Category Archives: Cumbria

Wood Colliers (or charcoal burners to you and me)

With the sun occasionally showing its face and gardens coming to life, many people will be dusting down their barbecue.  So I think it is time to take a visit down to the woods and seek out a charcoal maker or two.

Top Dog's hot dogs

If we are honest, most people don’t give charcoal much thought;  it’s black and messy, it comes in a bag and it impresses people if you can light it.  Even more impressive if you have thought ahead and got it going early enough so people aren’t waiting half the afternoon before you sizzle a sausage.  Plus if you keep it burning long enough to cook all the burgers then you really are a barbecue top dog

However, charcoal has been around a lot longer than our modern obsession with burnt sausages.  Charcoal burners and their apprentices, known as wood colliers, have been part of British woodlands since before the Bronze Age.  In fact, it was charcoal that enabled tin and copper to be smelted together to create the bronze which defined the age.

Charcoal burners were not confined to any one area of the UK, so it is not a traditional regional craft but it would have been one of the essential crafts in most areas in the same way as blacksmiths and wheelwrights.  So, although it is officially outside the remit of this blog about traditional regional crafts, I am including it anyway!

Charcoal burner outside his hut

This image was taken in the Wyre Forest, it caught my eye as you can see an oak spade basket lying next to the hut.  (Image courtesy of www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk)   

Charcoal ceased to be important in the process of metal smelting when people worked out how to make coke in the seventeenth century.  But it has continued to have many uses and at the beginning of the twentieth century it was still in use, predominantly in the production of artificial silk.  It is still essential in water purification – did you know you can turn red wine into white wine by pouring it through charcoal?  Shame it can’t do the same to water.  I have also learnt through investigating for this post that charcoal tablets are good for relieving wind and indigestion.  I might get some for someone I know!

Image courtesy of www.charcoalburners.co.uk

By 1980 production in the UK was down to a few thousand tonnes a year and things were not looking good for the wood colliers.   It is only very recently things have started to pick up.  Over the last twenty years there has been a massive increase in demand for charcoal for the domestic barbecue market.  But as we live in a topsy turvy world, instead of sourcing the charcoal from UK suppliers, 90% of the stuff sold in the UK is produced by chopping down the endangered rainforest and mangrove habitats of South America, West Africa and South East Asia.  It is then transporting half way around the world just so we can sizzle our sausages on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  You can find a fantastically detailed post on Aaron Price‘s blog describing charcoal production in Namibia.  Read it and see if you still enjoy your sausage cooked on imported charcoal.

Do you know who is making your charcoal?

To counter the issue of imported charcoal, there has been a massive push in recent years to reestablish viable charcoal production in the UK, so that our barbecue habit can be sustained in a more responsible manner.  By buying from a British supplier the carbon emissions from your bag of charcoal can be cut by up to 85% due to the transportation costs being so dramatically reduced.  The local product is also far more suitable for use on a barbecue as it is also less dense than imported charcoal and so is easier to light and it reaches cooking temperature much quicker.  Plus, it has a carbon content as high as 90% compared to only 60% in many imported varieties which means a better burning experience.

Brand new charcoal kiln - Hand made in Wales

All this can only mean one thing – If you use British charcoal you will find it easier to impress your friends with your barbecue skills whilst also collecting brownie points for not destroying the planet for the sake of a sausage.  It’s a win win situation.

You could go even further and buy your own kiln and make your own charcoal but I personally will leave that to the experts and concentrate on not burning the sausages.

 

 

Below I have gathered together some links to local producers of charcoal and related products so you can find local suppliers.  If you can’t find a local supplier then the large supermarkets and home stores do now stock British charcoal – impressing  Sunday luncheon guests is now within everyone’s reach!

www.bmwilson.co.uk  –  Blacksmith who makes charcoal kilns

Charcoal Suppliers

www.forestryfuels.com – Beds, Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambridge

www.croydoncoppice.co.uk - South London

www.lakelandcoppiceproducts.co.uk - Cumbria

www.dorsetcharcoal.co.uk - Dorset

www.wildwoodcrafts.com - Malvern

www.nigelsecostore.com - online supplier of Sussex based WildWood Charcoal products

www.charcoalburners.co.uk - West Sussex.  Website has detailed description of the process of small scale UK charcoal production

www.fourseasonsfuel.co.uk - West sussex

www.englishcharcoal.co.uk     Great site extolling the benefits of buying British, plus has detailed timeline of the history of charcoal production

www.bioregionalhomegrown.co.uk      Supplier of British charcoal to Sainsbury’s etc

And finally……….

www.charcoal.uk.com      These people make charcoal tablets for help with flatulance etc

www.fao.org  Document on the future of charcoal production in Africa.

www.fao.org  Analysis of trends within Charcoal production industry in Namibia

 

NB – If you are a UK charcoal burner and would like a link through to your website then please drop me a line.

 

 

Posted in Cumbria, Dorset, Heritage Crafts, London, Sussex, Traditional Crafts, Wales, Wood | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

‘Working Woodlands’ The Story of Coppice

The Coppice Association NW – ‘Working Woodlands’  - The Story of Coppice

Sat 31 March – Sun 29 April

Head over to Farfield Mill to experience the natural wonders of green wood craftsmanship, learn about its place in social history and its relevance in our modern world.

Farfield Mill – Which is in lovely Cumbria

 

Posted in Courses, Cumbria, Events, Exhibitions, Heritage Crafts, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Owen Jones – Nearly The One and Only Swill Maker

Some crafts need a bit of a push and the craft of swill making is one of them.  So I shall be highlighting some of the crafts I have encountered which are teetering on the edge of extinction, almost consigned to history, but not quite.  The craft skills which have been passed from generation to generation for centuries, now being practiced by just a handful of people.

I shall start with the Cumbrian Oak Swill.  You will recall from a previous post about cumbrian swills, these baskets were once used in many different walks of life;  mining, shipping and farming to name but a few and there was a thriving basket making industry to supply the baskets.  Today this thriving industry has contracted down to one full time swill maker, Owen Jones.  He is the Cumbrian swill maker.  It is quite astonishing to think a whole cottage industry has dwindled down to one individual in a generation.

I am not sure what Owen Jones thinks of his role as custodial of the swill making craft, it must be a bit weird to know everyone is documenting you as an endangered species. There are even videos of Owen Jones making a swill archived at the Museum of Rural Life at the University of Reading,  just in case he decides to jack it all in and retrain as a banker.

But I am happy to say that right now Owen Jones retraining as a banker seems unlikely. I have just ordered my first oak swill from Owen and he didn’t mention any plans to stop. In fact he now has an apprentice, so hopefully the craft of swill making is safe for the moment.

If you would like to purchase an oak swill from Owen Jones then his website is -

oakswills.co.uk .

oak swill

Here you can order an oak swill in a variety of sizes, find out which craft fairs Owen will be demonstrating at and also book yourself on to a Swill Making course.  Now that’s something I fancy, three days in the Lake District learning how to make a swill.   I have got a plan to make a really big one and use it as a chair – yes, obviously I would need to put some legs on it!

Stop press:  Swill making is spreading.  A welsh maker, Ruth Pybus, learnt her skills from Owen Jones and now offers swill baskets alongside the traditional Cyntell, a welsh willow frame basket.  You can find her baskets here -

www.framebaskets.co.uk

 

NB – Are you a maker of swill baskets?   Let me know so I can add you to my list.

 

Posted in Cumbria, Endangered Crafts, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Cumbrian Oak Swill

image from oakswills.co.uk

Ok, having begun my Traditional Craft journey around the British Isles down south in sunny Sussex, I am now going to head up north to take a look at the Cumbrian oak swill basket.  Again, I have purely personal reasons for choosing Cumbria as my second destination.  It is my favorite place ever and no it doesn’t rain all the time.

The Cumbrian swill is an oval, wooden basket and it is closely related to the Sussex trug, as they are both spale or spelk basket, (spale or spelk being the thin strips of wood, which in the case of the Cumbrian swill are cut from 25 – 30 year old oak coppice).  But whereas the Sussex trug is made by the wooden strips being layered and nailed down to create the form, the Cumbrian swill is made by weaving them.  The origins of the Cumbrian swill is buried in the depths of time but it is similar to other regional variations of woven spale baskets.  Skuttles were produced in the Wyre Forest in Worcestershire and other baskets went by the name of whiskets and slops.

Skuttle basket maker in Worcestershire 1935

Photographed by Marjorie Wright (1889-1973), Image from Museum of Rural Life.

How long swills have been part of life is unclear but similar baskets were used to carry corn in the Iron Age and throughout history they have found use in various industries; mines, mills, ironworks to name but a few.  On farms they were used for sowing, harvesting and feeding animals and in the home they were utilised when ever there was a need for a large receptacle.

Cumbrian swill making centred around the Furness area of Cumbria or Cumberland as it once known and this location would have been a major factor in the success of turning a cottage industry into a trade in its own right.  The woods of  Furness Fells would have provided the coppiced oak for the swill makers and there was a ready market for the swills in the mills, mines and farms throughout the North.

Swill makers from Backbarrow

Image taken from www.levenvalleyhistory.co.uk/woodland-industries

The swill makers were so successful that some intrepid Swillers, as they were called, from Ulverston, Kendal and Gatehouse-of-Fleet moved lock, stock and barrel up to Gargunnock in Scotland in 1865, probably encouraged to come by the local Laird, setting up a rival Scottish Swill making industry.

So what about now?  Fast forward through the twentieth century, passed the World War’s, passed the introduction of production lines and plastic and on to the present day. How are the Cumbrian swill makers doing?  To be honest…..it’s not good!  If there was list of endangered crafts at risk of extinction, then swill making would be on the top of the critical list.  There is only one full time Cumbrian swill maker left and his name is Mr Owen Jones. If you google his name, there are numerous articles on how he is the last in a long unbroken line of swillers and how he has single handedly kept the craft of swill making alive.  I won’t duplicate all that here as there really is a wealth of information on Mr Owen Jones.  There is a particularly lovely video of him making a swill on the Museum of Rural Life website (will post a link when I have worked out how!)

Anyway I do sincerely hope the oak swill is not like the Quagga (that funny zebra with just a few stripes)  the last one died on the 12th August 1883 in Amsterdam zoo.  The world watched and only after it had died did people sit up and say ‘Oh dear, they are all gone – too late now!’

But I like to think there is hope and the oak swill is definitely not as dead as a Dodo. There is an increasing appreciation of traditional regional crafts and their role in our material cultural heritage and a growing willingness to protect associated traditional skills.  I won’t bang on about the importance of Heritage Crafts here, as this is a post about the Cumbrian oak swill but I am planning on giving it a whole post all to itself. Well actually I am going to give it a whole page all to itself!

Next up – I am going to Dorset to take a look at Dorset buttons!!

Posted in Cumbria, Heritage Crafts, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments