One company is keeping the ancient art of cleft fencing alive – demonstrating skills and techniques that have stood the test of time
Cleft fencing is a craft that dates back to Roman times, but by the end of the 20th century it was becoming a dying art.
Inspired by a book written by Cambridge botanist Oliver Rackham, retired cavalry officer Major Richard Bower decided to breathe new life into cleaving to recreate the Arcadian framework of the English countryside.
Twenty-five years later, in the corner of a Dorset field, three men working for Bower’s Winterborne Zelston Fencing use axes, hammers and wedges to split an oak tree cut to length.
The outer bark and the pith are stripped away to leave the heart of oak. Then, the remaining piece of wood is balanced on a wooden frame called a brake and split down its length using a tool called a froe. The blade works along the grain and the line of least resistance in the wood. This is delicate work which requires a craftsman’s experienced hand.
“Every piece of timber is different, which means that every day you are learning something new,” says Garry Lewis, 37, who received his on-the-job training thanks to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, the charitable arm of the Royal Warrant Holders Association.
Winterborne Zelston Fencing makes the posts, pales, rails and shingles, and its workers also erect the cleft fences, which slot together without nails. The untreated oak is waterproof and will withstand the elements for a long time.
Cleft fencing caught Prince Charles’s eye when he saw Bower’s stand, “The World of Cleft”, at the Royal Show and he asked the company to put its skills to work at his Gloucestershire home, Highgrove House. After several projects on the estate including fencing, a chicken run and supplying the oak for a pergola, the prince offered Bower the royal warrant in 1999.
“He used to come out and we’d talk,” he says. “He was marvellous and one day he said he would like me to have the royal warrant.
“Being a warrant holder encourages you to maintain a high standard of top-class work– that’s the whole point.”