Festive with the foragers

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Hazel rods, willow, beeswax and woodland greenery combine to create a magical Christmas in this country home. Sharon Dale reports.

Christmas has been hijacked by plastic, which is everywhere from tinsel and fake trees to baubles and pvc garlands. But there’s a corner of Yorkshire that provides a wonderful relief.

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Angela Cole and her partner Geoff Norton make all their own decorations from natural materials and festive greenery foraged from the land around their country home. The couple run Yorkshire Hurdles, which specialises in woodland management and crafts, and they are keen to be as eco-friendly as possible.

“I love using making my own decorations and cards. It’s an excuse to get creative,” says Angela, a gifted designer maker. “I always use natural materials because then there’s no toxic trail. They can all be composted afterwards.”

The Christmas tree this year is a plant obelisk made from hazel, willow and dogwood with ivy intertwined. Clip-on silver candle holders and candles add glamour, while the base is strewn with larch. The hazel and white willow wreath above the fire is another focal point, and below are Angela’s handmade baskets full of holly, ivy and wild berries.

The willow balls she makes are filled with fairy lights and the shelves host twisted hazel stars and spheres. There are bowls filled with nuts and another filled with metal nuts and bolts from Yates in Malton. In the kitchen, there’s a coppiced hazel spray on the wall brightened with dyed sheep wool and lit with homemade beeswax candles. Angela got the wax from a friend who keeps bees. “It was inspired by sheep snagging their wool on fences,” she says.

The look and feel is Christmas past but with a contemporary twist. Most of the items are made in Angela’s makeshift workshop, an old horse box in the garden, while the willow is soaked in an old horse trough.

“It’s freezing sometimes but the views are lovely. I wrap up, get my secateurs and a bodkin for opening up gaps and weave. It’s very absorbing to the point where you can’t think about anything else when you’re doing it, which is very therapeutic.”

The couple began working with wood over 10 years ago when Angela took a course in traditional furniture making. She invested in a pole lathe and made a Windsor chair without any power machinery and it now has pride of place in the kitchen. The interest progressed to Geoff learning how to coppice and make gates, green oak frames and hurdles, which are fences made from woven hazel. Angela taught herself willow weaving and now makes everything from sculptures to baskets. She also runs workshops and they sell hazel rods for beanpoles, which are more sustainable than imported bamboo.

“Some of the wood comes from the trees we coppice. We manage woodland for other people and quite often the arrangement is management for materials,” says Geoff. The sweet chestnut he uses is from Herefordshire and the green oak from Boroughbridge, while some of the willow is from Somerset.

The business is based at their home in Westow, near York, which they bought five years ago. The house and the land wasn’t the country cottage they dreamed of but it had everything they and their children, Freya, 15, and John, eight, needed.

“It is a 1960s house and when we first saw it, it looked like it had been airlifted onto the field. We dismissed it at first because it was unattractive until a friend said: ‘I can’t believe you didn’t buy that house’,” says Geoff. “We went for another look and realised it ticked all the boxes. It is on a big plot and it is just outside a village, so we don’t disturb anyone with our work. We’ve made a garden and built a barn for wood storage and we’ve tried to soften the house with tree planting.”

One of the most effective additions is a shelter belt of conifer and laurel to cut wind and traffic noise. Inside, the property had been partially renovated and Angela and Geoff have slowly finished the work off and redecorated.

The kitchen was completed and the walls painted in neutral colours along with the floorboards and chipboard. A new fireplace in the sitting room has a mantel made from a corner brace and houses a wood burning stove that is useful when they need to come in to get warm. “We work outside in all weathers but if it’s dry it doesn’t matter how cold it is. The coppicing is very physical so it keeps us warm. It’s the wet that really gets us,” says Geoff, who also runs to keep fit for manual labour.

They will enjoy a break at Christmas and will prepare for friends and family visiting on Boxing Day. They’ll have a bonfire and toast marshmallows and cook bread dough on twizzle sticks.

“When we first moved in people gave us their old furniture and we ended up with three old sofas,” says Angela. “One of my happiest memories is of us all sat round the bonfire on them one Christmas.”

Yorkshire Hurdles, www. yorkshirehurdles.com, tel: 01653 658462. Angela’s plant climbers are at The Topiary Tree, Malton, and her handmade baskets can be found at Bils and Rye, Nunnington Studios, Nunnington, www.bilsandrye.com