Restoring the natural order to modern life

Ecclesall Woods Woodland Discovery Centre Christmas: Amelie Chester (9 - left) and Millie Sutcliffe (9) playing with Christmas paper chains with ranger John Amos
Ecclesall Woods Woodland Discovery Centre Christmas: Amelie Chester (9 - left) and Millie Sutcliffe (9) playing with Christmas paper chains with ranger John Amos

Peter Barnsley has sold Christmas trees for 30 years, and has a lingering memory of his early days when a certain unnamed local football manager had his own approach to the festive season.

“He’d pick out three trees and take them home for his wife to look at,” said Peter.

“Then sometimes he brought all three back to take another three so she could choose one she liked.”

Peter was keen to point out, as his trees go on sale at Ecclesall Woods again: “No, I certainly don’t do Christmas trees on approval any more.”

Demand for real trees at Christmas has changed little over Peter’s years in the trade. Over the season, he’ll sell five to six hundred trees - this year all the scentless ‘Nordman’ trees, which originated in central Europe and are now grown commercially on a huge scale, he said.

“Fashion is fickle, so we’ve tried others in the past, like firs, Norway and Blue Spruce and Lodge Pole Pine but the spruce tend to drop needles unlike the Nordman.”

He tended to find the more unusual trees left behind at the season end, so he now sticks with what’s popular.

“A real tree brings Christmas into your home,” he said. “It’s like a real fire, it touches something inside us. Everyone is supposed to be sophisticated nowadays but there’s still a yearning for natural things, it’s part of our nature.”

People like all kinds of trees, tall or short, bushy or thin, but he’s noticed a clear pattern when it come to nuclear family tree buying - it’s usually the woman who decides.

“The men might like the look of a huge tree, but the women always talk them down. Women are more sensible about it. But we do get lots of domestic arguments.”

By late December, he admitted he’ll be ‘Christmas treed out.’ But at this stage, he loves the job as much as when he started working with trees in 1965. “These woods are like my cathedral,” he said.

A phrase echoed by Ecclesall Woods volunteer Fay Kenyon.

“Ecclesall Woods and the Woodland Discovery Centre are my personal nirvana. There is something so tranquil about being next to nature - my house backs onto Ecclesall Woods and I would rather sit listening and watching the wildlife than turning on the TV.” Fay is part of the team of a dozen or more volunteers working from the Woodland Discovery Centre on the site of the old sawmill, which is now gearing up for its own Christmas season.

Trees, logs and wreathes will now be on sale every day, and every weekend from December 7 there will be a gift shop selling work of local craftspeople, handbell ringing and choirs, and various craft and other sessions for children and families.

A new addition to the site is the Woodland Coffee Stop, the long awaited Ecclesall Woods refreshment kiosk finally launched this autumn by Jenny Owen and Erica Tingle, which has already expanded to offer real macchiato, sandwiches and soup as well as the original coffee and cakes brief.

It is now so busy there are plans to open five days a week rather than the current Friday to Sunday, if the pair get the go-ahead to continue after the inevitable tendering process in the spring.

The Woodland Discovery Centre has been building its reputation as a day out for locals and tourists since opening two years ago, with the volunteer team working with the council to establish craft courses for adults, ‘Wildlife Watch’ and other events for children, and building hire for weddings, bar mitzvahs and businesses.

There may even be bike hire in the not too distant future. The throngs last weekend were not untypical, said ranger John Amos.

“We’re competing with the Peak District now,” he said. “We have people coming in from Derbyshire saying it’s a wonderful place.”

The woods even have their own voice via Twitter - rumours that the account is run from a hollow oak tree by a pixie with an iPhone may or may not be true, but woodland officer Jon Dallow noted: “Sheffielders should visit and love Sheffield woodlands and keep them on their Christmas list!”