Chapter 21 – Yorkshire

The start of Rhan’s next adventure was fitted in as a stop-off on her return north to Sunderland. She grabbed her belongings from the porters’ lodge, but had trouble deciding what to wear for her Yorkshire trip. She worried that George’s house would be more formal than her uncle’s, and anxiety about introductions drove her to retreat into her traditional black attire. The long train journey provided a useful opportunity to sit and consider all that had been happening over the past term – the unreality of her rowing successes only seemed more extreme when she was removed from the Oxford bubble.
She read George’s detailed instructions with a smile, marvelling over his uncharacteristic attention to detail for her visit. It certainly made her feel appreciated and calmed her nerves at the prospect of staying with his family. As directed, Rhan prepared to get off the train a bit beyond York, when she could see the Pennines to the west and the Moors to the east side of the train. In the manner almost of a stranger or cousin, he gave her a kiss on both cheeks on the platform and led her to a green MG with its top down. As Rhan got closer she noted that one wing of the car was black and was evidently still a work-in-progress. The chrome bumpers were hardly shining bright, but the prospect of a fun ride was exciting. She could tell he was very proud as he stowed her bags in the car, even if he came over as grumpy.
‘Getting texts from you while you’ve been in that rowing camp of yours was like getting blood from a stone,’ he complained. ‘What’ve you been doing? Who did you watch the boat race with? Did y’ever think of me?’ he demanded.
‘Well I had plenty to distract me, but if you must know, you were never really forgotten. I spent most of my time watching the race with Claire – who you know – but I had a fascinating time. Was it good to see your girlfriend again?’ Rhan went on the attack. She decided not to point out that George’s Oxford accent had slipped somewhat after just a few days back up north.
‘It’s been good – we’re quite good friends now and she wanted to know all about you.’
He smiled at her as they stood either side of the low, open-top car and added, ‘But it hasn’t stopped me missing you every few minutes.’
‘I’m pleased to hear that you are suffering as well,’ Rhan laughed, lowering herself into the sports car as gracefully as she could. ‘But apart from help with your maths, your practicals and other aspects of your university life, which aspects of me do you miss?’
‘Oh God, what a question!’ he replied, looking straight at the road ahead as they drove through the town. ‘Well, the thing I’m still missing most in this open car is the scent of your breath; it’s like summer heather. You look fantastic from every angle, you taste better than chocolate ice-cream, the sound of your voice calms me down…what’s left? Oh, touch, well that’s great whether we are fighting, sitting close on a lecture hall bench or cuddling or whatever. Is that enough for you?’ She nodded, smiling.
After over-indulging in such personal conversation, talk was then dominated by the car and whether she needed an extra scarf or hat. It was indeed freezing once they started to move faster in the cool spring air. As they drove down winding back roads, Rhan was delighted to be able to look up and search the trees for the signs of spring that she had noted in the south. The blackthorns had a sprinkling of tiny flower buds, which stood white against the dark hedges and other trees that were still starkly dormant. Hanging catkins decorated the hazels, which suggested that not all the trees were as dead to the awakening world as they appeared.
‘I have to say, it is relaxing to be here,’ Rhan admitted, loudly enough to be heard once they were clear of the town. ‘I find it mentally exhausting being away from you.’
George threw back his head and laughed at Rhan’s confession. He then kept up an excited commentary on the scenery, the car, his home, his family and his hopes for the next few days. At each viewpoint, the moors loomed closer, rising dramatically from the vale. His village sat on the side of a nibble taken out of the hills, where two valleys met. As they drove up into the centre of the village, George waved a greeting at almost everyone.
They mounted a steep drive, and Rhan could again see the hills, which were now close; they appeared to rise sharply just beyond a short-cropped green field, framing the village houses on three sides. Her study was interrupted by the appearance of George’s sister, Grace, who had reddish long hair; and their mother June, whose hair was shorter and dark. They came to greet her through a heavy oak front door. Rhan was delighted at how enthusiastic they were to meet her, despite the circumstances of George bringing home a rather strange female university colleague – but their welcome was nothing compared with Hamish’s. The terrier was ecstatic to meet a visitor who already knew his name and what he liked most. After a few seconds of being fussed over, the dog started sprinting around in excited circles, to the amusement of all.
The house felt both airy and homely, with views that looked up at the moors from every room. This was further captured on the walls by large, realistic oil paintings of surrounding villages and landscapes of the moorland in a range of seasons, many blanketed in snow, which Grace proudly presented as her mother’s work.
June plied Rhan with many questions about life at university, her rowing and her tutorials, obviously keen to hear aspects of her son’s life from a new source. George had clearly told his mother that Rhan was a distinguished rower who was not recognised by her own college, so Rhan described the rowing camp, and her first trip to London for the boat race. She decided not to brag about the two days she had spent with hopefuls for the National squad, who wanted her back for further trials and were offering to pay all rowing expenses. She knew enough about George’s home life to be able to strike up easy conversations with June and Grace, while George fetched Rhan’s various bags that were stashed in the car.
‘Your father’s down the garth,’ June informed George as he wandered into the kitchen from his tasks. You can take him down a cup of tea and introduce Rhan. He needs help topping the ash trees before they drop heavy branches onto the sheds.’ With some reluctance, Rhan moved away from the log-burning cooker in the kitchen, which had only just started to warm her after the chilly journey. She made the mistake of rejecting offers of drab but warmer clothing that George then cheerfully claimed.
On their way down the long, narrow garden, George showed off the various apple, plum and cherry trees of various ages, which were only starting to consider blossoming. The nut trees were heavy with long catkins on hazels, chestnuts bore round husks, but there was nothing yet on the young walnut trees. Rhan was most interested in the views of the bleak moors, visible beyond the garden hedges. She briefly shook the hand of George’s father, William, and exchanged pleasantries as he stood sipping his coffee at the foot of a tall ladder.
After a few minutes, Rhan watched while George, strapped into a safety harness, wielded a handsaw from the top of the ladder. George was dressed up in insulated Muck boots, an old coat that had belonged to his grandfather, leather gauntlets and a cap. Rhan was still wearing her presentable dark coat, scarf and thin shoes, so she was relieved when, after a short stint, George came down again and thoughtfully pointed out her condition. ‘Poor Rhan is still freezing after the MG. Look, we’d better go in.’
‘OK, that’s fine. It’s good to meet you, Rhan.’ George’s father reluctantly admitted defeat.
Even with a mug of tea in front of the stove, Rhan still felt chilled to the bone. Accustomed to rowing with river ice on her oar, and braving the North Sea over Christmas, she felt ashamed that she was so cold in George’s house.
‘Can I borrow your boots, George?’ she enquired politely.
‘Of course, there are several pairs you could try on out there.’ He indicated the porch.
Wearing padded boots, coat and hat, she felt ready for the challenge of helping with the sawing. Despite confessing her inexperience at both sawing and heights, her offer to don the safety harness and have a go up the ladder was gratefully accepted by William, who yielded the saw and the ladder.
Rhan started to feel warm blood circulating again after just a few minutes of sawing above her head, while George’s father held the ladder below. The fear of falling was receding rapidly too, as she concentrated on branches at a higher level. She soon grew tired and hot and threw down the furry hat that had been perched ridiculously on top of her headscarf to allow the heat to escape. She was getting complaints from muscles in her body that were neither employed in rowing or in gym machines. She was glad to follow advice as the blade started to jam, and she rotated the saw around the branch for different angles of attack, changing arms as the opportunity allowed. Her skill in sawing had to be learnt from scratch, so using her left arm was no great problem.
‘Goodness Rhan! You’re doing an amazing job,’ George’s father complimented her as she lowered down a length of the central trunk on a rope. ‘Is that what rowing does for you? You’ve obviously been exercising hard at that camp of yours. So does this mean that you stand a chance of a Blue in your second year, despite your late start?’
‘Yes, but I have also benefited from two days’ coaching this week with the National coaches. It’s not likely to come to much, but I had fun with my friend Esther in the trials.’
‘Blimey! George never mentioned that.’
‘No, none of my college knows. There will be problems ahead, but so far keeping a secret of my strange ability to row has been a major advantage, especially as the National coaches will drop most of us after the next sessions in a few weeks’ time.’
‘What are you two up to?’ George was calling from halfway to the house. ‘Dad, you need to let her go; you can’t enslave an unsuspecting friend. She’s hardly spoken to Mum, or me.’
‘I’m fine George! This is fun and I am warming up at last,’ Rhan called back from the top of the ladder. George retreated into the house.
‘You’ve done well, but I think you need to come down from up there!’ George’s father affirmed after a while. ‘You must be shattered and will soon start to let go of things that need to be held, and vice versa, if you get my drift. Don’t forget to unclip. OK, I have the ladder.’
‘Yes, one does lose perspective of safety after a while. I was terrified and clung onto everything when I came up. Climbing down now!’
‘You are full of surprises, Rhan. I gather that you’re a Syrian Christian – are you very religious?’
‘Actually, I generally go to the Catholic chaplaincy with George and others from the college, and occasionally to the Greek Orthodox on St Giles. It is mainly a cultural thing I suppose. My aunt and uncle are relatively strict Muslims, and as a small compromise, I agreed to carry on wearing traditional Syrian Christian dress and to keep my head covered around the college. I have taken that in rather a literal sense, so I use western styles for sport outside of college life. It must all seem so petty.’
‘I don’t fully understand. George mentioned that some of your family came from Sunderland before Syria?’
‘Well my grandmother came from County Durham, so the family links enabled my uncle to return; he now has a small engineering business in Sunderland. He became a Muslim, while his sister, my mother, remained a Christian. I suppose that my sister and I have followed that lead; she has become very interested in Islam, largely through the influence of the man she intends to marry. I must be a disappointment to my Sunderland family.’
‘From what I have heard of you, I bet they are very proud,’ William reassured her before continuing. ‘Is there any chance you can hold the ladder, while I climb up and saw those last lower branches? I’m afraid there will be plenty of sawdust coming your way. Let me know if you start to get too cold.’
‘I will enjoy cooling off! Will this ash tree definitely die?’ she asked from the base of the shortened ladder.
‘Well, I’m not certain,’ he responded between struggles with branches. ‘As you see, it’s close to the shed and some branches are dead and others are already a problem as they damage the felt roof. Keeping trees to a manageable height is almost a full-time job here. Watch out for this coming down!’ He paused his answer as Rhan pushed the lowered branch to the side, but then continued.
‘Ash was called “the widow maker” because ash branches and trunks can snap at any provocation, leaving the tree surgeons in real danger! That is a serious problem with die-back so trees need to be felled while safe. Can you manage to pull that branch out of the way please?’
He went on. ‘We try to use timber for structural engineering to store the carbon. Ash is as strong as green oak, according to some engineering research carried out in the 1960s, backed up by tests my office carried out with a full-scale test rig. We would like to use local hardwoods in buildings as a low-carbon alternative to steel. It’s stupid to let the timber rot away or burn it. That simply releases all the carbon stored in trees. We’ve learnt nothing since Dutch Elm disease.’
‘Are you suggesting that these logs that we have cut from this tree could be used as structural members?’ Rhan asked in surprise. ‘We never discuss anything like that at university.’
‘Yes, that trunk there…what, three metres long and 250 millimetres in diameter, could support a two or three-storey building as a post. Those curved bits would make excellent knee bracing between posts and beams to stabilise the posts and to provide wind bracing. But ash needs to be sawn correctly because it doesn’t half shrink, twist and split! Like most timbers ash has many contradictions that we haven’t worked out yet!’ William kept up his lecture from the top of the ladder, stopping occasionally to clear the lighter branches.
‘The portable test rig at work can test real beams up to six metres long. Would you believe that the correct orthodox method to assess the quality and capacity of the timber is by a simple visual inspection? So if you took a large section like the one you lowered down, one would never know about the defects hidden inside until it failed and you found that it had grown around a poly bag or something stupid.
‘We have only covered the simple concepts, so far,’ Rhan said, expressing interest while trying to clear branches and holding the ladder at the same time.
‘We need to know so much more about the engineering properties of our natural resources if we want to cut carbon emissions,’ William continued. ‘The trouble is that we don’t even know what we don’t know, and little or no research is being carried out. There is no commercial body to push the use of British hardwoods, yet country estates could make fortunes. Without any proper research, both the British Standards and the recent Eurocodes totally neglect most local hardwood timber. It illustrates nicely how any move for engineers to cut carbon is blocked!’
‘Blocked by whom?’ Rhan was fascinated to hear this.
‘Well anyone who wants to stand against green engineering, I suppose – especially anyone related to steel and concrete. I have noted that the steel and carbon industries never attack each other but they both denounce timber. The high-carbon industries have control of funding, research, committees and the status quo. As relatively few people believe we need to tackle climate change, any committee will inevitably include climate sceptics.’
She looked at him to check he was being serious, but let him continue.
‘The timbers that I find best, in terms of looks and properties, are sycamore and beech. They don’t split too badly if one relieves the stresses with a saw cut, and they both have a tight grain with a lovely honey colour, once waxed. Branch coming down! Such hardwoods dry in months, while oak dries in years. Another coming down!
‘So I would prefer to save oak for external use, where it’s ideal and the only durable timber around here. Using green oak beams to support masonry is a real problem as large beams shrink over a decade or so. Unfortunately, high-carbon materials such as steel or concrete are usually specified, so we just burn this brilliant timber and make more steel beams. It’s all crazy!’
Rhan had been surprised to find that she didn’t need to speak; she could just listen to new areas of engineering that would never be covered at university. She was, however, shocked into responding.
‘So after so much talk about climate change over the decades, there are still no moves to allow low-carbon design by engineers. That sounds worse than I thought possible!’
‘Yes it’s shocking, especially as the UK’s treaty obligations are only met if the carbon stored in trees is stored for the foreseeable future. In the case of ash like this tree, it decays from the pith and starts to have a hollow core once it’s more than just forty years old – just a bit older than this tree. There’s no chance of saving that carbon, particularly with ash die-back, if we don’t prepare to use the bulk of the timber. It was the same for Dutch elm disease; the vernacular barns and some houses around here used beams from ash or elm branches until the 20th century. The elm timber decays quickly if wet, but often lasted a couple of hundred years in the dry, despite beetle attack. In a modern, dry, centrally heated house, these local hardwoods would last forever. More branches coming down! I’ll climb down now and give you a hand to clear the mess.’ While they carried and sawed the branches, she returned to the subject.
‘What about the relative costs of timber or steel beams? Is timber expensive?’
‘Dirt cheap at firewood prices. Ash and sycamore are cut down as weeds around here, so unless it’s top-quality furniture or violin grade, the cost of green timber is not an issue. Timber dried for a year or so in barns goes for three times the price and can cost more than steel, but it’s still cheaper than buying a steel beam and spending time trying to clad it to look like wood. There are still too many clients and architects who are stuck in the 1990s’ antiseptic style of the Ikea era and want to avoid the natural look of timber. Most of my clients are very reluctant to use anything other than steel. Architects and owners can be horrified by the idea of posts in rooms to reduce spans, yet on the next project the interior designer can introduce fake columns and partitions,’ he laughed. ‘That’s even true when restoring historic castles! The conservation establishment effectively vetoed reinserting timber on one project and insisted on steel and concrete that had been labelled the previous year as “inappropriate” for that monument.’
‘Why?’ Rhan asked, perplexed and wanting to show interest. William stopped working while he recalled the phrase.
‘They said timber would be pastiche! It goes to show how far we have to move with such attitudes.’
As they were piling the branches for burning and storing the structural timber to dry, an old-fashioned bell rang from the house and the two of them tramped to supper through the gloom of the evening, feeling very content with their labours. Rhan also felt very satisfied that she had learnt of so many engineering and sustainability issues with such little effort.