Being an apprentice with Ty Pren (Welsh for wooden house) is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I previously met the Ty Pren crew whilst undertaking the Coppice Wood College course in coppicing and greenwood crafts. Myself and another student at the time, Cathryn, both got in touch to see about potential volunteering or work. They were about to start on a big residential build at Rhiw Las and were looking for two new apprentices, presently taking on Cathryn and another, Mark. As excited as I was for them, I was disappointed to not get the opportunity myself. I moved back to South Wales and threw myself into some traditional hedge laying, happy to be putting my new skills to work.
Just as I was coming to the end of the 300m hedge, I received a call from Jamie asking if I would like to be considered for the next apprentice place. I was really excited and hoping not to face disappointment again. This time I was offered work and joined my pal Cathryn in the newbies corner at Ty Pren.
The apprenticeship isn’t an officially recognised one with measly wages: I have a living wage and am a member of the workers co-op. They like to call the newbies apprentices so the pressure is off when you get things wrong, which has happened once or twice, or three times or… anyway you get the picture.
I joined the crew – Jamie, Tony, Kelly and Cathryn – at the beginning of a build for a bunkhouse and volunteer space at Fordhall Community Farm in Shropshire. There is an interesting story behind Fordhall farm itself. The caretakers – Charlotte and her brother Ben – grew up there with their farther as the tenant farmer. After he passed away it was revealed that the farm was in a lot of financial trouble, so Charlotte and Ben campaigned and promoted the idea of a community farm where the local community could buy shares in the farm to ensure its existence as a beneficial resource to many. That was in 2004 and it’s still thriving today: doing the combined work of being an organic farm and community resource.
Talk about getting thrown in the deep end… The first week I found very hard, there was just so much information to take in I was going home with a headache everyday. Like many skills, with practice you get better and I started to gain confidence in my work. The frame itself was large, originally 5 truss sections which included the truss beam which spanned 8m with two principle rafters, a king post and 2 struts. 3 upright poles in each section connected by tie beams and braces. There were a lot of components and not a great deal of time.
At Ty Pren we see the whole process through from start to finish. We are lucky to have a workshop situated in 200acres of woodland with areas of larch just right for our frames. We go into the woods and select, fell and then carry out by hand the selected trees. Once loaded on the trailer we drive round to the workshop, unload, strip and then mark up accordingly the component we want to work on. By carrying out this process ourselves we really keep the cost of the frames affordable and that is at the heart of the Ty Pren ethos. Once you start using machinery, the price starts to creep up. Also working the wood in the round is not only aesthetically pleasing but stronger as you are not cutting into the woods fibres and cheaper as it isn’t processed through a saw mill. Personally I enjoy this really physical side to the work and its always a laugh to be stumbling through a coniferous plantation carrying a whopping big tree between four of you. Take away the tree and we would look like drunks walking through town on a Saturday night!
Things were going really well and I was enjoying working with everyone at Ty Pren. The spring weather had been divine and edging into summer was really hot. It definitely got quite sweaty in the workshop finishing the frame for Fordhall Farm. Not long before we were due to finish the entire frame, Fordhall Farm asked us to complete 2 more truss sections and a veranda frame. Well now we were up against it. As the latest apprentice I really felt the pressure. I didn’t want to make any mistakes now as it would cost us time we no longer had. We organised to finish the frame working to peoples’ strengths and getting everyone to complete the same components over and over – which was great for me to repeat and learn.
Finally the day came to load the frame onto the lorry to be driven up to Fordhall Farm. Out of the 5 members of Ty Pren only 3 of us were available to erect the frame. Myself, Cathryn and Jamie. We also had a tele-handler and driver thank goodness as it would have been near impossible otherwise. This was the really exciting part to see how it all came together and how it looked. I was able to see why certain things had to be done a certain way.
Although we do put the frame together bit by bit in the workshop we still came across a few minor issues which for me is great as I think it’s by getting things wrong and making mistakes that you learn the best. Everything we talked about in theory was actually coming together in front of my eyes. At the end of the first day we had got two of the truss beams up. Staying on site in various vans and caravans, we all sat and had dinner and a jug of Pimms basking in the glory of our work so far. I don’t think I stopped smiling for weeks. In two days the frame was up, another two days and we had the perlins and the veranda frame up too. And it looked beautiful. I felt so proud to be a part of a team that make such picturesque frames.
We at Ty Pren believe that our frames could be used in affordable social housing and want to see the building industry meaningfully move towards sustainable building. Given the current alarms being raised by scientists concerning climate change and environmental destruction we really need to start to take responsibility for the future, now. WE use locally sourced FSC standard timber. The frames are extremely low impact as we use hammer and chisel, brace and bit and carpenter saws for most of our work. The frames themselves will stand for hundreds of years. This is the legacy we want to leave behind.
Since Fordhall Community Farm I’ve completed several frames and I’m still loving the work. One of the great things is the interesting places and projects – such as Rhiw Las and Lammas – it takes me to. Both are projects based on gaining planning through the One Planet Development initiative unique to the Welsh Assembly to help facilitate sustainable, ecological development in open countryside. I hope to one day own land to build my very own ty pren so it’s really informative working alongside people going through the planning process. I’ve learnt so much from everyone I work with and I look forward to building more frames with the crew 🙂