Monday, 27 April 2009

The Times article on rural crafts

This excellent article was published in the Times on Saturday

Gardeners turning to the rural craftsmen to sweep away gloom

by Valerie Elliott, Countryside Editor

The worst recession in 60 years might have hit the City hard, but the world of traditional country crafts is enjoying something of a boom.

Across Britain craftsmen who have been honing their skills without fanfare for years have experienced a sudden demand from people keen to hark back to bygone days.

A new awareness seems to be developing of the need to protect the environment, buy local and support traditional tradesmen, who make quality goods that are built to last.

Among the beneficiaries are John Rudd, 70, and his son, Graeme, 38, the last commercial rake makers in Britain. They have barely noticed the economic downturn and make up to 1,000 rakes a month at their workshop in Dufton, near Appleby, Cumbria, where four generations of the family have carried on the craft since 1890.

A hay rake made by them should last at least 30 years. Some rakes are still used for haymaking but most are used for collecting garden cuttings or sweeping gravel on drives and paths.

Mr Rudd senior, who has been making rakes for 54 years, is thrilled that he has seen off modern competition, though times were tough in the 1970s, when rakes were mass produced in aluminium and plastic.

He said: “We are lucky because golf clubs like them to clear bunkers and they are used for the sand on athletics tracks. Lots of people have bought them this year because of the snow. We just keep going and we are the only people producing them. We sell through wholesalers and they go to ironmongers and agricultural merchants, where they sell for about £20.”

Little has changed since Mr Rudd made his first hay rake as a six-year-old boy. Even the design with 16 teeth is the same. The fashion for allotments is also helping Kevin Skinner, 57, from Hailsham, East Sussex, who is inundated with orders for garden trugs.

“I have not been affected by the downturn. Gardeners could just use a plastic tray for weeding but trugs are something people adore. I am making 50 a week. People are also buying them for picking fruit and vegetables, collecting eggs and laying flowers. I have even sold them to pubs and restaurants to store napkins or cutlery.”

The past three months has also lifted demand for traditional brooms, or besoms. Mark Cottrell, one of the last traditional makers, who runs Oakwood Sawmills, near Reading, said: “I have done so well since Christmas I have sold right out of stock.

“I have hardly noticed the recession. There is definitely a trend for an original broom. It’s nothing to do with the Harry Potter effect. People just want the real thing to sweep up leaves. With all the interest in growing vegetables, the other side of my business has gone ballistic. I have never sold so many bean pods and pea sticks.”

Scythes are even fast replacing strimmers. There is no traditional scythe- maker left in Britain, but they are becoming so popular that Simon Fairlie, of South Petherton, Somerset, is importing them from Austria. “Scythes are cheaper than strimmers. With global warming, people are trying to cut down use of fossil fuels. Strimmers make a lot of noise and break down a lot. If everyone owned a scythe we’d get much quieter Sunday afternoons.”

Meanwhile, the decline in the use of plastic bags is driving sales of willow baskets at P H Coate & Son, of Stoke St Gregory, near Taunton. The company, which started in 1819, is based in the Somerset levels, which provides ideal conditions for growing willow.

Jonathan Coate, a director, said: “Business is very upbeat, especially for the wicker shopping trolley on wheels. People are going off the plastic ones and we think more people are shopping locally instead of using the car. We are noticing that people don’t mind paying a little extra for something grown and made in the UK.”

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