Category Archives: Wood

The Orkney Chair

For those who don’t know,  the Orkney Islands are a series of about seventy islands which are just off the north east coast of Scotland, only sixteen of them are inhabited and it is to here I am journeying today in my virtual jaunt around British Isles.

Relief map of Scotland

The islands lie in the path of the Gulf Stream and so enjoy a climate milder than would be expected so far north. Being a very flat series of islands they are a tad windy, to say the least, and for this reason the islands are almost totally treeless.  Life in the Orkney Islands has always been mainly based around traditional crofting system of farming, which is a system of subsistence farming common in Scotland.

The Orkney Chair has evolved over time as a response to its locality and it is a really good example of how regional craft objects represent the culture, geography and social and economic history of an area.  Like many other regional crafts it is impossible to pinpoint when Orkney chairs were first made, but it is possible to chart how they evolved from simple stools to the full blown chair associated with the islands today.

Early Orkney Chair

Way back when, Orkney chairs were no more than stools and made almost entirely of straw, only the feet of the chair were wooden.  Now, this was because wood was in scarce supply on an island where there were no indigenous trees and it was sensible to make your furniture from material freely available locally and there was plenty of left over straw from the Black Oats, grown to feed the livestock.   This straw was used to make all manner of household items, not only on the Orkney Islands but in many rural areas across the country.  Referred to as lip work the straw was coiled into baskets (known as cubbies and lubbies on the Orkney Islands), twisted in rope known (simmens), formed into mats and used to create beds.

Orkney Chair Makers

As time went by people began to use driftwood, often from ship wrecks, to form the base of the chair, yet it was still no more than a stool covered in straw.  It will never be known who first had the bright idea of adding a low woven straw back, but someone, at some stage, got fed up of crouching on his stool and updated the design to include a back about two feet tall.  The chair was still kept low so people were able to sit close to the ground and avoid the smoke from the open fires burning in the centre of the room.

Cosy old chair

Later still people began to add hoods to the chairs to keep out the draughts and sometimes added a drawer under the seat.  Apparently this was for the man of the house to keep his ‘things’.  (This makes me wonder if the man in my house has Orkney roots as we currently have four ‘man drawers’ full of ‘man things’).

So the Orkney Chair evolved into chair fit for purpose, it is the perfect shape to keep the heat in and the draughts out and used throughout the centuries to provide a comfy seat.  They were made very upright though as nobody just sat they would be sewing, spinning, whittling or doing something.

Of course nothing ever stays the same and in the 1890s there was a bit of  a shake up in the Orkney chair world.  Up until this point the traditional Orkney chair had been made for use by the maker’s own family or to be sold within a small local market, but in the late 1880′s things started to change.

Countess of Rosebery

Firstly, in the later half of the the 1800′s the Arts and Crafts movement had gained in popularity both in England and Scotland and there was an increase in interest in hand made crafts as opposed to factory goods.  In 1889 The Scottish Home Industries Association was founded by the Countess of Rosebery.  Its aim was to promote and ensure a fair payment of, household crafts in Scotland.   It was probable she was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which was well established in Scotland.  The Association took the traditional crafts of Scotland and sold them to the great and the good ‘down south’.

Concurrently, or maybe as a result of this, a Mr David Kirkness, a joiner of Kirkwall, began to produce four standardised versions of the traditional Orkney chair.  By doing standard versions he was able to increase his output.  The straw backs were all stitched by outworkers, often fishermen and farmers who stitched in the evenings, or whenever they could.  It is estimated he made about 400 chairs per year, far more than other makers.

Orkney Chair with 'man drawer' by Orkney Furniture.co.uk

This new publicity and increased output meant Orkney Chairs became a must have item for the upper classes, Liberty’s of London stocked them, Queen Victoria had one and apparently even the Queen Mother was very keen to and had some too.  This definitely helped the long time survival of a vernacular design classic and Orkney Chairs are still very much in production today.

One very important feature, which has remained unchanged throughout, is the way in which the Orkney chair is constructed. Locally grown straw is used to make the backs which still have to be stitched by hand.  The chair frames, originally made from driftwood, are now more often made from the best quality wood available and beautifully finished by hand.  It is interesting that the chairs are still evolving.  Benches are now made as well as rocking Orkney chairs and fan backed chairs, all of which reflect a modern phenomena we are able to enjoy in this country – just sitting and relaxing!

Cosy Corner Bench by Orkney Furniture.co.uk

 

Buy an Orkney Chair from one of these lovely people;

www.orkneyfurniture.co.uk

www.scapacrafts.co.uk

www.orkneyhandcraftedfurniture.co.uk

www.orkney-chair.co.uk

 

Find out more about Orkney here; 

www.orkneyjar.com

Relax in Orkney here;

www.orkneyretreat.co.uk

Posted in Basketry, Heritage Crafts, Orkney Islands, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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 Bodgers of Buckinghamshire

Museum of Rural Life

Its a good job this is a virtual journey around the British Isles, because geographically my journey so far has not been logical.  Starting in Sussex I have zipped up, down and across the country as the whim has taken me.   For this post, as I am going down to the Woodfair at Bentley Wildfowl Museum at the weekend, I thought I would take a look at a woodsman craft and so are featuring the Bodgers of Buckinghamshire. To be strictly accurate they were the Bodgers of the Chilterns, which stretch over Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.

The Bodgers of Buckinghamshire were woodsman who made the rungs, stretchers and legs of chairs to supply the local Windsor Chair industry in High Wycombe. Traditionally, rather than transport the wood to a workshop bodger’s would work in the wood or forest, building a temporary structure to work under and using  a foot powered pole lathe.  Later some had their workshops at home.  They weren’t, as it is sometimes reported, an itinerary band of men travelling  from place to place, picking up work but rather their workshops could be said to be itinerant, moving around within the wood.

The bodger’s craft can be traced back over five hundred years.  Stuart King has written a very interesting article on the last of the Buckinghamshire bodgers who clung on until the 1950s. Thankfully, there are still a handful of people who make a living from hand turning on a pole lathe but they don’t exist by bodging alone, which has gradually ceased to exist with the mechanisation of chair production.  I have written another post on the origin of the word bodger, which has more details, if you are interested take a look.

Posted in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Bodger not a Botcher

The Last Chiltern Chair Bodger (image by Frank Ghysen, copyright Chiltern Society)

In the traditional craft world a bodger is a very specific term.  Craftsman known as bodgers were highly skilled workers, originating in the Chilton’s in Buckinghamshire. Bodgers were pole lathe turners who worked in temporary workshops out in the woods; producing rungs, stretchers and legs for the local Windsor chair industry based in High Wycombe.

The word bodger is an example of how, over time, meanings can change.  It is also proof of how difficult it is to actually be sure of the origins of a word.  Having spent quite a few hours trying to get to the bottom of the word I am none the wiser.   I do know there has been many different uses of the word over the years.

At various times in history there has been five distinct uses of the word bodge and bodger, which I have been able to uncover.  Some of these have fallen into disuse and some are still around or have a recognisable link to a modern term;

1.     A “bodger” was a travelling or merchant, referenced in Holinshed’s Chronicles of 1577.

2.    “Bodge” derives from Middle English boccen, which means “to mend” or “patch” which shares this root word with the word “botch”.  Samuel Pepys had his coat botched on Sunday 26th April 1663.

3.    “Bodge” was a Black Country word which meant ‘to poke’ and a stick used to poke holes were known as bodgers.

4.     A “bodge” was a unit of  false measurement in the middle ages,  Interestingly, I have seen reference to a Kent bodge which is similar to a Sussex trug and a trug was originally a unit of measurement.

5.     Shakespeare uses the word “bodge” in Henry VI part 3 Act 1 Scene 4.

“We bodged again; as I have seen a swan
With bootless labour swim against the tide
And spend her strength with over-matching waves”

If you look this phrase up in contemporary study guides, ‘bodged’ is said to mean ‘bungled’, but whilst trawling through google books I found an old Dictionary of the English Language which states that in Shakespearean terms bodge derives from boggle which means to hesitate. Now, if I crank my brain into gear and think really hard about the speech this quote comes from, I think the earlier definition might actually be right. Shakespeare seems to be describing the swan paddling away under the water but not going anywhere, thus it hesitates.

Given all the different uses the term ‘bodge’ has had,  it is no wonder there is confusion as to why chair part turners around High Wycombe became known as bodgers and confusion as to when they became know as such.

Nowadays botch and bodge have very similar, but subtly different, meanings.  A “bodge job” is an emergency repair done by a competent worker who lacks the correct tools for the job but has bodged it together until it can be mended properly.  Whereas a ‘botch job” means a job that has been done very badly.  A botcher is not someone who you would want to decorate your kitchen.  This subtle difference is often lost and the words have become interchangeable, but it is still possible to see the link between these two words and the original bodge and botch – meaning to mend or patch.  Though this meaning of bodge doesn’t really link to the Chair Bodgers.

So tracing the origin of the word bodger and botcher still doesn’t explain why the chair turners of the Chilterns became known as bodgers.  Here are just a few of the possible explanations of the word bodger in relation to chairs;

The bodgers were itinerant workers who travelled from place to place.  It is now accepted the bodgers of the Chilterns were not itinerant workers but were local men with homes to go to at night who travelled to their workshops in the woods each day.  I have found reference to itinerant bodgers, who travelled from town to town to provide a service to regional chair makers, but there were not many of these.  I sopose the bodger’s workshop could be said to be itinerant, being moved around the woods to where the timber was, thus providing a link to the original travelling merchant known as a Bodger.

Owen Dean’s workshop,  Monkton Wood, Great Hampden (image by Frank Ghysens, copyright Chiltern Society)

Bodges, were sacks of corn, closely resembling the packages of finished goods the bodgers carried when they left the forest or workshop.  This has echoes of the old units of measurements, but sounds unlikely to me.

Bodger was a corruption of badger, as similarly to the behaviour of a badger, the bodger dwelt in the woods and seldom emerged until evenings.  How terribly romantic! According to what I have read, bodger’s didn’t go to their workshops until late morning when the dew had lifted, by which time all the badgers would be well tucked up in their sets.

Bodger is a new word made up about 1910 by a journalist.  There does seems to be a few discussions suggesting that bodger is a twentieth century term, but I am not sure about this.  My searches on google books has revealed many books from the early twentieth century which describe the life’s of bodgers and various authors spend much time detailing how their trade has been past from father to son.  In none of these books does the author mention the men have only recently become known as bodgers.  Dorothy Hartley in her book Made in England, spends time discussing the origin of the word and she makes no mention of it being a recent invention.  Also, in the book Country Relics, H. J. Massingham interviews various bodgers and again, does not says it was only recently they have become known as such.  He describes the bodging career of a Mr Rockall who at the time, was 61 and had alway been a bodger.  It is stated, he “lived as a boy at Little Marlow where the wood bodgers taught him the use of the pole lathe” (p.56 Country Relics, Massingham).  This would put the term in use in the 1880′s at least.

Bodger derives from the old french word ‘bouger’ – to move about.  This is a suggestion put forward by Dorothy Hartley.  I guess it’s a possibility, I will look into this one, but with so many possibilities within the English language it seems unlikely that the word would be plucked from another language.

Bodger was a derogatory term used by the carpenters in High Wycombe who considered themselves better craftsmen than the chair part maker’s who worked in the woods.   But this doesn’t really fit.  If they were being derogatory then they would call them botcher’s. Maybe they called them bodger’s because they were craftsman but couldn’t complete the whole chair because they didn’t have the right tools in their workshops in the woods. This explanation would fit with the true meaning of the word bodge.  I actually quite like this theory as it fits on more than one level and would explain why the term was applied just to the bodgers around High Wycombe.

Finally and this one is my one suggestion which I have no idea if it is right, if a bodger was a stick used to poke holes then a bodger would bear a remarkable similarity to the sticks, rungs and legs made by the chair part turners.  Maybe they were called bodgers because they made bodgers.

Anyway after all this research, I still don’t really know how the Chair Bodgers of the Chilterns got their name. What I do know is the discussion is far from over.  Bodger is now beginning to be the term used for all pole lathe workers, of whom there are but a few. Amongst themselves there is discussions as to whether they should call themselves green wood workers or allow the term bodger to be their collective name.

If one was to be pedantic the chair bodger’s pole lathe differs from other woodworkers such as bowl turners, because the driving string is wrapped directly around the material to be turned and the lathe is not equipped with a chuck.  So strictly speak the job title is defined by your equipment.

However I must say that if I met a man in the woods wielding a big, sharp tool who said he was a bodger I would be inclined to agree with him, even if his lathe did have a chuck!

 

 

A dictionary of English Language, in which the words are……….. Vol 1 – Samual Johnson 1932

A dictionary of weights and measures for the British Isles: the Middle Ages to the twentieth Century  -  Ronald Edward Zupko 1985

Traditional Country Craftsmen – John Geraint Jenkins

Made in England – Dorothy Hartley – 1939

Country Relics: An Account…….H. J. Massingham – 1939

www.chilternphoto.org.uk

www.pepysdiary.com

www.worldwidewords.org

www.bodgers.org.uk

www.stuartking.co.uk

www.shakespeare-literature.com


Posted in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Heritage Crafts, Oxfordshire, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sussex Pimp!

The Sussex pimp is a little known traditional coppice product, a small bundle of kindling – twenty five small lengths of birch tied up with tarred string.  Made by woodsman in the area around Petworth, used locally and also taken up to London by the cart, lorry and train load.   There is still one man who produces pimps and this is Alan Waters who is based near Chichester and sells through woodland fairs.  There is a nice video of him making some pimps and explaining the use of faggots and benders here;

www.coppicegroup.wordpress.com/gallery/

A pimp is used to light a fire.  There is two other related coppice products;  a faggot, which is a larger bundle of sticks used to fuel ovens and now also utilised in the regeneration and protection of  river banks and a bavin, which like a faggot was used to fuel a fire.

Well there you have – what more can I say.  I did try to find an image for this post but when I googled ‘Sussex Pimp” all I got was a picture of a nasty looking man on the run in Brighton!

Posted in Heritage Crafts, Sussex, Traditional Crafts, Uncategorized, Wood | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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!!

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The Right Royal Sussex Trug

The Sussex Trug is a funny old place to start my Traditional Craft journey around the British Isle’s because some would say; it isn’t actually that old, especially in traditional craft terms, having first shot to fame in 1851.  But the trug is so very much associated with Sussex and is so firmly rooted in my childhood memories, it seems a very good place to begin.

There have been Trug’s in Sussex in one form or another since way back when.  The word trug is thought to have derived from the Old English word trough or trog which means ‘made of wood’ or ‘boat like form’.  The first trough’s or trog’s were carved, wooden, boat shaped vessels and were used by farmers for measuring and harvesting and there are references to them in medieval manuscripts. But what is a bit hazy is when these solid wooden Trog’s evolved into the baskets we now know as Trug’s.  It is known that a sixteenth century Sussex trugger called John Edwards left all his trugger tools to his son and the tools are almost the same as the trugger tools used today and trug’s also appear in paintings as far back as the 1700′s.

However the Trug really came into its own during the 1800′s,  In a village called Herstmonceux (Yes I know, it is a funny name!  It’s pronounced Herst-mon-zoo and it comes from combining the Anglo-Saxon word hyrst, which means “wooded hill” and the name of the Monceux family, who were lords of the manor in the 12th century)  lived a Mr Smith.  It seems that Mr Smith had the bright idea of taking the original trug and making it better.  Some say that he actually invented the Sussex Trug, it but it was more likely he was a master trug maker and he made the best trugs in the village.

We do know his trug were made in the traditional Sussex style; a lightweight basket made from Sweet Chestnut and Cricket Bat Willow. The Sweet Chestnut, grown locally on the wooded hills, he used for the rim and handle and the Cricket Bat Willow, from the nearby Pevensey Marshes, he used to make boards for the body of the basket.  Mr Smith’s Sussex Trug was very popular locally and he developed a thriving market selling to local farmers.

The really big moment in Sussex Trug’s history came in 1851 when Mr Smith took his basket to the Great Exhibition of 1851.  There, his stall was visited by Queen Victoria who order a number of Trug’s to give as gifts.  The Sussex Trug was renamed the Royal Sussex Trug and Mr Smith personally walked all the way to Buckingham Palace, pushing his hand cart, to deliver the Queens Trug’s.

Obviously Mr Smith was a very happy man, his business flourished and a trug making cottage industry developed.  Competitors sprung up and trug making spread throughout Sussex and Kent and even as far as Somerset.  Everyone chugged along quite nicely and the trug continued in production into the early twentieth century until, alas, along came mechanisation and plastic.

Now here is where the story could have ended, the lovely Royal Sussex Trug killed off by machines and plastic, luckily for us it isn’t the end. Admittedly things got a bit hairy for Trug making for a while, farmers no longer needed Trugs to collect their eggs and apples and the plastic punnet became the preferred container.  After the Second World War Trug production gradually shrank back into Sussex until there was only a handful of companies left, one being the original Thomas Smith company.  These Trug makers survived by pure tenacity  and also by adjusting their marketing plan.  Instead of selling mainly to farmers they begun to sell more to gardeners.  The Sussex Trug became the must have accessory for the dedicated gardener.

So there we have it, a potted history of the Sussex Trug.  Along the way the Sussex Trug really has had its ups and downs, through the seventies and eighties I remember more than one  story about how the last trug makers were on the verge of shutting up shop. But it does seem they have now carved themselves a niche market.  The Sussex trug makers have also diversified and now produce a ply version of the traditional trug.  Go to any gardening online shop and the chances are that there will be a wooden trug of some description for sale.  They now even have to fight off the threat of cheap, imported copies from China.  However, the genuine article for me remains the Royal Sussex Trug, made only by the original Smith company.  Although I must say if I am perfectly honest, I don’t think much of the music they play in their workshop, but despite the music – they make a jolly fine old Trug!!

Next post is going to be on the Cumbrian Oak Swill.  I am so loving this!  In an age when we all moan about generic high street brands, it’s so great to focus on the regional crafts which are still alive and kicking.  Think Cheddar Cheese and Cornish Pasty for the craft industry!!

There are many places to buy Sussex trugs, some are made in Sussex and some are imported from Eastern Europe or China.  It’s fair to say that the cheaper it is the more likely it is not to be a genuine Sussex trug.  If you want to be sure that you are getting the real deal then The Cuckmere Trug Company is where you need to go, deep in the sussex countryside and bizarrely the workshop is also within earshot of Druzilla‘s zoo.  So alongside the tweeting of blackbirds and sparrows you can hear monkeys and parrots too!

The Cuckmere Trug Company 

 

Posted in Heritage Crafts, Sussex, Traditional Crafts, Uncategorized, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments