of Elm, a hard wood that will last for a lifetime but takes a long labour to mould.
All the wood that Matt uses is locally sourced from Dorset or Somerset, either from trees that have blown over or have been felled because they are sick. When word gets out that there is a tree, Matt will head over on a tractor with the miller in tow and together they will plank up the wood. ‘It’s such a rewarding business because unless I used the wood it would be burned.’ As Matt collects wood as and when it becomes available – and often from the Trent estate – clients are always able to choose from a range of stored timber. Although choices tend to be made according to preference for tonal colour, patinas and grains are also taken into consideration and careful placing of particular of pieces wood according to its use are made to give every piece of furniture the balance and personality that is the signature of his bespoke work.
But it is not just the large pieces that are used and the rest discarded. Small branches and pieces with particularly intricate burrs or the like are honed down to make jewellery boxes and even Somerset apple wood is used for spoons and chef ’s range of servers and chopping boards. This work requires small intricate tools that must be learned, the quality of the craftsmanship in the tools – Matt prefers the old Sheffield steel and wooden handle types as they are stronger –is as important as the hand and eye that is using them. Handling these boxes and spoons has its own therapeutic quality too that is not lost on Matt. Rehabilitating wood that is old and worn out into an object that is new and can be used again brings a promise of a future. As we walk around the disused farmyard Matt remarks on how the place was once a hive of activity where people worked and that he still likes to involve local young people to serve a kind of apprenticeship and give them an opportunity to get away from other parts of their lives and work with wood. One of his most recent recruits went on to study furniture design and left college with a first in furniture design before returning to work with Matt. We are witnessing a resurgence in the popularity of traditional handmade crafts and bespoke cabinetry, which bodes well for Matt. A man at one with his work, quietly getting on with what he does best while waiting for the next tree to fall.