Grandpa Webb's blog

Monday, 24 December 2012

Purveyor of one indoor Christmas tree to the Prime Minister

Find out more about Grandpa WebbWe have a mechanical Christmas tree. For about 48 weeks of the year it lies in a cardboard box in the shed at the bottom of the garden. About three weeks before Christmas I bring it up to the house and try to remember how it went together the previous year.

In a good light and after a few drinks, no one will notice it's a mechanical tree - and it won't drop its needlesIt has a three-piece tubular steel trunk and branches made from thick steel wire, tastefully covered in plastic pine needles. The branches hinge from collars around the trunk and the trick is to bend them so they hang slightly downwards, like a real tree. Covered in decorations, in a good light and after a few drinks, it looks almost real.

It came from a garden centre (a garden centre selling fake trees—can this be true? Alas yes, and why not, with the current state of retail?) We bought it for a knock-down price in a post-Christmas sale after I accidentally over-watered the last real tree and put a stain on the carpet.

It wasn’t always like this. In the distant past I had by own Christmas tree plantation at the bottom of the garden. My friend Dave gave me the idea. His parents had a big garden and he had grown several hundred trees which he sold to the locals each year.

I ordered 150 Norway spruce seedlings. They arrived by post three weeks later. They didn’t look much – just small sprigs about nine inches high with a few pine needles on them. I dug 150 holes in a large patch of clay at the bottom of the garden, planted them and waited.

Guess which one is coming inside this year - that's the trunk of one of the big ones in the backgroundFour years later, we were in business. Christmas trees from £2 I painted on a piece of hardboard alongside the front gate.

I suppose we sold about 20 that first year. £2 for a small one, £4 for something a bit bigger – although none of them were very big.

The next year, with bigger trees, prices started at £3 and I deployed a sure-fire sales gimmick that differentiated our trees from the sawn-off offerings from local garden centres. Our trees came with roots. You might think this would be bad for business, but it wasn’t. The few people who planted their tree in their garden (I know who they are) couldn’t be bothered to dig them up again. I think the rest perished.

The following year Dave called: “Got any Christmas trees?” he said. “I need a nice one.”  Dave worked for an estate agent in rural Hertfordshire. His company managed an estate that grew Christmas trees – and happened to supply the big tree that stood outside 10 Downing Street that Christmas.

If you plant a Norway spruce and forget it for 35 years, this is what happens...“I’ve got plenty of big trees, but I need a small one to go inside No 10,” he said. I selected one of my finest, a few banknotes changed hands and there I was, by appointment to Mrs Thatcher (I said it was in the distant past) supplier of an inside Christmas tree.

When the word got round, sales rocketed and I was almost cleaned out – apart from a couple of trees at the bottom of the garden. This was a mistake.

If there is one piece of advice I would hand down to other would-be Norway spruce growers it’s this:  Don’t keep a couple back for sentimental reasons – unless you have a use for them.  I have calculated, using the principle of triangulation, that the two remaining trees are 55 feet tall. The trunks have a girth of more than 5 ft. They are huge.

Last summer we did find a use for one of them. It became the upper anchor post at the end of a makeshift zip wire, which was much enjoyed by the grandchildren. 

I suppose that’s something you can’t do with a mechanical tree. 

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