Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The people inside the Book of Forgotten Crafts part 1...

I bought a lovely new book recently called The Book of Forgotten Crafts...
The Book of Forgotten Crafts

The book profiles traditional craftspeople and their crafts, many of which are in danger of dying out because there are so few people left with the specialist skills needed for these crafts. Happily, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in traditional crafts (perhaps boosted by TV programmes such as Mastercrafts and Victorian Farm and the formation of organisations like the Heritage Crafts Association) and this book is just the thing if your interest has been piqued and you want to find out more.

Although The Book of Forgotten Crafts is beautifully laid out and designed, it's definitely not a 'style over substance' book. It's well written and an interesting read, with lovely big photographs of all the craftspeople working on their crafts. I can never help myself around craft books, especially if they feature textile crafts (which this one does), so I snapped it up when it was published in March this year.

When I started to flick through the pages, I realised that I recognised several of the craftspeople featured in the book and that I'd even been on courses run by some of them. So, I thought I'd do a blog post about three of the craftspeople that appear in the book to share what I know about them and their work.

Oak swill basket maker

First up is a very talented basket maker who lives just down the road from me at Nibthwaite, on the east side of Coniston Water. Owen Jones isn't just any basket maker, he's an oak swill basket maker. Oak swills originate from this specific part of south Cumbria (known as 'High Furness') and were used in the local bobbin mills and in agriculture (as well as for storing logs, clothes, babies and various other things around the home).

Because of my job (which involves going to a lot of shows) I see Owen for a chat when he's weaving his baskets at shows up and down the county more often than I bump into him at our local shops in Ulverston :)

Here is Owen weaving away in a fetching hat at the 2009 Westmorland Show...
Owen making a swill basket

In 2008 me and Ade went on one of the many swill basket weaving courses that Owen runs throughout the year. This course was held at Owen's house, which meant we could bike over there each day :)

This is Owen's lovely workshop during the course (deserted while everyone has lunch)...
Owen's workshop

The main thing that we learnt over the course of the three days is that making oak swill baskets is surprisingly complex and very hard work! The baskets have a sleek and simple look to them but they're made from several different components (all with their own name), which have to be individually made to a specific shape.

Here's Ade, 'taw' in hand as he weaves a strip of oak back and forth over the basket...
Ade weaving his basket

The weaving has to be done while the strips of wood are wet, because they're easier to work that way. Here's my damp and partially woven basket...
My damp basket on the floor

As well as the weaving itself, there is also all the boiling up of the wood to consider, the riving (carefully splitting and tearing thin strips of wood along the grain) and the steaming and bending of the hazel bowl rim... not to mention the task of managing the woodland and coppicing the wood for the basket in the first place!

The end result is worth the effort though. I'm very proud of my completed basket...
My finished basket

And Ade was pleased with his too!
Pleased basket weaver

Even though we've done the course (which was lots of fun), neither of us would be able to make another swill basket unaided. The best way to really learn is to become an apprentice, working side-by-side with an experienced 'swiller' for several years, as Owen did when he learnt to make swill baskets.

If you'd like to meet Owen and see him weaving, check out the list of fairs and events on his website. He's not limited to Cumbrian shows and gets about all over the UK, so he might be visiting somewhere near you - track him down and have a natter, he's really friendly!

If you fancy trying your hand at swill basket making, or would like to buy one of Owen's finished baskets (which come in more than one design), have a look at Owen's website to find out more.

So that's part 1 of 'the people inside The Book of Forgotten Crafts'. Keep an eye out for parts 2 and 3, which will be coming soon! :)

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Back in time at Auchindrain township...

On our way back home from a recent holiday on Islay, we realised that we'd be driving right past Auchindrain township, so we made time to nip in for a look around.

I'd already had a folk museum fix while on Islay but I wasn't going to let that stop me from having another! Auchindrain isn't quite a folk museum though, it's the last remaining example of a Highland farm township, where a group of families worked the land in common. There are buildings from different eras, including houses, barns, cartsheds and stables and some of them are set up inside as they would have been in their heyday, with furniture from the appropriate period.

Many of the buildings were homes and barns all in one, with the animals living under the same roof as the humans. The MacCallum's longhouse, which was lived in until 1954, had the living area at one end of the building, a dairy in the middle and the cattle housed in a byre at the far end...
MacCallum's House 3

The byre seemed very well organised, with a special system of posts and pegs (thought to be unique to Auchindrain) to tether horned cattle...
Cow tethering area in the byre

I liked the patterns of the cobbled floors in the byres...
Cobbles in the horse stall

In one of the living areas I spotted a great wheel (as in 'great wheel' is the type of wheel it was, it's not just that I thought it was great...)
Great wheel

And a lovely treadle sewing machine all set up ready to sew...
Close up sewing machine

There was also a handy trout bag hanging from the rafters...
Trout bag

Although the windows were quite small, the light that came in was lovely...
Sink view 2

Desk and chair by a window

Some of the homes were much poorer, having only one room. The Cottar's house is built in a very rough and ready style compared to the other buildings and was lived in by landless labourers, who worked on the township's land in return for a home like this one...
The Cottar's House

The unusual thatched roof is made from bracken...
Detail of Cottar's House thatch

The inside structure is very rustic looking...
Cottar's House structural detail

Another building for poorer members of the community is Bell Pol's house...
Bell Pol's House 1

This house is named after the last resident, who was called Bell Pol (Gaelic for 'muddy Isabella'). She worked in the lead mines and returned to Auchindrain single and penniless in her old age. She was looked after and provided for until her death in 1913.

Inside Bell Pol's house...
Inside Bell Pol's House

Although she didn't have much, I was quite envious of Bell Pol's horn spoon collection...
Bell Pol's lamp and horn spoon collection

So much so that I couldn't help myself when we got back to the visitors centre shop and I had to buy a lovely handmade natural horn spoon to take home with me...
My horn spoon

If you'd like to see more pictures of Auchindrain, check out my full set of photos on Flickr here :)

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Obscure leather items in the Museum of Islay Life...

I love a good folk or rural history museum (Ryedale Folk Museum being the best I've visited so far), so I was pleased to discover that Islay had a museum when we visited the island recently.

In a rare moment of good timing, the Museum of Islay Life turned out to be open on the day we visited Port Charlotte...
Museum of Islay life

It's only a small museum, but perfectly formed and there is a board outside advertising its various attractions...
Museum of Islay life sign
Mmm... old photographs :)

Personally, I think they'd be better off listing some of their more random exhibits to draw in the crowds.

Who could resist the lure of 'equine carpet slippers'?
Equine carpet slippers 1

Or the quite grotesque but highly polished 'cow's hoof pin cushion'?!
Cow's hoof pin cushion

By far the most intriguing object for me (bearing in mind that I have quite obscure interests) was the 'sheep's wellie'...
Sheep's wellie

What is it?! What's it for? Which part of the sheep's anatomy does it get fastened to? There was only one, compared to the set of four equine carpet slippers. Does that mean that three have gone missing or is one the most you ever need? No amount of Googling is helping me to get to the bottom of the 'sheep's wellie' mystery...

More conventional exhibits included a rather flash Victorian child's toy cooker...
Toy Victorian cooker

Some vintage Islay milk bottles...
Islay milk bottles

And the promised illicit still...
Illicit still

Which Ade was keen to get a close look at...
Ade checks out the illicit still

One of the 'old photographs' showed what me and Ade could look like in several years time. Sitting either side of the fireplace, him with his tangled grey beard and hat, me busy at the spinning wheel with skeins of yarn hanging from the rafters to dry/lightly smoke...
Me and Ade

All in all, well worth a look in if you're ever in Port Charlotte with an hour to spare and an urge to inspect mysterious sheep accessories! :)

Friday, 20 May 2011

Beaches and birds on Islay...

Although I've already blogged about our whisky adventures on Islay, our main reasons for going were more to do with beaches and wildlife than alcohol.

Islay has some stunning beaches, like the Machir Bay in the north west corner of the island, near Kilchoman...
Machir Bay 1

Which I can report has excellent sand for drawing flying stick horses...
Flying beach horse
:)

And was also wide enough for the first outing of Ade's Aerobie disc (which I am completely rubbish at throwing, resulting in lots of sand going in my face!)...
First Aerobie

There are more beaches further round to the east at Sanaigmore Bay, where I was mesmerised by the waves for ages...
Wave crash 1

Waves at Sanaigmore Bay

And we found an extra added cove nearby that we didn't have time to explore properly...
Hidden cove at Sanaigmore Bay

The Singing Sands near Port Ellen were lovely but not singing on the day we visited. We found a ruined church-like building at the end of this beach so Ade climbed in to practice his preaching gestures...
Ade gestures at the window 2

Ade gestures at the window 1

Down to the south of the island is the Mull of Oa, a bleak kind of place, particularly on the kind of drab day it was when we visited. It's still spectacular though. It's an RSPB nature reserve and there is a nice trail to follow along the edge of the cliffs...
Oa trail

We saw a golden eagle floating about up there, as well as chough, which are the rarest crows in Britain and very lovely when you get a good look at them. Their plumage is blue-black and they have bright red legs and a downward curving red beak. We call them the 'ladies crow' because they look so elegant. I don't think anyone else calls them that, we're just a bit strange... :)

There were lots of wild goats grazing the seaweed down on the beach too! We couldn't get down to look at them closely, which is probably just as well because I've heard that the locals say you can usually smell the goats before you see them!

There's a huge American monument on the Oa...
Man and monument 2

And a place to sit that feels like the very tip of the island, with nothing but ocean in front of you (it also feels a bit hairy when the wind is gusting!)...
On the Mull of Oa

We decided to go on a guided walk around the other large RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart. Although a corncrake had been singing on the morning we went, it was all quiet by the time we got there. We didn't see much else but its a lovely reserve and it was just nice to wander around and learn about the wildlife you can see there.

We were really hoping to see an otter at some point on Islay but they eluded us again (as they always seem to). Oh well, at least it's an excuse to have another trip there! :)

Whisky-tastic times on Islay...

We visited Islay recently (a really lovely island off the west coast of Scotland), which is home to eight different whisky distilleries. Although we went for the wildlife and the beaches more than the whisky, Ade was keen to sample some of the different malts on offer and got stuck straight into his first dram of Kilchoman on the ferry journey from the mainland...
Ade swigs Kilchoman on the ferry

We weren't bothered for trawling around all the distilleries but it seemed rude not to visit the one that was nearest to where we stayed, so we called in at Ardbeg one morning and went on a distillery tour.

We saw all the usual stuff like wooden wash backs (it smelt of delicious fruit cakes in the wash back room)...
Wash back number 6 at Ardbeg

And shiny copper stills...
Ardbeg stills

And at the end of the tour we were invited into the bottle-lined chairman's study for a taste of Ardbeg whisky...
Chairman's Study door

Inside the Chariman's Study at Ardbeg 1

Inside the Chariman's Study at Ardbeg 2

We tried a super-peaty expression (can't remember its name but it made my nose hurt when I tried some) and the less peaty, sweet tasting Blasda, which was really nice.

Then we were all left alone in the room while our guide went out to help in the cafe (which was very busy and served delicious looking food) and everyone took the opportunity to try a bit more whisky and discuss the possibility of cracking into some of the Ardbeg archive bottles on the shelves, some of which are the only remaining ones in existence! But then our guide came back and chased everyone back out into the distillery shop :)

In the shop there were shelves filled with the different expressions of Ardbeg whisky...
Boxes of Ardbeg in the shop

And a nice display of the bottles, including the Blasda we tried (a bottle of which came home with Ade)...
Bottle of Blasda

I know its not as important as the whisky itself, but I really liked the Celtic stylings of the Ardbeg 'brand'. The distillery colour is a lovely seaweed green called smoked kelp (seen on the chairman's study door above) and it crops up all around the distillery buildings and in some of the merchandise. like the shot glasses below...
Ardbeg shot glasses

The Ardbeg font is also really appealing, especially when its fashioned from metal, like on this stair rail...
Ardbeg stairs

Yup, I'm a bit of a colour and font geek :)

One other appealing thing about Ardbeg is the distillery dog, Shortie. He's a very handsome looking Jack Russel and although we didn't see him in person, there were Shortie-related things dotted around the distillery, such as this amazing (and huge) painting of him wearing a crown, which was hung in the cafe...
Painting of Shortie

And the lovely open and closed signs on the door!
Shortie closed sign

Although I'm not a huge whisky fan, I find the whole history of whisky and the differences between the distilleries really interesting. When we got home I started reading Peat Smoke and Spirit - A Portrait of Islay and its Whiskies, which is a really interesting book even if you're not into whisky. Its all about the history of Islay and I've learnt all kinds of random facts while I've been reading it.

In slightly more anoraky territory, I also got quite into the Malt Whisky Yearbook, to the point where we had to invest in the 2011 edition so I could geek out reading about 'the facts, the people, the news and the stories' in the world of malt whisky!

The yearbook is probably too nerdy for most people but I'd definitely recommend Peat Smoke and Spirit if you like a good read about history and/or islands. And a visit to Ardbeg is well worth it if you're ever on Islay :)