First of all, an apology: this post will be late, because I'd written on my calendar that it was due for tomorrow. And it's not the first time I've done that, either, so extra apologies...
In Somerset, willows don't grow, as in Hamlet, aslant brooks; they grow beside rhynes. A rhyne is a ditch which has been constructed to drain marshland; the marshland in question is the Somerset Levels. You may have seen pictures of them on the news a few weeks ago, when there was so much rain that even the rhynes couldn't cope, and fields were flooded at a time of year when they shouldn't have been.
Anyway, the willows. They are grown as a crop in these parts. The trees are regularly pollarded, so that young, whippy shoots are produced which can be woven into all sorts of things - baskets, furniture, garden structures - even coffins. There are also artists who use willow to create - what? It's difficult to know what to call them. Sculptures? But sculptures are made out of stone, or metal, aren't they? Living sculptures? But they're not really living, not once the willow's been cut, and dying sculptures doesn't sound very attractive. But they are dying, in a sense, from the moment they're finished; because the wood, pliable to begin with, grows brittle as it dries out and cracks and snaps, so the nature of the willow figure changes.
What started off this chain of thought was a horse. On the way from Cheddar to Wells is the house of Sophie Courtiour. Outside her house are, or were until recently, two horses woven by her from willow. Somerset is scattered with objects such as this, not necessarily made from willow: near Glastonbury there's a beautifully painted giraffe, beside the M5 there are two camels and a large dinosaur - you get used to seeing them, and nodding a polite hello or giving a cheery wave. A few weeks ago, though, one of the horses disappeared, and now his friend looks a little forlorn.
But last Friday, I went to a book group meeting at a friend's house. it was one of these gorgeous evenings, so we went outside into the garden - and there, looking at ease under the trees, was the missing horse! As I admired it, I realised that I could trace a network of links from this gorgeous creature, all coils and loops, gleaming in the evening sun.
A week or two later I was leafing through a local magazine in a coffee shop, and discovered that Sophie had made the bear too, with the help of local schoolchildren.
When the book came out, Ottakar's in Wells (now Waterstones) - did a wonderful window display, and they asked Sophie to do a willow sculpture as a centrepiece. She made a head and torso. The window looked gorgeous, and for about six weeks, The Willow Man was their best-selling book.
And finally, The Willows and Wetlands Centre, also near Stoke, makes and sells willow artefacts of all kinds, and you can go and see the willow plantations and find out how it's grown and about the history of the industry. It has a shop - which has sold a steady stream of my two willow-connected books.
So there we are. Willow, and the pattern it has woven for me. If you'r in the area - it's between Glastonbury and Taunton - the Centre is well worth a visit. Good cakes, too.