As part of my Jewel-Withy project I am running a series of collaborative intergenerational live projects. The first began in June with Cornwall College media and photography staff and their students! They were tasked to begin a collection of films and photography to document the critically endangered craft and heritage of Withy pot making and I couldn't have asked for a better experience! (Just a little warning, I do mention the weather quite alot! Hehe).
We visited 6 different locations in the South West of England. The first was the Lizard, Cornwall where we met with active Withy pot maker Nigel Legge, who's pots have been seen on television in popular programmes such as Poldark!
One of the first things I noticed when we entered his workshop was the beautiful scent of willow! (I wish I could share this with you somehow!). This was because Nigel was in the process of making a pot he had kindly agreed to demonstrate for us to film. He had said he was working on an order to make a collection of pots to be used as props for t.v.! So keep your eyes peeled!
As he was doing this he also discussed the craft and his heritage whilst some of the team were outside on probably one of the sunniest days photographing tools and pots! Probably not the best conditions for taking photos, but I guess it's better than rain.
Once we were almost done Nigel surprised us all with a live lobster!
Day 2 of filming was in the beautiful cove my children's grandad was from, Penberth!
We met with his sister Kathi and retired Withy pot maker Robert George to hear their stories accompanied by family photos and had a guided tour of the cove.
One of Nigel's pots left behind from what's thought to have been a Poldark set, can still be seen near the water!
..and we also learnt that the Robert George's pot we were photographing was made for Penberth Plants to display at the Chelsea Flower Show and they won gold! Yippee!
Day 3 we visited active Withy pot maker David French in his home town of Budleigh Salterton. The weather was looking a little soggy on the way up there! but luck was on our side, it stayed dry and didn't get too hot and sunny either, which David was particularly thankful for! Otherwise his willow could have dried out too quickly! So the right kind of clouds were about on the day :D
He chose to make his pot in the same spot his family had been making them throughout the generations and his uncle who had taught him the craft, was also there!
David had a few people stop to watch and have a little chat, two people stayed from start to finish. This was a father and daughter who travelled there especially to see the pot being made and when it was finished her father gifted it to her for her birthday!
Day 4 we ventured not so far from home, to the cornish village of Porthleven. We arrived at basket maker Geraldine Jones' Salt Cellar Studio and met with Tom Chambers and his father 91 year old George Chambers.
This was the first time I have seen Tamarisk being used to make part of a pot, they use this material for the base as it is very strong and can withstand the rough and tumble it recieves when it's doing its job in the sea. They have had rights to gather Tamarisk from locations in Cornwall for generations and even used to source their willow from the village I live in, Ashton.
Tom demonstrated how to make various sections of their style of pot and George who only makes one pot a year now, got up and made a bit too! We learnt so much and loved hearing their knowledge and stories.
Tom and George had sourced their willow for our visit from Geraldine and we were kindly invited to visit her garden where we captured lots of lovely shots of the trees. She shared a very clever piece of music created by PlantsUtopia for a project called Sounds of the Plants. They capture sounds created from the plants using very sensitive microphones! It's amazing! I will try and figure out how to share a piece of this with you very soon! For now though if you are on Facebook check out @soundsoftheplants
We also managed to sneak in a trip to Cadgwith Cove, where we visited Nigel Legge's artist studio and boat! What a beautiful place to work!
Day 5 we were in Hope Cove where we saw active Withy pot maker Sue Morgan and her husband David Morgan who is a local fisherman. Sue demonstrated and discussed the Hope Cove style of pot which has a beautiful plaited base and David showed us his collection of pots which demonstrate really well how the pot has evolved over time.
Day 6 we were in Helford, Cornwall and met with Rob Edlin who took up the craft fairly recently on the side of his job in I.T. He has a very strong interest in sustainable living and regularly forages with his wife, most recently for mushrooms, which is something I would love to try, but I'm very likely to pick the wrong sort!
Anyway back onto the subject of Withy pots...he was taught the craft by local makers and has built up good relationships with the local fishing community, including Nigel Legge. He eats his catch and is always looking for ways to make his hobby as kind to the environment as possible, including introducing natural rope and glass floats. He highly recommends anyone interested to give it a try!
A fellow fisherman took some of the college team and myself out on his boat whilst Rob went out on his with the drone man! If you look closely at the first photo you might see him hiding :D
He pulled up his pot and to his delight it wasn't empty! Not a bad way to end the trip eh! Oh and the sun was shining too! Happy days :)
We are now in the process of editing the films and photography and planning the next live projects! I am also creating a collection of jewellery in response to this research and will be sharing any updates via my blog and social media :) so please keep an eye out!
Thanks to everyone involved and thanks also for reading my blog, I hope you enjoyed it.
Updated: May 24, 2021
A really important element I want to capture in the film is a strong sense of the Withy pot crafts heritage and community spirit by adding a splash of nostalgia! So we began by looking at old photographs with Kathi Jones, who is the daughter of my partners late grandfather, Withy pot maker Tommy Thomas.
A photo that really caught my eye was one of Kathi as a young girl playing with a banana box as a cooker and her father Tommy on the left who we believe was preparing withies or wires, which they appeared to sometimes use to make their Withy pots.
Working as a fishermen in the Cove was more than just a job, it was a lifestyle choice! They lived and breathed fishing and it formed a large part in every member of the family's lives.
Kathi can remember having to keep quiet when listening to the shipping forecast and seeing the tide times on the wall which were not only important for the fishermens plans but also plans for Kathi to go swimming!
As mentioned in a previous blog, fishing was not the only source of income for the family, some also worked with flowers! This was mainly due to fishing not being all year round.
Above is a picture from a newspaper article which talks about the Thomas families work with violets. Pictured is Tommy Thomas' son Kenny, my children's grandfather and Mary Thomas (a friend of the family who was employed from a near by village called St. Buryan).
Now Kenny was known not to be the biggest fan of picking flowers, he much preferred to be out at sea! but Violets did create one third of their income, so needs must! I don't blame him really, I bet their backs hurt after a while and he did have very long legs!
When the violets were picked they were bunched together on a large table that dominated a room at Kathi's home. Kathi who will have been less than 10 can remember occassionally trying to help with bunching, but not picking as she was afraid of frogs leaping out from beneath the flowers! ... She can also remember ivy being added if the leaves were small, violets being laid down on an oil cloth, tea, cigarette smoke and Apollo splashdown on the radio which Kenny wedged on top of a pelmet to get signal!
Between 14 and 16 violets were bunched together and held with a rubber band, then kept in water over night. In the morning Tommy and Audrey (Kathi's mum) then placed them inside cardboard boxes with wooden dowels in time for the bus which took the flowers to Penzance Station to be transported to Covent Garden, London!
There were other flowers being grown in the Cove, including a variety of daffodil called Penver, which I plan to discuss with a resident of the Cove called Sarah Batten-Rowe, who runs Penberth Plants www.penberthplants.co.uk/
Residents didn't venture far from the Cove, Kathi can remember her father saying he's going down the City for a walk! Which actually meant to the Cove. The reason for this was they rarely needed to as they had most things there and the community worked together! There were also travelling butchers and green grocers.
A great example of this community spirit can be found in the photo above. It was taken by now retired Withy pot maker Robert George (who we were meeting later) and pictured was Tommy Thomas and his son Kenny Thomas being towed by another local fisherman called Barry Batten, Sarah Batten-Rowes dad. If you look closely you can see Tommy laughing and Kathi says she can imagine him saying something like "Getaway with you!... typical to take a picture of me being towed!" Robert is said to have sent it to him in the post just to rub it in some more Hehe.
A family called the Favell's acquired a large part of land and buildings in Penberth just after WW1 which were in great disrepair. They brought with them work for the communty, including builders, tradesmen, maids and gardeners.
It was almost time to venture out to have a tour of the Cove! Kathi showed me an old photo of Penberth and I couldn't help but notice the large amount of Withy pots scattered about!
They remind me of little barnacles.
Pots usually only lasted one season and once there was no longer any use for them they were often left discarded and naturally broke down, unlike the modern pots you find washed up on the beach made from plastic and tyres these days!
Right then time to go down the city for a walk with Kathi and Sarah's mum Penny, who also lives in the Cove.
I noticed not all that much had changed, apart from the sight of modern pots instead of Withy pots. This was where we met Robert.
I did spot one Withy pot though and Robert told us this was one of Nigel Legge's, a Withy pot maker who is based in the Lizard! I have heard that Nigel has been commissioned to make pots for film sets before, so maybe this was left after filming Poldark!?....I will have to do some investigating, but I think that's a post for another day.
Standing with your back to the sea, lies the remains of an area that Withy pots were once made. Today some of the community still work together to keep the cove looking beautiful, along with the National Trust. So far though, areas such as this, which are overgrown and/or covered in garden waste have been left alone. They are however an area of importance to the community and it's heritage which they believe should be protected in some way!
We headed up a coast path where more pot stand locations could be found (a tool used to make Withy pots).
Kathi showed us her dad's old spot.
Here is a picture of him using his pot stand in this location in the late 1960s.
Robert also showed us his old spot and discovered his pot stand in amongst the plants. He used to work with Richard Mathews, another fisherman who still lives in the Cove. Robert would make the top half and Richard would make the bottom.
He explained that he stopped making Withy pots in the 70s, then went on to use more modern pots which he described as French barells.
Here is a picture of Barry Batten in the 70s with some modern pots.
Heading down the path we walked past another old pot stand spot....I wonder who it belonged to?
As we came to the end of the path, through the trees you could see a bright red phone box. Kathi told me this was used as their home telephone and the house opposite was where they lived when she was growing up. She can remember her brother Kenny avoiding calls from a certain girl he was seeing and popping stones under the phone so that it appeared engaged...but frustratingly the neighbour who lived directly next to it, who used to keep the phone box tidy, always moved the stone!
.....whenever I see a red telephone box now I will remember that story!
Above is a picture of Kathi and Kenny's home.
The tour was now over and it was almost time to go home. My partner and our two young boys excitedly told me how much fun they had had! They fed chickens, played by the water around the boats and crossed the stepping stones in the river! Our eldest even had an accidental dip in the water!
This trip to Penberth has confirmed to me how important sharing stories of your families past is and also the importance of making new memories to add to the same story. This helps prevent previous chapters from being broken or forgotten and allows the story to continue to be written.
I hope that my children will have a strong understanding of where their family is from and who they were, so that they can begin life with an understanding of who they are and have the gift of having a sense of belonging.
Withy pots were not only made to capture lobsters and crabs, but they also hold a treasure trove of stories which are waiting to be discovered! I can't wait to share more of these with you.
Thanks for reading :)
Book- The Favells of Penberth