The Oak Beam Knee Project

Land of Oak & Iron Land of Oak & Iron

Some months ago, Noel Adamson and Colin Douglas from the Land of Oak & Iron Trust, were discussing the role the Derwent Valley played in building wooden sailing ships – in particular, the supply of oak and ironware to the shipbuilding ports on the south coast of England and particularly Greenwich on the Thames.  From this discussion, an idea was born to create a display and scale model showing the hull structure and the part a ‘beam knee’ played in building wooden sailing ships (mainly warships) and to illustrate the use of the nails, cable chains and anchors supplied by Crowley’s industrial enterprise under contract to the Naval Board.

In ship-building, a beam knee is a reinforcement of the end of a deck-beam where it is attached to the side of a vessel to strengthen the whole against the racking effects of rolling at sea.  Naturally grown knees in the form of a crook shape were considered as the best, with oak timber being the strongest.

Henry VIII’s (1509 – 1547) ship building programme used oak provided by many forests mainly from the south of England, including the New Forest and his warship the Mary Rose had many hundreds of beam knees in its construction.  It is more than likely oak was provided from Chopwell Wood, as in the case of HMS Sovereign of the Seas, built for Charles I (1625 – 1649) launched in 1637.

Noel and Colin then set about finding a suitable oak beam knee to begin the project, they turned to Peter Downes, Access and Woodland Officer for the Land of Oak & Iron, to ask if he knew of any local woodland owners if they might have a suitable tree.

Peter contacted the Blyth Tall Ship Project to discuss traditional boat building and the sort of timber needed.  John Bell their shipwright and two of his team gave a presentation to local woodland owners at the Woodland Networking Day, held at Lintz Hall Farm last autumn.  John and his team then visited several of the woodland owners within the Land of Oak & Iron to see if they had any timber which would be of use for both their own work and the beam knee project.

Soon after all this, there was a stroke of luck – during a windy night, a storm broke off a limb from an oak tree within the woodlands at Lower Friarside Farm.  The owner, Mr Stunt, said he thought he might have a suitable piece of timber.  Peter went out to see it and thought it was ideal, as did John from the Blyth Tall Ship Project.  Mr Stunt kindly agreed to donate the timber to the project and used his tractor to remove it to a place where it could be loaded onto a vehicle.  The Tall Ship Project team then came over from Blyth to pick it up and cut it into suitable lengths in their sawmill.

The timber, now cut, is sitting dockside at Blyth – Peter, Colin and Noel were due to have a meeting with the team at Blyth Tall Ship Project to discuss the next steps, but things have been put on hold for a while!

Once, huge amounts of oak from Chopwell Wood were used to build a wooden warship for King Henry VIII, now those days are long gone, but it’s good to know that the Land of Oak & Iron and the Beam Knee Project has, in a small way, reconnected the woodlands in the Derwent Valley with boat building and once again may be on the high seas in the years to come.