Photographs: Charles Francis
December 2014: On the last day of November, seven years ago, springer spaniel puppy Holly came to live with the Carpenter family in their woodland home in a hidden valley in south-east Cornwall. The next day, tranquil Sconner Wood was transformed, when the gates opened for the sale of hundreds of Christmas trees. “I think Holly was a bit bewildered – but no more than we were,” says Claire Carpenter, who runs the business with her husband Jan. ”It was our first Christmas here, and we didn’t know what to expect. We just put a big sign on our gate, and waited to see how many people came.” Since then the business has grown steadily every year – just like the trees.
Yet Claire admits that she and Jan had “absolutely no experience” of arboriculture before they bought the lease of Sconner Wood from the Antony Estate. Jan, an ex- Marine, was working at Devonport Dockyard, and Claire was a bookkeeper with a furniture company in Liskeard.
With the arrival of their third baby, Isobel, the family needed more space — and they found it just a few miles away from their home in St Germans. “We happened upon this place, and saw it as an opportunity,” says Claire. “There were four Christmas tree fields and a bit of woodland — and what was described as a chalet, but was really a shed. It was uninhabitable, and had only had one bedroom, but there was a massive lounge which we realised we could divide into four bedrooms.”
She admits that it was scary leaving the security of working 9 to 5. “It’s been a real learning process — learning how to run a business, and learning to look after trees. There were 4,000 Christmas trees in the ground when we came here, but they were all in a pretty bad way. The first piece of equipment we got was a flail. We’ve learned that unless you keep on top of things, the trees get overgrown and covered in brambles, and then they don’t get enough light and become think and straggly.
“In the February storms this year, some of our trees got burnt by the wind and have had to be pruned back hard so they can grow for future years. All the flailing and strimming is done by hand on a rotational basis, and we don’t use any chemicals. We find so many ladybirds, spiders and bumble bees, and we wouldn’t want to destroy all that.”
Jan still works part-time at Devonport, but he has developed such a passion for trees that he has become a qualified tree surgeon. “We’re now selling some of the trees we’ve planted, as well as the one which were here before,” says Claire. “People can buy them as potted trees, or go down to the fields and pick their own.
“Most of the trees are traditional Norway spruce, which has short needles with a strong fragrance. A lot of people say: ‘I can’t have a spruce, because it would drop its needles’, but we have persuaded them to try one. If a spruce is cut fresh, it doesn’t dry out, and does really well. We’ve also planted Nordrmann fir and blue spruce, which are non-drop, but they’re not ready yet, so we bring these varieties down from Yorkshire and Scotland. I only buy premium grade trees, and they’re absolutely stunning. “
The Christmas decorations stocked in the Sconner Wood shop have to meet the same high standard. “All the things we sell are things I’d have in my own house. There’s no tinsel or plastic baubles,” says Claire. As well as her home-made fresh Noble fir wreaths, there are dried wreaths adorned with pine cones, acorns and bark stars, hanging decorations created from natural materials like willow and felt, and wooden reindeer and mushrooms. “A lovely lady called Lynn Kentish who works with willow is supplying me with reindeer and snowmen,” Claire says. “As she lives near here, I can always give her a ring and say: ‘Can I have some more?’ It’s really nice to have local suppliers.”
Sconner Wood is now open all year round, for the sale of logs and coal, and Jan and Claire’s latest venture is honey made from the family’s own hives. But Christmas is still the most hectic time of the year. Trees and decorations will be on sale from December 1 — and then it’s all hands on deck until the shop closes for the Carpenters’ Christmas break on December 23. “Our eldest girls, Emily and Katy, who are 16 and 14, help in the shop and go into the fields and help carry the trees out to people’s cars,” says Claire. “It’s an incredibly busy time for all of us, and it’s hard work, but when you see people excited about buying their tree, you get caught up in the atmosphere.
“After seven years, we still see the same people who came that first Christmas. We see their kids growing up, and they see ours: we had our fourth daughter Florence four years ago. And every year, more people discover us. You wouldn’t know we were here if we weren’t signposted from the road. It’s a secret hideaway.” Customers enjoy a winter walk around the fields with their children, and they love to meet the springer spaniel with the Christmassy name.
Holly has fully adapted to the annual Christmas invasion of Sconner Wood — and so have the other members of the family. “I always used to be someone who didn’t do their Christmas shopping until December,“ says Claire. “I can’t do that anymore. As well as four children, we have nieces and nephews, and I have to buy all their presents before we open our gates on the first day of December. But I still wait until nearer Christmas before I do any wrapping.” Then she’ll sit down with a glass of sloe gin, and wrap the family presents in front of a roaring fire — and a home-grown Christmas tree.