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Exploring Traditional Britain, One Craft at a Time

On a trip through the Devon countryside, our writer gets an apprenticeship in metal forging, roof thatching and oak bark tanning.

Metal forging

Forging ahead at the Metal Pig Forge in Totnes.

Metal Forging

“Stand back! I’m trained to hit things with a hammer.” The metal on the anvil has glowed from lemon yellow to the flaming red of Richard Wood’s long hair and bushy sideburns. As he swings, sparks burst up around him. Despite his name, Wood is a man of steel and fire.

“Wood is a complete enigma to me,” he says, the words popping out between ringing blows. “All I can do is smash it up and burn it. What drew me to steel is that it isn’t what people think. They talk like it’s an immutable part of the world – linear, unaffected – when, really, it’s elastic. The strength is in its malleability, its forgiveness. It allows you to go back and try again.” To drive his words home, he purposefully blunts his point, holding up the spear he’s shaping, then stabbing it back into the embers of the forge. It is 1,300ºC in there. Within a minute, the steel is glowing starlight hot again.

Richard Wood in his metal shop

It’s hammer time for blacksmith Richard Wood.

My son has asked me to make him a sword, but according to Wood, that would take 30 hours. We’ve decided on a fancy-handled fire poker instead. “Back in the day,” says Wood, as I work to flatten the steel like he showed me, “the blacksmith was the heart of the community, creative and adaptable. He made the tools of building, of farming, of war, the tools to make his own tools. He was even the town dentist, with strength and tongs to pull your teeth.” I’ve come to South West England and, specifically, Devon to get my hands a little dirty – to learn about the old manual skills that shaped communities of medieval and modern Britain and that are still alive today, giving English style such a sense of place.

Wood, who supervises the Wood and Metal Workshop at Plymouth University, lives in a hidden hamlet, seven kilometres from Totnes and straight out of Middle-earth; the long, winding tunnel of trees I drove through from the hills was so thick, my car lost the radio signal. He lives in the old stone cider storehouse, and his shop is in the former stables. The small round forge he made out of a car wheel allows him to take the tools of his trade to workshops and lectures all over the Devon area. He is big on the creative renewability of found objects. “Damn it,” I say, my point disappearing with an errant blow.

Devon’s medieval villages

Devon’s medieval villages, like Drewsteignton, showcase traditional English craftsmanship.

“Into the forge,” says Wood, and I plunge it in. “Craft is not about getting it right. The value of failure is incalculable. That’s something they don’t teach you in school; if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” Wood, whose glowing intelligence shines through his eyes, knows about failure. Diagnosed with dyslexia in adulthood, he has always seen shapes instead of words. And now he’s a philosopher blacksmith who can speak just as eloquently about computer 3-D printing as blacksmithing history. “Hoe blades used to be actual currency in tribal Africa,” he tells me. “The work and care put in gave them usable value, and people travelled with them like coins.” I work on the handle of my son’s fire poker, bending and banging it into a curlicue. But then, in finishing the pointy end, I lose the point again, and back it goes, into the forge. At least I know I’m trying hard enough.

The forge

Steel yourself: The forge reaches a temperature of up to 1,300ºC at this school of hard knocks.

The Blacksmith’s Toolbox

The Old Persuader The heaviest of Richard Wood’s hammers weighs in at 1.4 kilos and “moves mountains,” according to its owner.

Stock What blacksmiths call the metal they work with. It used to be iron, but now it’s mostly steel, which is iron with carbon in it.

Coke The stuff burns slowly at incredibly high heat in the forge and is also what made the Industrial Revolution possible.

At J&FJ Baker, Roger Tucker trims hides

At J&FJ Baker, Roger Tucker trims hides.

Oak Bark Tanning

The next day, I’m in Colyton – a feudal town of cobblestones, iron gates and thatched roofs on the River Coly, which has powered what may be the longest-running tannery in the world. “This place predates collective memory,” Andrew Parr of J&FJ Baker tannery tells me, and the man is not prone to exaggeration. He is, in fact, so measured and humble, I’m slow to realize the depth of this place and process. Each part and person, producing about 60 finished hides a week, functions just as they have since Roman times.

To make a piece of hide leather craftsman-worthy requires 14 months of careful prepping, tanning and finishing. Sure, if you use chemicals – like most tanneries do – it can be done a lot quicker, but not without sacrificing the integrity of the fibres, which is what the best leather depends on. It is why the bespoke shoemakers and the most prestigious makers of bridles, saddles and handbags all come to Parr for their leather.

Inside, it’s as if M.C. Escher designed a movie set: Impossible ancient walkways connect rooms full of dangling hooks, dark oozing pits and an omnipresent odour. It is easy to be distracted by your own imagination here. And as noted by Parr – a tall, thin man with a scientific mind and warm manner – skin doesn’t have the forgiveness of steel. “Once it turns from hide to leather,” he says, “it can never change back. That is the alchemy of tanning.” The section we’re entering now, referred to as “the new tannery,” was built by Parr’s great-great-grandfather. New means something different in this part of the world. But Andrew Parr isn’t just a traditionalist; he’s a visionary. In the corner of this building is a machine that his staff are fussing over. With some prodding, I discover it’s a boiler, recently invented by Parr and a team of four to burn pellets made of waste from the hide scraping. Today happens to be the day they’re testing it out.

leather-to-be dries in the tannery.

Leather-to-be dries in the tannery.

The team also invented the machine that makes the pellets since the commercial ones couldn’t accommodate animal fat. Connecting the dots, I start to see that his rejection of chemicals isn’t just about making the best leather. He uses renewable coppice oak and then composts the bark after tanning. And between the ancient water wheel and this homemade boiler, he hopes to be generating 60 to 70 percent of his own energy, with almost no waste, within the next two years.

For people like Parr, as with Wood, building bridges to the future depends on the upkeep of those to the past. “This whole island used to be one big forest,” says Parr as we enter his office. “And I’m sure the hunters would have noticed: If you left a hide in a puddle near an oak tree, it would get stronger, more supple. That’s probably how tanning started, at least here in England.”

He heaves a large scroll onto his desk and slowly unrolls it. “This,” he says, “is genuine Russian leather.” There’s a tinge to his voice, like he’s showing me the Holy Grail, which in leather terms he sort of is. “It is the finest, strongest, most lightweight leather ever made, and for a long time it was lost to the world.” During the Russian Revolution, those who knew how to make it disappeared and so did the leather until a dive team found a stash on a sunken British ship off the coast of Devon. “Two hundred years on the ocean floor,” says Parr, patting the scroll. “Some still perfectly preserved.” He shows me the fine markings of willow, birch and oak bark in the leather’s grain, then pulls out another scroll and says, almost offhandedly, “I made this one.” With thanks to those Devon divers, a French leather historian and a Russian translator, Parr created the first new Russian leather in 100 years. And now he’s selling it to his most discerning clients.

I ask if he’s the only person in the world who is making this kind of leather. He pauses, then relents: “That would be a fair assumption.”

Buckets full of oils and greases.

Buckets full of oils and greases at J&FJ Baker tannery.

The Tanner’s Toolbox

Oak bark and cowhide Tannins exist on the skin of all plants, and those leached from oak bark happen to turn hide into usable leather.

The worker This long, sharp two-handled tool, used to scrape the last of the hair off the hide, is also known as a scudder.

Dubbin A mixture of animal fat and oil that treated hides are soaked in to make them supple and strong. Says Parr, “In nature, the greases that connect to fibres have to be from the same kind of animal – a part of the alchemy of leather.”

Slicker A hand tool used to stretch the leather out before it dries.

Charles Chalcraft, legget in hand.

Charles Chalcraft, legget in hand, ready to thatch.

Roof Thatching

On my third day in Devon, I am thatching a roof in the rain. Fortunately, it’s on the ground – the frame constructed by Charles Chalcraft is used as a teaching aid – and there’s another roof above us, so we’re keeping nice and dry.

The way thatch works, each raindrop is carried down from straw to straw, with only the exposed tips ever getting wet. The wetness (or rather the mycelium that grows in it) causes the straw to gradually break off from the exposed end. In Devon, where there is a lot of rain and a few thousand thatched roofs, they have to be replaced about once every 20 to 30 years by a craftsman like Chalcraft. From his family farm, with its golden wheat fields, picturesque pigsties and 1,000 chicken eggs a day, he runs weekend workshops on how to thatch, usually with a tour of the surrounding area thrown in. Over the hills in one direction are the ancient forests of Dartmoor National Park and in another direction is the youngest castle in Britain: Castle Drogo, the renovation of which is putting Dartmoor craftsmen to the test.

Chalcraft shows me how to tie a wad of wheat straw, then how to thatch a roof using combed wheat straw and make a sway of horizontal straw across the layer beneath, twist hazel into spars to clamp the straw down, then work on the new level, patting and angling the thatch with the open palm of my hand. I’m aiming for the Devon style, with its curved, rounded form. It’s like sculpting and hairdressing at the same time (neither of which I have ever done), and I find it oddly satisfying.

“People have been doing this forever,” says Chalcraft, echoing both Wood and Parr. “It is the oldest form of roofing.” But then he thinks for a moment. The rain is letting up, and he suggests we go for a drive. We wind through the hills, between ancient hedgerows and straight into a tiny medieval town, where fresh sunlight is glinting off roofs of golden straw. Our tour takes us through the ages of Devon thatch – from a 14th-century pub that Chalcraft was responsible for rethatching to a church house restored with the efforts of over 100 people. (The blackened interior of the roof dated the straw to a time before chimneys.) We then arrive at a hidden, muddied field, and there, in the middle of a bunch of sheep, is... really something. The air is completely still, and it feels like 5,000 years ago.

Thatched house

A thatched house in the village of South Tawton.

“Spinster’s Rock,” says Chalcraft. The name refers to a silly story about three wool spinners who had nothing to do, so spent a morning lifting the roof back onto this thing after it somehow fell down. But there is nothing frivolous about this structure. The roof is a massive slab of rock, supported by three equally giant stones, and would take 100 spinsters just to budge it. “It dates back to Stonehenge,” says Chalcraft. “This was the frame of something real.” We stand there, trying to imagine the walls, the shape, the Devon design before there was Devon. Later, in a thatched pub, over a pint of ale, I ask Chalcraft about the continuum of craftsmanship in this part of the world and what part the guild system played in keeping it alive. Chalcraft came to thatching through dairy farming, when the roof of his house began to leak. “I’ve had a few apprentices,” he says, “but when it starts to rain, not everyone sticks around. And as far as guilds go, do you know what the official term for a collection of thatchers is?”

I shake my head.

“A disagreement. Everyone does it differently, and that’s how it should be.”

I see his point. Blacksmiths were dentists and artists, and some are philosophers. Leather tanners were hunters and scientists, and some are ecologists. Thatchers were farmers, and some are still farmers – and also excellent tour guides.

The Thatcher’s Toolbox

Long straw The basic material of English roof thatching is wheat straw that has been threshed, so that the grain can be made into bread and beer. A British thatcher must also be familiar with water reed straw, a marsh reed used during wheat shortages.

Legget It looks like half a waffle iron on the end of a truncheon. It’s used to bat down and shape the straw.

Combed wheat straw eaves knife While many modern thatchers now use hedge trimmers, Charles Chalcraft still relies on this fierce-looking, ancient tool made by the Morris Foundry in nearby Dunsford.

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