Growers of Christmas Trees

15 Jul , 2015
We left early because Neil wanted to visit his old mentor, John Godwin (ex president of The British Christmas Tree Growers Association) and a real Christmas tree pioneer. John is old and ill and being a resident of Sark stays at a Southampton Hotel whilst undergoing medical treatment – he has been at Jury’s Inn a motel on the A33 roundabout for 6 weeks. We stop and get flowers. I get involved in choosing the vase and am touched by the sadness.

In the car, whilst Neil visits, I talk on the phone about our online billing system with Mark Ford, Christmas Forest Operations Manager. Then we take the Portsmouth Boat heading out to St Malo.

Neil, is thoughtful – he has known John Godwin for most of his life and out on the deck after supper in the dusk as we pass the oil tankers moored up alongside the Isle of Wight he tells me more about Sark and the Christmas Tree connection. “Mike Godwin, John’s son and I did the lobsters in the season and then on 31st October about twenty of us from Sark would leave from the Island to dig or cut and load the trees at Yattendon in Berkshire.” Tough work but Neil was a young man in the eighties and the money was good with no tax if you lived on Sark. “That was all Norway Spruce – all loaded by hand – they were much lighter then”. I learn that John Godwin was the main UK contractor cutting trees, who first introduced pruning from the states. Neil remembers the forestry Manager at Yattendon asking “Why do you want to do that? The tree is perfectly alright?” but “John got his way” and of course all the trees are pruned now to make them bushy “and heavier” Neil adds ruefully. It was just after that that the Nordmann Firs started coming in from Denmark. “heavier still” Neil adds. John had wanted to plant Nobles because he had seen them in the states but that didn’t work out. We all learned from their mistakes” says Neil happily. All the equipment came from America too and John blazed the mechanization trail that revolutionised the industry. “It was all a bit Heath Robinson before John” adds Neil “well, him and Adrian Morgan and then of course came the Danes”. But that is another story.

It is surprising to hear though that many more homes have trees now than in the 80’s. There were more artificial trees then. Till four years ago (recent shortages have driven prices artificially high) real trees had become much more affordable. John made that possible. “And then us”, says Neil with that salesman sparkle back in his eye.

Neil is a grower and a wholesaler and I am indebted for this opportunity. We are on our way to Brittany on the trail of that most elusive tree – a premium Abies Nobilis – notoriously hard to grow and to buy at any price in any quantity and yet irresistibly

magnificent in its pomp. I need 3000, cheap.

I go to bed in my cabin. It is all very exciting.
Neil Williams Carrying The Christmas Forest trees
Neil Williams, Sales Director, Emerald Trees
Gildas Le Foll working for The Christmas Forest
Gildas Le Foll, Farm Manager
Kelty Caston from The Christmas Forest
Kelty Caston, MD, The Christmas Forest

The day is long. It is raining and muddy and we inspect many fields. Grown men tire. Conversation flags and no one wants to give way. And then we have a three hour drive back to St Malo.
The Noble Fir at The Christmas Forest
Abies Nobilis (aka The Noble Fir)

As for the conference, I’m still there. For the outcome of this epic pursuit, visit the Christmas Forest, December 2015. Who knows what tree treasures you will find…….

Those of us working in the Christmas tree business are often asked “What do you do for the rest of the year?”

On this July morning, I wake up and open the hotel window. My view is over the battlements. There is a light breeze; the smell of sea and fresh croissant wafts by. It is a new day in the Christmas Forest…

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