A windy day on the Welsh Carneddau, with stick stored to leave hands free on a short scrambly section.
A windy day on the Welsh Carneddau, with a hazel stick stored to leave hands free on a short scrambly section.

Travelling on Skye, Dr Johnson once expressed concerns for his walking stick, joking that such a fine piece of construction timber must surely represent too strong a temptation in the island’s treeless environment. At least I hope he was joking.

It’s not long ago that a stout wooden stick was seen as an essential part of any walker’s kit. Hill-striding tourists would often nail small enamel badges to the stem of their stave, each colourful tin shield or flag displaying one of their many heroic endeavours. Some badges even advertised the conquest of an individual peak. Almost all hill shepherds once carried a stout steam-bent or horn-topped wooden crook. Even the ice axe of the valiant mountaineer would be hafted to a sturdy rod of hickory or ash.

Today though, not only are most of our hills and fells bare of trees, but the once prolific wooden stick has also disappeared.   In their place we have three or four piece adjustable steel or graphite wands, some with inbuilt cushioning to ease the repeated impact of a long journey. These walking sticks have ergonomically designed faux cork or spongy foam handles, complete with adjustable cushioned straps. They come tungsten-shod, or fitted with little rubber feet that routinely fall off to litter the more popular upland paths. They can be purchased in bare metal or in almost any colour. And they are quite brilliant – feather light, readily adjusted for either the tallest or shortest walker, easily packed away on a rucksack when not required, and reassuringly high-tech.

So why don’t I use them? Well, I have to admit I do, every now and then at least. A good modern stick, or pair of sticks, can be invaluable when the rigours of a tough descent start to take their toll. Heading uphill where any clambering is expected, especially where constricted or potentially exposed sections are likely, and the advantages of a modern stick that can be shut up and tucked away at the back of a pack, safely out of harms way, are obvious.

Even so, should you meet me on the jolly undulations of Crinkle Crags or the steep pull up the southern slopes of the Storr, you may well spot my paw wrapped around the stem of a hazel rod. These come in two colours – mid bark brown or battered bare hazel cream. They are easily adjustable in length, at least in one direction, if you carry a knife – and they are free.

Somewhere in Snowdonia.  Perhaps you can identify the spot.
Somewhere in Snowdonia, possibly the start of Crib Goch.  If so, a good moment to tuck the stick out of the way.

They might weigh a little more than their modern graphite counterparts. OK, so they weigh quite a bit more, but then they are completely sustainable, represent no risk to the environment in either manufacture or discard, and each is unique.

Over the years I’ve worked my way through quite a collection. One old favourite, a plain stout stick, was sourced from the banks of a jewel-like Austrian Alpine lake, then adorned with a wrist-supporting cord. This stick helped propel me up some interesting and quite elevated slopes in the area. I once owned a particularly neat example, sourced from a copse nestling in a hollow at the base of a Yorkshire Dale, which I lost almost immediately. A nicely proportioned thumb-stick, cut from alongside the Camino de Santiago on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, was handed to a member of school party I was helping to lead. She still has it – a fitting souvenir of a fine walk. Since then I’ve made perhaps another half a dozen. It’s rarely long before I’m asked to make a copy or a replacement. And before anyone becomes too concerned for the donor tree, hazel really does flourish on a little judicious pruning – or at least this fine species responds by throwing up yet more rods from which to choose.

On Rhinog Fach, illustrating the ever so important hand placement for uphill wor.)
On Rhinog Fach, illustrating the ever so important hand placement for uphill work.

Hazel coppicing was once a thriving rural industry, with careful woodland management producing an abundance of raw materials. In various diameters, these hazel rods were used to produce a range of now almost extinct items including hurdles for farm animal control, laths for wattle and daub building, basket handles or spars for thatching. Treasured hazel coppices could once be found at the corner of a wood on almost any British farm.

Even untended, as most are today, hazel has a useful tendency to throw up a host of straight stems. A range of diameters will still be available to suit all tastes and needs.

New growth often displays another beneficial characteristic, regularly branching out from a fixed point to provide a very useful natural woody fork. A little search amongst a healthy collection of hazel clumps will usually expose a fine straight stem, perhaps six or eight feet long, just under an inch wide where the foot of the prospective stick will be, with a suitable v-shaped division some four feet above. Cut, trimmed and fettled appropriately, and a fine thumb-stick, that most versatile of natural walking aids, can be yours. The accompanying photo should assist if you fancy giving it a go, and if you cast an eye about any rural gathering you should spot other examples, clutched in the hand of some tweed or Gortex clad individual. The proud owners probably cut and made this stick themselves, and will almost certainly enjoy any hazel-related discussion.

A thumb-stick, with raw Devon materials.
A hazel thumb-stick, with raw Devon materials.

And there you have it – a green, aesthetically pleasing, unique and personal piece of outdoor kit. I love mine. The raw scrubby end sticks to rock far better than you might imagine, and these walking aids are surprisingly strong for their weight. And if they should break, you simply cast about for a free replacement.

At this point I suppose I should admit to my sins. I have friends with suitable woods, and often search these for a new stick, but if I’m out and about when the need arises I tend to just slip into the edge of a suitable coppice before quietly removing my raw material – although never more than a single rod. I salve my conscience by reminding myself that I do know what I am doing, having coppiced a fair bit of hazel by hand over the years. I can also be confident that I’m not harming the plant, probably even doing it some good – but best to ask if you fancy the idea of sporting your own environmentally friendly hazel wonder-stick.