Weaving a tale of an interesting hobby

Left to right are basket maker Alan Winlow, new Morpeth Rotary Club President Peter Scott, Secretary John Pringle and Alan Clark.
Left to right are basket maker Alan Winlow, new Morpeth Rotary Club President Peter Scott, Secretary John Pringle and Alan Clark.

MORPETH ROTARY CLUB

Alan Winlow spent a lifetime in ceramic brick-making.

He started as an apprentice at Thrunton Brickworks near Rothbury, completed his studies at university, and went on to become a senior manager in international brick-making.

He pioneered new energy sources, using gas from waste sites, in an industry where energy is a major cost factor. Alan went on to study and develop this new approach on projects in the United States and in China.

Through his interest in renewables and recycling, he became passionate about basket making in Northumberland.

It started when he was managing a company asset in South Yorkshire. It was part of a scheme that used a quarry as a landfill site, charged waste disposal agencies for using it, then capped the site to use bacteria-generated methane gas for brick-making.

A 30-acre quarry containing 2.5 million tons of domestic waste was built up in layers and had an impervious cap on top. Of the 30 acres of new surface that was created, 27 acres were turned over to grass to become part of a dairy farm, but there were three acres left.

Alan had visited sites in the UK and Sweden where land had been used to generate a biomass product. Willow had been cut, dried and burned to power electric generators.

On investigation he found he could grow a number of varieties of willow. The plant had dramatic summer foliage and stem colours in winter. The bark contains salicylic acid, which can be used to make aspirin, and the stems can make baskets and sculptures.

When Alan retired, he returned to Rothbury and bought a house at Newtown.

He enrolled on a beginner’s basket weaving class at the local first school in 2006.

Some of the class went on to meet every two weeks at Wingates Village Hall in 2007. It went so well that they decided to set up a self-help group, with its own constitution, policy documents and a bank account. It met monthly and became a thriving social activity.

It was accepted as an organisation that could help the development of rural enterprise and secured a £10,000 grant from the New Life/Leader programme to take things further.

Members used £4,500 of the grant to set up a plot and to grow their own willow, instead of buying it.

They also began to run regular beginners and advanced classes, and to research the history of basket making in Northumberland.

Some of the funding was used to set up a website.

An early setback was the great snow of 2009/10 when the willow plot at Whitton was frozen until March 7, and they had to make use of the rest of the grant by the end of March.

They were growing 10,000 10ins cuttings of 30 varieties of willow, planted in well mulched ground.

In the first year each plant was expected to produce four to five rods, in the second year eight to ten, third year 13 to 15, fourth year 25 to 30, and by the seventh year 30 to 50. This would produce a total of 400,000 to one million rods each year.

By 2015 the willow plot was a major source of income, but in 2016 there was another setback when members received a sudden notice to quit as the land was needed.

Thankfully, a new site was found a mile away, although it was only half the size.

Agreement was reached in August to plant the new site in winter and the new start has given a chance to bring in new types of willow.

The site is south facing and is doing well.

Training has also gone well, with 42 beginners and 30 advanced learners trained over three years, plus six people trained as teachers. There are still hundreds of people interested in courses. Teachers are now able to earn a living from it.

Members have travelled overseas to look at methods and ideas in Sweden, Romania, Ireland and Denmark.

There are now basket making groups in Hepple, Etal, Lucker, Newtown near Hexham, and Bowden. A group of 20 is to start at North Shields this winter, and a group is expected to start in Durham.

There are regular beginners’ classes so it is easy for anyone to take the first steps.

Member Liz Balfour has been researching for ten years and has written the group’s first book, The Fishing Baskets of Northumbria, priced £4.50.

Information on the Northumbria Basketry Group has been featured on BBC Look North and Countryfile.

Basket making is a heritage craft that is very good for the environment.

Growing willow fixes carbon and takes it out of the atmosphere, and baskets are biodegradable. It helps to reverse the trend for everything to be plastic, leading to waste clogging up the sea and beaches and harming wildlife.

It is the tenth anniversary of the group this year and it is being celebrated with a travelling exhibition at five venues up to November. It has been to the Durham Dales, Rothbury and Hexham. It goes to Beamish shortly, and is at Berwick in November.

Alan offered some willow cuttings of different coloured stems to plant in November/December and five Rotary members volunteered to take part. He also offered a visit to the plot at Whittondean.

The final task of the audience was to guess the purpose of the round shaped basket Alan had on the table. It had been made by him to order as a basket for a curling stone.

Alan was thanked by Jeff Reynalds on behalf of the club and he will liaise with Alan on his welcome offers.