Monday, 28 May 2012

'There is a willow grows aslant a brook...' by Sue Purkiss

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.

The most recent was this bear. I saw it first last summer, in a place called Ebbor Gorge. It was completely unexpected: walking through a clearing in the woods, there was a shadow in the corner of the eye. Turn your head - and there! Rearing up, magnificent - a bear! This spring, my grandson was staying. I told him we would go down to the woods today, and there would definitely be a big surprise. Sadly, however, the bear was only a remnant of his former self: only his metal skeleton, his head and his upraised paws were left. Oskar was still impressed, though, and so was I.

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.

And this reminded me of another sculpture Sophie made. I wrote a book a few years ago called The Willow Man. (Do buy it - it's still available!) The book was partly inspired by the huge Willow Man which stands beside the M5 near Bridgwater . The Willow Man was made by another willow weaver, Serena de la Hey, and it's wonderful, even in its current state, hemmed in by recent buildings.

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.

So now the trail has led to Serena. When I wrote The Willow Man, I went to see her in her workshop which was near Stoke St Gregory on the Levels. Not long after that, I was planning my next book, Warrior King, about Alfred the Great. I discovered that Athelney, where he hid in the marshes from the Vikings and possibly had a mishap with some cakes, was on the Levels - and only a stone's throw from Serena's studio.

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.


Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I've often driven past the Willow man but never visited the centre! You learn somthing new every day, don't you?

Penny Dolan said...

Enjoyed hearing more about the Somerset willows - and the Levels. Willow sculptures are wonderful when they fit the place. The wands often let enough light through to make it seem as if the animal has been sketched across the sky.

Recall your earlier post about the free-standing Willow Man eventually trapped among those dreadful box buildings so a pleasure to read more about this art - or craft?

frances thomas said...

And if you're in mid-Wales, there's the lovely Willow Globe theatre, an open air theatre surrounded by a ring of growing willow trees ; if it's ever warm enough for open air shows, they put on Shakespeare plays.

Moira Butterfield said...

Ebor Gorge is one of my favourite spots on the planet. Wish I'd seen the bear!

Joan Lennon said...

Willows rock! Thanks for posting!

Sue Purkiss said...

It's a great place, isn't it Moira? Not very big, but it's got everything - streams to be forded, a gorge to be climbed, caves to be explored, a fantastic viewing platform and an interesting history - I found out recently it was used as secret base during the war for a unit that would have been activated if the Germans had invaded.

Thanks, everyone!

Enid Richemont said...

Love this post, Sue. And it's very personal to us, because our daughter/son-in-law/grandchildren live in Cornwall, so we trog up and down the M5 quite a lot, and always look out for the dinosaur and the camels.

Paeony Lewis said...

Interesting, Sue. With so many willows, I wonder why Norfolk doesn't have willow sculptures?
I've always had a thing for willows that began with 'Andy Pandy and the Willow Tree' - I adored their picnic beneath the green shroud of the willow tree and the images have always stayed with me (more so than Andy Pandy!).

Sue Purkiss said...

I don't know why Norfolk doesn't have them, Paeony. Does it have a willow industry that makes other things? I'd never heard of it here till the Willow Man appeared in 2000, and then suddenly there were willow weavers leaping out from behind every tree!