Discovering wonders of willow

Alan Winlow shows Morpeth Rotary Club members around the Northumbria Basketry Groups willow patch at Whittondean Farm, near Rothbury.
Alan Winlow shows Morpeth Rotary Club members around the Northumbria Basketry Groups willow patch at Whittondean Farm, near Rothbury.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Following a talk to Rotary by Alan Winlow of the Northumbria Basketry Group, about a dozen Rotarians and friends took up an invitation to visit a newly created willow patch just south of Rothbury, at Whittondean Farm.

The basketry group started at Wingates Village Hall ten years ago and quickly grew in numbers. It is now a great social and economic success, with a number of people able to make a living from it.

It had been difficult to find suppliers of the willow wands members need, but eight years ago they got funding to provide their own willow plot, tools, advanced training, to carry out research and set up a website.

The first plot was in Whitton, where in March 2010, they planted 10,000 cuttings of 30 varieties. Productivity increased every year up to 2015, by which time it had become an important source of income.

It was something of a shock when the landowner asked for the land back in 2016. Thankfully, she agreed to allow the group to harvest in late October before it moved to Whittondean.

The plot is 15m x 60m, carved out of rough sheep pasture in the Simonside Hills. Thousands of cuttings have been transferred, new systems set up and new varieties added. Growth has been so successful that the path is only accessible to the slimmest visitors.

Willow wands will be harvested of various colours and lengths, which can be woven into decorative baskets.

Cuttings are grown through small holes in mulch matting, but some have had bark damage because of movement caused by the wind. Some varieties are prone to aphid attack, while others are resistant to pests. Just after Alan spotted an infestation, nature gave some help when a flock of willow warblers stopped to feast on the insects.

The Rotary visitors gathered in the shed used to store the wands for an explanation of what had been learnt, before a tour of the plot. They all agreed to try growing willow cuttings in their gardens.

After a light lunch provided by a Rotary member from Rothbury, members met at Rothbury Haugh car park, where Woodhorn Museum provided a minibus and guide to visit the 1915 World War I training trenches to the north of

Rothbury. Woodhorn had been successful in applying for a grant to interpret this little known historic treasure.

The wild and scenic route was through Thropton, the Chirnalls and near to Cartington Castle, before walking a half-kilometre to the site on Debdon Moor. It has a tented lecture room and reconstructed trenches.

Coquetdale Archaeology Group rediscovered the trenches in 2008, but was surprised at the lack of items found. Elderly residents of Rothbury said that as youngsters they played in the trenches and carried off anything they could find.

The first trenches were dug by the 18th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers between December 1914 and February 1915.

It was an excellent day.