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UNFIRLIEVABLE! We hope you've bought enough tinsel... orders roll in for Woods' 40ftXmas trees.

Byline: MIKE LOCKLEY Staff Reporter mike.lockley@trinitymirror.com

PRUCE almighty - that's what I call a Christmas tree.

s And not surprisingly, it's been cultivated by Europe's number one seasonal tree grower, Woods Farm, Shirley.

It is a company that has been putting the needle into the festive season for more than 40 years.

This year, brothers Geoff and Graham Gilbert, who cultivate millions of trees on the farm's 600 acres, have handled a flood of orders from overseas shopping malls.

And they want their decorations BIG.

When the brothers first fielded calls for 40-foot plus trees, they probably thought someone was having a larch.

(Sorry, having a laugh.) But there's is a "no pine, no gain" business. Last week, three 44-footers were sent to Rome, Florence, Naples and Athens. Closer to home, a 64 foot giant from Woods - first planted 44 years ago - now stands proudly in Nottingham.

It's little wonder the Gilberts are undisputed kings of the fir trade.

Geoff's personal favourite has been placed in Covent Garden.

"That's the best tree in Britain," he says proudly.

"It's actually made from five trees, but you can't tell."

Woods is the company the rich and very famous turn to when em-barking on a special seasonal celebration.

Last month the family business fielded one of its strangest requests - from the daughter of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone.

She wanted the Shirley firm to help transform her West London mansion into a winter wonderland. It was to be the ultimate birthday surprise for 85-year-old Bernie.

The property was turned into an Alpine ski lodge, with a wooden facade masking the red brick.

The driveway of the PS70 million Kensington home was covered in white sheeting to make it look snowcoated, and Woods placed trees throughout the grounds.

"It looked just like a Swiss ski chalet," says Graham, who remains tightlipped about the star-studded clientele who call on the business at Christmas.

It is no secret, however, that a Woods Christmas wreath, crafted by sistersin-law Marie and Ragni Gilbert, usually hangs from the polished door of 10 Downing Street.

The Yuletide rush is the result of back-breaking work in the spring. The Woods team plant 100,000 saplings in March and April.

Geoff explains how the pine powerhouse has grown from humble beginnings.

| Fan Bernie "Our mother was originally a florist from the Black Country," he says. "We started out making holly wreaths, which we used to get two shillings for. We fell into it from there.

"Dad was a bookmaker and bought the land in Shirley in the 1950s to train racehorses. Now we use it to grow the trees.

"We sell direct to the general public at the yard, while our website is aimed at businesses."

The spruce and larch leviathans, some over 60 foot tall, pose logistical problems - one of the main ones being wrapping the towering trees.

The Gilbert brothers have come up with a record-breaking solution.

They have purchased the world's it biggest Christmas tree wrapper, capable of encasing 80-foot conifers in protective mesh.

Geoff and Graham paid $500,000 to have the monster custom-made by Michigan firm Howey Baler Corp.

Ecclestone Graham laughs: "I think it's one in the eye for the Americans, asking them to make something for us that's bigger than anything they've got over there."

Even the Americans would be gobsmacked by the scale of the seasonal operation. Up to 200,000 trees are snapped up in the seasonal stampede.

Graham, 59, points to a row of towering trees and says: "Those are 65-footers. They'll be 75 feet in three years, but we're in no rush. They've been there 30 years.

"It's a growing market," he adds, straight-faced. "There are now eight million Christmas trees sold in the UK. Five million were sold five years ago."

" Woods don't just lead the field whencomes to trees. Their wreaths are also world-famous. While the tradition of tinsel-draped firs has remained unchanged over the decades, the fashion for wreaths constantly changes. "This year black and white is in," says Graham. "Last year it was gold. What's happened in America is happening here.

"This year people really want baubles and lights on their door garlands. What we do isn't created in five minutes. It takes a lot of time and effort."

And they want much bigger wreaths. Woods staff are currently making fourfoot monsters.

Marie creates the designs - a skill handed down by her mother-in-law - and Ragni does the wiring.

It's a very successful partnership, with the pair winning the British Christmas Tree Growers Association wreath competition.

Early days, maybe. But it looks like another very successful season for Woods, a company that has adapted to this year's Christmas tastes.

When it comes to decorations, families are becoming a little more adventurous.

In short, they're no longer prepared to mistletoe the line.

CAPTION(S):

| Fan Bernie Ecclestone

| Jeff Gilbert loads up another 40ft Christmas tree
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Nov 29, 2015
Words:818
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