Severely groggy, I awoke Friday morning grateful to have been able to secure my hotel room in Taunton for another night (on-line, for over $30 less than the 'discounted' rate I'd paid for it the night before). I'd planned to spend the afternoon at the Coates Wetlands and Willows center about 10 miles east in the village of Stoke St. Gregory (http://www.englishwillowbaskets.co.uk/). I walked to the bus station and was delighted to find a warm, sunny spring like day peppered with fast moving, cotton ball-like cumulus clouds.
The bus station was only a 10 minute walk and I learned that the next coach left in another half hour. I embraced the delay and headed towards a nearby cafe for a coffee. While the cafe I chose looked to be something of a national chain - 'Cafe Nero', what drew me to the space was the architecture of the structure and the patio seating outdoors. When I entered the establishment, I remembered that I was in England, and it's not uncommon to find modern businesses nested in centuries-old buildings. Later that day as I passed the building once again, I noticed the inscription atop the upper story - 1592 I believe. That means I drank coffee in a modern chain in a 420 year-old building.
The ebonized (blackened) timber frame inside the structure instantly drew me towards the indoor seating. Full of curved braces, stuccoed stone work, a cathedral ceiling and centuries-old character, I slowly enjoyed my caffeine fix before making my way back towards the station. In another 10 minutes, the bus arrived, and I, along with ten or so elderly women climbed aboard headed for town.
Within a half hour I'd arrived at the center. Interestingly enough, the front yard contained a mature black locust tree - the first I'd seen so far in the UK. Bounded by a beautiful willow wattle fence, I was soon engulfed within a willow craftsperson's dream. The impressively complete center featured a small historical museum exploring the history and culture of the Somerset Levels, a gift shop, a wicker furniture and willow craft museum, an informative video, an impressive gift shop, a guided tour of their processing and 'manufacturing' facility and a footpath traversing their willow beds, the River Tome, and the surrounding hills.
I examined many of the crafts for sale and took in the details of their construction and pricing. Wattle hurdles varied from about $45 for a 3' x 6' hurdle, on through $80 for 6' x 6'. They make and sell just about everything willow there - all sorts of baskets, kindling, artist's charcoal (one of the few commercial manufacturers in the world), coffins (yes, woven willow coffins) and sculptures. With over 40 full time year round employees and 80 plus acres of willow coppice in cultivation this is one of the largest (if not the largest) willow producers that still remain in the UK.
The Somerset Levels is a unique area in that throughout much of recent history it was actually a shallow extension of the sea. Bounded by north-south running upland hills, the levels themselves are often just a few feet above sea level and flood regularly. The name Somerset actually refers to the fact that these lowlands served as summer pastures as that was the time of year when they weren't inundated with water. It was in the Somerset levels that an archaeological discovery uncovered one of the earliest recorded examples of coppice management - woven wattle trackways that served to connect 'islands' of uplands between the soggy peatlands. Basically, early human communities had designed and built roadways constructed from hazel and oak to maintain dry passage. The regularity of the materials used and the sheer number of poles used to build these tracks, led archaeologists to believe that they must have developed very intensive forest management strategies by this point in history.
The peat base of this landscape had been covered by a layer of silty clay, deposited by the slow moving tidal sea water which made the landscape slow to drain and not particularly suitable for most agricultural crops. It did though make it perfect for willow cultivation and so this area came to become the largest willow producing region in the UK. Today, much of that legacy has disappeared as modern synthetic materials and the relatively high cost of labor have ousted wickerwork, but there are still some remnants of these traditional systems in place.
Willow coppice reflects on the the quickest returns on investment, producing a crop of rods that can be harvested one to two years after planting from cuttings. The spacings between individual stools vary from 1' by 1' to 2' by 18", amounting to between 18,000 and 38,000 clumps per acre. Historically, the spacings were closer because all of the work was done by hand. Today mechanical harvest and weed control require broader spacings to accommodate machinery.
Willow cuttings are planted before bud break, as the ground temperatures warm to about 5 C (40 F). They vary in length from 8-15" with about 4" left poking out above the soil surface. The larger the cutting the better - they are typically produced from last year's willow rods unused for weaving. Rods are generally harvested in the winter and left to dry in the open air. When reasonably dry, they are boiled to remove the tannins and soften the bark which is then removed. Historically, this was the work of the women and children with child labor needs supplanting their schooling when needed. During the Industrial Revolution, machinery was created that mechanized the process saving considerable time and labor We had an opportunity to see three types of bark stripping in action during our tour - traditional hand stripping, an early small-scale machine and a more modern, custom machine capable of processing immense qualities of boiled willow in a matter of hours.
The Coates factory once used a windmill to pump water up to their processing facility for boiling. Today they collect rainwater off the warehouse roof. After suspending 180 bundles of willow contained within a steel hopper about 3' x 3' x 12' for 9-10 hours, they rods are ready for stripping. While bark removal is not necessary to weave, it makes for a much more even weave, with smooth surfaces and a light appearance.
From the processing area, we looked at the weaving room where four weavers worked at impressive speeds making a range of different basket styles. In recent years, they have been receiving custom orders for historic artifacts for films like Robin Hood and a soon to be released Steven Spielberg film on World War I (for this they made wicker carriers for heavy munitions).
While their electric charcoal kilns are preserved as something of a secret, the quality of their artist's charcoal is quite impressive and their distribution has growth to reach markets around the world. Selling for 1.80 pound for a box of 30 small sticks, they've found an excellent high value product to complement their already extensive line. There's a lot of potential here for folks to experiment and tap into this high value product.
With the tour complete, I set off to explore the grounds and started off by examining some of their living willow sculptures - did I mention that they sell packages of willow cuttings with instructions on how to make different types of living fences, arbors, domes, etc? Another clever output from their coppice stand. Adjacent to the living sculpture garden stood two 200-300' long rows of willow rods drying in the sun. These rods had been stripped of their bark and were drying before they would be used to weave with. In the bright western light, the rods shined a dramatic golden-reddish color.
I headed down the hillside towards the 17 acre stand of two varieties of willow that were soon to be harvested for next season's materials. They lay along the bottomlands next to the levee which protected the moor from the River Tome's annual floods. The guided walk led me along the levee to the east and to the south I could see a landscape dotted with an old pollarded hedgerow. Within another 1/4 mile I recognized the spillway (a nearly imperceptible drop in levee height over several hundred feet) which controlled the water level in the river and directed high waters into the adjacent moorland so as not to overtop the levee banks and flood the village of Stoke St. Gregory. Another 100 feet or so downstream a concrete lined siphon redirected significant overflow water into the moorland to the north to add additional flood water storage in the event of significant inundation. The scale and scope of these engineering efforts are truly astounding.
I made my way back up the hillside where I earned sweeping views of the countryside and made my way back to the Coates property before heading towards the village of Stoke St. Gregory. It was another mile or two walk along the narrow road lined by old hedgerows on either side. A kind man slowed down as he passed and asked if I wanted a ride but I assured him that I was content making my way by foot. Upon arriving in the tiny village, I leaved it would be another 20 minutes before the next bus arrived and spent the time exploring my surroundings and eventually taking cover from the sharp westerly wind that had seemed to pick up as the sun dropped on the horizon. Soon enough, the bus arrived and I was on my way back to Taunton.
I arrived at the hotel, dropped off my things and warmed up for a bit (I'd set off that sunny morning in a t-shirt and lightweight rain coat. Foolishly, I hadn't accounted for the wind and late day drop in temperature.) Having not eaten since a snack that morning, I set back off towards town to sample the local fish and chips. When I stopped in at the 'chippy' announcing their 'traditional' fare and found a line 10 strong waiting for their meal, I knew I was in the right place. The serving was massive and I brought it back home to devour it and spend the evening catching up on communications, travel plans, writing and goals development for a farm consult back home. By 2am I was sound asleep after another very full day.