Tuesday, 15 January 2013



Being a basketmaker in Northern Britain was until quite recently a  fairly unique situation. There was my old friend Trevor Leat in Galloway, Meg Tapley in the North East and John Taylor at Ulleskelf near Tadcaster. A bit later on Phil Greenhalgh and Graham Glanville began making and selling.
Now there are willow weavers and willow projects sprouting up throughout the country. As my partner, Simone Siegan, is a jewellery designer and a novice in the world of willow we decided to look up some of the newer makers and projects.
Early summer 1997 found me taking part in 2 Woodland Craft Days for The Great North Forest, giving children the opportunity to try weaving with willow. Lorraine Weeks was also showing children how to make simple baskets. Lorraine runs a coppice craft business called Seed To Saw.
I also ran a living willow/basketmaking course at Beamish Museum, Durham.
A visit to Edinburgh during the festival gave us the chance to meet Susie Thompson and see her beautiful baskets at the Artisan Exhibition. Elsewhere in the city we saw some of Lizzie Farey’s imaginative ‘baskets’ - sort of half completed baskets with coloured and catkinned stems intertwined. Good to see her featured in Crafts magazine - it’s funny how lots of makers have discovered cornus and it’s bright colours. Trevor Leat later told me of a willow ‘house’ that he was making with Lizzie in Castle Douglas.
We visited John Taylor at Ulleskelf to buy some willow. The Basket Works is a family business that uses home-grown willow and also imports a variety of  cane and willow ware.  At one time I used to buy all my willow from John, but now he buys in for basketwork and uses his own brown willow for hurdle making. John told me that he is often asked to make artefacts for museums such as Jorvik Viking Centre in York. He mainly makes willow and cane furniture.
We saw Denise Durham demonstrating to a fascinated audience in Lancaster during early summer ‘97 and later visited her at her exhibition at Witherslack where she was working on some rushwork. I spent summer Wednesdays demonstrating willow work at The Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, Kendal and was pleased to meet Jeff Allen and his family who were on holiday in the Lakes. Jeff runs Eco Arts and works extensively with schools creating living willow sculptures. I first saw Jeff’s work when I attended a Willow Conference in Liverpool.
I ran a basket workshop at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal during December ‘97 and Walter Lloyd and Rod Everett came along. Walter is well-known to northern basketmakers as he runs a business called Wallys Willows, supplying cuttings and rods and is also a renowned charcoal burner and yurt builder. Walter brought some of his willows along as free samples for course participants. Rod runs the Middle Wood Trust permaculture centre near Lancaster and he also came with his own willows. Rod grows some willow for yurt-making; there are also some willow sculptures at the centre and a willow ‘tree-bog’.
After reading about the North West Willow Network in the BA Newsletter we decided to send off our ,5.00 to join and get some news about opportunities etc in our area. After waiting a long time we eventually received Newsletter no. 1 . Full of good information but the North West seemed to end south of Lancaster. Still no sign of NW Willow Network no 2 - I am happy to help etc if anyone out there is reading this.
We decided to explore some of the projects and sites mentioned in the newsletter. The Dane Valley Willow Project based at Brereton Heath Country Park in Cheshire had ‘four of Britain’s best known basket makers and artists’ in residence between October 1997 and March 1998, helping to transform the park environment and regenerate ancient willow beds. Lynn Kirkham, Mary Butcher, Iris Bertz and Tim Johnson were the artists involved. When we visited (early spring ‘98) Tim Johnson was teaching an environmental sculpture workshop to WATCH leaders using locally collected materials. Having run a similar workshop ourselves the previous weekend it was interesting to see how someone else did it.  The installations around the park were of a very high standard as were the baskets exhibited by members of the Dane Coppice Crafts Group at the nearby Dukes Oak Contemporary Arts and Crafts Gallery. We also visited Risley Moss Arts Project  near Warrington to see the work of Cate Clark and Lynn Kirkham. Cate Clark worked with local community groups to plant and weave a living willow wildlife-watching area. Good stuff.
Meanwhile Stephanie Bunn has been working as weaver-in-residence at Worden Park, Leyland in Lancashire to create three bowers in the park. I had first seen Stephanie’s work at the Willow Conference at Ness Botanic Gardens and was keen to see her current work. In Stephanie’s words - ‘...the project. It’s 8 weeks long, funded and set up by the arts Unit in Preston with matching funding from A4E (Arts For Everyone). Using Bowles Hybrid, and Daphnioides willow, with additional varieties from Ness Gardens, Walter Lloyd, Peter Ward (the only local grower) and Steve Pickup. The bowers will all be coloured and sweet smelling - using wild rose, honeysuckle, clematis, jasmine and sweet peas. Fab seats by Lee Dalby, also to be sweet smelling with chamonmile and purple thyme.’ When we visited Lee and Stephanie were finishing off the project. Lee spoke about his basketry career, his tutor John Galloway and his student Clare Wilkes. as I sit writing this (1st May) the bowers are beginning to sprout and look amazing.
A trip to Somerset in March gave us an opportunity to have a look around the Levels and meet some new contacts. The first people that we met were making hurdles in the sunshine at the Peat Moors Visitor Centre. Green Man Woodland Enterprise (tel: 01749 330093) make garden structures and coppice products. The centre has an Iron Age steading with roundhouse, hurdles, wicker beehives and kilns constructed of willow and clay daub.  Simone attended Serena De La Hey’s ‘Willow Creatures’ held at the English Hurdle Centre, Curload, I was driver and watched for a while and then explored the area. Nigel Hector, who owns the Centre, was chatty and friendly and invited me to see the willow structures (very neat bower seat, living trellis, woven bed edgings and a peacock by Serena) in his garden. He also showed me his living woven sticks which are like Czech Easter switches (Dynovaca) planted in large pots. Having just taught an Eastern European Easter Workshop in Carlisle making similar items, I was pleased to see another way of using switches.
I visited The Somerset Levels Basket and Craft Centre at Burrowbridge which makes and sells ‘Everything Basketware’ using willow, cane, bamboo, seagrass etc and then went on to The Willow and Wetland Centre. As I originally bought all of my willow from Coates at Meare Green I was curious to see how they had developed their business. The centre has a shop, museum and interpretation centre (free entry) with everything of a high standard. I liked the heron sculpture and the wicker coffin. About a month later I was demonstrating basketry at the museum in Kendal and began a conversation with a charming retired couple. It transpired that they knew much about the Somerset Levels as the husband had written the definitive West Country guide in the 1950s. They told me that they were good friends of Mr Coate, senior, and knew all about his experiments in willow charcoal production. Apparently the trick was being able to stop the sticks curling during the burning process. Top quality artist’s charcoal is now an important part of Coates willow business.
On the same weekend in March I went to see Clare Wilkes’ Willow Cones at Stathe Bridge on the River Parrett Trail. These are four huge structures woven out of a variety willow rods with the uprights firmly rooted and sprouting nicely. There are withy beds in the near distance, pollarded willows along the hedgerows and Gadsby’s Withy Yard beside the bridge. Some of the coloured willow varieties that Clare used were unknown in the area (coloured varieties available from: Coppice Green Nursery, E F Watson, Brightlands, Brockley Way, Claverham, Bristol BS19 4PA tel: 01934 838017. Cuttings are 30p each). When I returned to the Hurdle Centre all of the ‘Working Willow’ participants were completing their pigs or geese.
Simone also joined one of Alexandra James’ courses on  Small Willow Sculptures at Ness Botanic Gardens in April. I spent much of the day collecting cuttings from the willow collection. Alex taught students how to make fish, bird and animal shapes from freshly gathered willow, building up a framework of hoops and balls. Alex’s relaxed and cheerful teaching method enabled participants to create some beautiful first-time sculptures. As with all of the meetings with other weavers it was good to swop stories, contacts and ideas, and also put faces to names.
A weekend trip to visit family in Hemel Hempstead also provided an opportunity to visit more willowy things. Lee Dalby had told us of the work at Surrey Docks Farm, Rotherhithe. We spent a nice afternoon there with Daphne Ferrigan who showed us the living willow chicken by Clare Wilkes and the amazing indoor installation by Lynn Kirkham. We talked willow and organic gardening all afternoon and were not surprised to discover that there was a living willow workshop at the farm on the same day as our similar workshop at a Permaculture garden in Lancaster. The return trip north was interrupted by a visit to the Stockwood Craft Museum, Luton to0 see the basket making display. A chat with museum staff confirmed that there are now no willow beds in Bedfordshire (local makers had grown much of their own material) but I was fascinated to hear of an elderly gentleman from Harpenden who had been a regular visitor to the museum and had cultivated cricket-bat willow. Sadly he died last year.
Because of the bank holiday traffic on the M1 we decided to travel north on the A1. Our route took us through the flooded home counties and we imagined the Nene Valley Willow Project under all that water. We did stop at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on the off chance that someone might have been doing something with willow. I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there had been a basket making workshop and a living willow workshop with Jim Buchanan the weekend before. Various willow constructions were planted around the site. One last stop was at Rawtenstall, Lancashire to see the sculpture created by Ian Hunter working with Rossendale Groundwork Trust. This is a huge living willow ‘tree of life’ of dome and tunnel construction which is now well grown. It was interesting to see how different parts had died off but were being replaced by new shoots. We decided to spend May day repairing and restoring my own willow structure at Canonbie, Scotland. This had been constructed as a community project several years ago. The tunnels had not been touched for 2 years so we had plenty of strong rods to weave into the gappy places.    
As we were working in the bright May sunshine, repairing the tunnel and collecting rods for a garden project, a man asked us what we were going to do with the willows. He then explained that his uncle from Egremont in West Cumbria had worked with willow. he had made ‘Cumbrian coracles’ from a willow framework covered in potato sacks which were then tarred. The coracles were tested on the farm pond and then sold throughout the country. Mr Haslap stopped making coracles in 1969.
It’s the way in which stories like this weave together with sunshine, rain and country living that makes willow working such an enjoyable, if not exactly profitable, way of life.
Steve Fuller teaches various basket and sculpture workshops and demonstrates at museums and countryside events. Contact 9 Weston Houses, Dove Nest Lane, Endmoor, Kendal, Cumbria LA8 0HA tel; 015395-67056.  

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