Category Archives: Wales

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

The Welsh Cyntell

Large cyntell - Les Llewellyn

I am going over the border today, to a country where traditional culture and language has been fiercely defended for years.  I am slightly wary as to where to start on this as I could easily emigrate and spend all my time just writing about Welsh stuff;  blankets, baskets, love spoons, clogs etc.  But as I have to start somewhere I shall start with the cyntell basket (I believe ‘ll‘ in Welsh is pronouned ‘th‘ so it would be ‘cynteth‘ – but please correct me if I am wrong).

The cyntell is a multi functional basket used around the farm to ‘carry stuff’;  animal feed, potatoes and fruit and they can also be utilised around the home, for laundry and sleeping babies amongst other things.  I also wonder if they were ever used, way back when, as a unit of measure like the trug in Sussex.

Cyntells - Out to Learn Willow

In fact, like the Sussex trug and the Cumbrian swill, the traditional frame basket was not confined to county or country borders.  Known as a cyntell in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, identical baskets were found across other regions and over in Ireland, where they were known as skibs, scuttles and Sally Saucers.

Cyntell Basket - Ruth Pybus

 

 

 

The cyntell is formed around a thick, dried willow or hazel hoop, with split and shaped wooden ribs, which together form the frame which is interwoven with willow.  The original farm baskets would have been rustic affairs but a tradition developed to weave more elaborate competition baskets and these are what are more common now.

 

 

The survival of the cyntell is said to be down to three men, D.J Davies, Marvin Morgan and Les Llewelyn.  In the late 1990′s they were all working at St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff.  Mr Davis was the basket maker, Mr Morgan the miller and Mr Llewelyn whittled love spoons and walking sticks.

D J Davies - The Master (image - Les Llewellyn)

Mr Davies had been the resident basket maker at St Fagans since it opened in 1948, demonstrating the weaving of cyntell basket as taught to him by his farmer grandfather (who had been taught by his father, no doubt).  Aware that Mr Davies was one of the only craftspeople still making the traditional basket, Mr Llewelyn and Mr Mogan decided to ask Mr Davies to pass on his basketry skills.   As Mr Davies had begun to think he would be the last basketmaker in Wales to make the cyntell basket, he was delighted to pass on the skills which had been passed through the generations, via his grandfather.

Having gained the necessary skills to call themselves basket makers, the two younger men set about keeping the traditional Welsh basket making skills alive and kicking.  Mr Davies and Mr Llewelyn became founder members of The South Wales Basketmakers and Mr Davies also became President of the South Wales Stickmakers group.  I believe Mr Morgan became the resident basket maker at St Fagan’s after Mr Davies retired, but unfortunately, when I searched St Fagan’s website I could find no reference to either cyntells or Mr Morgan.

Learn to weave a Cyntell

Luckily for us, many people now seem to appreciate the relevance of craft items associated with particular regions.  The South Wales Basket Makers Group holds regular courses to teach others the essential cyntell skills, with Les Llewellyn running many of these.  It seems the knowledge passed on from Mr Davies is now safe in the hands of  keen basket makers in Wales and beyond.  Indeed, it could be said (at a stretch) that cyntell basket making is a growth industry and let’s be honest –  there is not many of those about these days!!

Courses and Sales

Links through to makers who produce cyntells and also to cyntell making basket courses for interested people.

www.traditionalwelshbaskets.co.uk - Les Llewellyn

www.welshbasketmakers.co.uk

www.framebaskets.co.uk - Ruth Pybus

www.outtolearnwillow.co.uk

www.bobjohnstonbaskets.co.uk

Ray Lister – Ray supplies a video of D J Davies weaving a cyntell, plus he runs frame basket weaving courses at various locations

Owen Jones – Owen also learnt to weave cyntells from DJ Davies and runs the occasional course to.

 

Posted in Basketry, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Traditional Crafts, Wales, Wood, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments