It all started about 6 years ago when I packed in my job as a Chemical Engineer to do something worthwhile. I got involved in ‘conservation volunteering’. In exchange for bed, board and an opportunity to learn, I hoped that, as well as crop and livestock work I would be able to learn traditional skills such as hurdle making, hedge laying and country woodwork. The next few years took me up and down the UK and France from Ullapool to the Pyrenees, herding sheep, making cheese and growing veggies, but failing to find the rural craftsmen I sought.
Things started to look up when I arrived one cold November evening at Wadebridge and met Tino Rawnsley. Two months, several bottles of wine and a Christmas later I left, having been involved in a range of activities from shaving green chair parts to sawmilling and carpentry. We had discussed the subject of apprenticeships and training during my stay and I was enthused to work with other makers.
Next I spent three weeks living in Clissett Wood in Herefordshire, helping Mike Abbott run his green woodworking courses. All the time people were asking questions and taking reassurance from my responses while I kept thinking, “But I’ve only ever made one chair before…” Anyway, they all turned out well and I learned a lot from seeing over a dozen designs being made, talking with Mike, his assistant Phil, the students and from simply being in the woods.
Tino, Mike Abbott and Ben Law, seem to be part of a small number of craftsmen actively organising themselves to pass on their knowledge. Between the three of them there is an unofficial system of exchanging keen newcomers to learn from their different set-ups. I proposed that this be expanded into a network of makers interested to host a student. They would be free to decide who they accepted and when – with no obligation to continue an unbeneficial situation. The length of time involved would vary according to circumstance, initially short but possibly expanding into a full apprenticeship. This would allow young makers to see different solutions to common problems and learn crafts that may not be part of a regular training course. Apprentices would also act as links between those involved – bringing with them techniques, inspiration and news from other areas.
I applied to Woodland Heritage, on the advice of Tino and Mike, to obtain funding for a set of special woodworking tools, and was amazed at their prompt and encouraging response. These craftsmen-made tools will last a lifetime and are deeply treasured.
At the moment, I’m based in Devon, working parttime at a small sawmill, in forestry and with a new woodland craft centre, The Upcott Project. This leaves me free time to develop my designs and experiment with techniques for making mainly chairs and carved bowls and spoons to sell locally. I’ve been fortunate so far to work with two very different but equally inspiring craftsmen and the support from Woodland Heritage was crucial. Thank you.
c/o Lower Upcott Farm, Hatherleigh, Devon
“ Dear Steve,
Mike Abbott (left) helps Steve split a green oak billet.