Woodlands Preservation, Craftspeople and New Markets (UK)

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Peter Bunyard

Tino Rawnsley is a great bodger.

If you go down to the woods, near Liskeard in Cornwall, you will meet Tino Rawnsley, a great bodger of our time.

from Resurgence issue 199

GONE ARE THE DAYS when a craftsman or woman could guarantee that he or she had a ready-made market. Cheap labour overseas, mass-production, multinationalism and globalization have put paid to modern societys need, if not desire, for hand-crafted products. If we want a brand-new wooden chair with a rush seat and we dont give a thought to the young Chinese hands working under nigh-slave conditions to gather and weave the rushes, we can have what we want for #50 or less. A chair made from local British hard-woods, elm, beech, ash and possibly oak, will cost four or five times that, and justifiably so, because that is the minimum a craftsman or woman will need to live.

Nonetheless, in a globalized world where the laws of comparative advantage are God, it is difficult to resist the temptation to go for a bargain, even though we know in our hearts that we are profiting from the cheap labour and raw materials of another country, while turning a blind eye to the environmental damage caused by long distance transportation and by the mass exploitation of a natural resource. Here lies the dilemma: we can choose to support the trade in cheap goods irrespective of the conditions under which they are produced; or we can choose to pay a premium to protect our own heritage of traditional skills and local crafts.

THAT IS WHERE craftsmen and women like Tino Rawnsley come in. They are the salt of the Earth. They add that ingredient of intelligent use which, with skill and commitment, enables them to fashion wood while encouraging the forest to grow up around them. Tino is a craftsman who can turn wood into a sleek boat that literally cuts its way through the waves, or make a longbow that would have done the yeoman who possessed it proud at the Battle of Agincourt.

He has now resurrected a mid-nineteenth-century high-backed Cornish Windsor chair, reproducing the one example in the High Wycombe chair museum with precisely the same mix of woods  sycamore for the seat, ash for the legs, spindles, bow, and elm for the arms  that served the original. Tinos chair, ordered by the Duchy of Cornwall, opens the possibility of a future collaboration between craftsmen in Cornwall and Devon and the managers of the Duchy woodland, covering some 1,000 hectares in Cornwall alone. Adding craft value to its timber would certainly be a departure from the Duchys current practice and would benefit the local economy.

In addition to making his living out of wood, Tino sees his mission as helping to bring back the woodlands that a couple of centuries ago provided tens of thousands of people throughout the length and breadth of the land with a way to sustain themselves and their families. Some twenty per cent of the population of England now lives in the countryside and according to trends the proportion is forecast to rise. It is a matter, as Tino puts it, of restoring life to the countryside, which in the current political climate is increasingly seen as an attractive playground for the urban masses.

WE CERTAINLY HAVE a thorny problem on our hands. By pitching ourselves headlong into the global economy and opening our doors to every kind of cheap import, whether food, silicon chips or timber, the countryside and the rural economy are getting a beating. In the present economic climate, unless prices are savagely cut and productivity bumped up, we simply cannot compete with overseas, and not least with some of our near continental neighbours. And were we to protect local prices in trying to shore up the local economy, that would be against world trade rules.

That is where the quality of the product and its attractiveness come into the picture. The market may be a specialist one, but if the consumer can be enticed to purchase products that are local in origin and have been fashioned locally, then that will serve, as nothing else will, to sustain rural living and consequently the local environment. Indeed, the challenge is to revive the good quality of the past so as to compete with the mass-production of the present, a return to many of the principles embodied in William Morriss social artisan revolution of a century ago.

In 1997 Tino returned to Cornwall from building, repairing and sailing classic boats. He had a small chunk of time on his hands and a small tongue of woodland jutting out from the River Ruthern, in a pleasant valley in the heart of Cornwall. The river itself, with its salmon, trout and increasingly the otter, is now recognized as an important component of Britains wildlife heritage, helped in no small way by the thin line of woods on both banks.

Years of neglect meant that the woodland wasnt good for much, but Tino believed he could get some hurdles out of it, perhaps a stool, and certainly some charcoal. Having built himself a shaving horse for paring down staves, and other ingenious tools, he was soon in production. On site steam-generation for bending, a pile of staves, a charcoal kiln  the woodland was coming back to life, at least from a human point of view. Most important, that brief experience gave Tino the courage and determination to make a living for himself in Cornwall, of which, part, at least, was to be from working in woodlands.

The timing could not have been better. The notion of sustainability, and particularly since the 1992 Rio Conference and Agenda 21, has been bandied around ever since at every level, from central government to rural development schemes. In the uk, reviving our woodlands fits well into the aims of Agenda 21, and certainly some strides have been made in setting up initiatives and support that can make possible what otherwise would remain frustrating dreams.

TO REALIZE TINOS dreams is virtually impossible without outside support, and it is precisely in that area that we are beginning to see results. In recent years a number of organizations with dedicated, inspired people have emerged with the sole task of supporting people like Tino. Silvanus Trust is one such organization; Working Woodlands is another; the Duchy of Cornwall is also getting in on the act, with Prince Charles himself having shown his enthusiasm for wood crafts at the 1999 Cornwall Agricultural Show. In 1997 the Forestry Commission launched its South West Forest initiative with the aim of giving farmers and landowners the opportunity to plant woodlands that in time would revitalize the local economy by providing a variety of jobs and local timber.

The South West Forest is to be located in a swathe of land between the three great stretches of Bodmin Moor, Exmoor and Dartmoor. The initial feasibility study aims at adding another 15,000 hectares to the current forest, so increasing the area of woodland by five per cent in a total area of 280,000 hectares. Landowners who wish to participate are being offered special supplementary grants over and above those normally available for planting trees and, as a result of negotiations to-date, 1,000 hectares have now been approved for planting.

The relationship between Tino Rawnsley and both the Silvanus Trust and Working Woodlands works two ways. Andrew, originally from Yorkshire, now receives a wage subsidy from the Trust to help Tino in his workshop. The apprenticeship is working well and Andrew is turning out to be an accomplished craftsman.

Tino, on the other hand, has been helping Silvanus put on special courses. As Lynsey Faulkner of the Trust points out, Tino is a dynamic craftsman who empowers people and especially children. He is brilliant at painting a picture in the head of what is going on in the woodland and bringing it all to life. Children especially find themselves absolutely fascinated.

In addition to its courses in woodland management, as well as in craft design and technology, Silvanus Trust tries to find placement for young people into woodland-related employment, and through grants helps to get small woodland-based industries off the ground. In 1998 Silvanus helped place ten trainees and a year later in 1999 some seven, all in the West Country.

IT IS ALL VERY WELL to make the product but it needed a market, and Simon Humphreys of Notterwood Designs in Liskeard, Cornwall, is one of those people with a broad enough vision to realize how to make the link between the growing trees and the final crafted product. Simon worked for many years as a forester in Wales and then, in 1983, worked for the Dartington Action Research Trust which was seeking to restore neglected woodlands. Restoration needed some justification and it did not take any great leap of the imagination to appreciate that if a market could be generated then the rest would follow. But how?

The opportunity for Simon Humphreys to turn thoughts into action came some three years ago with the help of the European Social Fund. At the time he was working for the Silvanus Trust and had contributed to the design and purpose of Working Woodlands. He was able to avail himself of a small grant to help him set up the shop, Notterwood Designs, which has been open since May 1999.

The conventional approach is for a craftsman or woman to seek out the raw materials to accomplish some pre-conceived design. Simon, although not exclusively, has turned all that on its head: instead he finds an attractive piece of timber and looks to see what design would best do justice to it. He then looks for the right craftsperson to do the job for him. Its a principle which is working well in the South West, where the timber may often be of lesser quality. But Simon has managed to turn many of those flaws into features, such as cat-paws of oak and elm, giving the finished product a distinctive quality all of its own.

Over the years, says Simon Humphreys, we have become increasingly remote from the raw materials that go to make up our world. I want to help regenerate those connections by creating a business that generates a demand for local wood, which in turn makes us look after local woodlands. And if we take care of the landscape because we are part of it, then that will benefit wildlife. In the meantime we will be producing products that people enjoy and which last. The slogan should be: grown here, made here, enjoyed here. 

To see Tino Rawnsleys chairs please visit Notterwood Designs at Liskeard in Cornwall.

Peter Bunyards new book, The Breakdown of Climate, is published by Floris Books at #9.99.

from Resurgence issue 199 - March / April 2000

-- Anonymous, April 21, 2000

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