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18 June 2014
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From cradle to grave: willows and basketmaking in Somerset

Changing with the times

Coffin
Somerset willow is now even used to make coffins!
© Somerset Willow Company
Many willow growers and basketmakers have found new markets and innovative ways of using willow. One willow grower makes willow charcoal for artists, and another has a thriving business weaving live willow hurdles to reinforce river banks, known as river ‘spiling’. The growth in home gardening has led to the construction of willow hurdles, bower seats, and living willow fences and domes. Sculptors fashion willow into animals and birds for gardens and parks, and into more unique structures such as the monumental Willow Man on the M5 motorway.

Basketmakers weave balloon baskets which fly over the North Pole and deserts of Africa, and, resurrecting an ancient Egyptian tradition, there is growing interest in willow coffins. “With the willow coffin it’s surprising how much interest there is in something people don’t normally talk about - it brings a smile to their faces”, says Darrell Hill of Somerset Willow Company.

Sculpture
Somerset willow is used in many surprising ways!
© Somerset Tourism
An unbroken tradition

Today willows can still be found growing naturally in the Somerset wetland, their pollarded silhouettes a characteristic feature of the landscape. These mature willow trees (Salix alba) grow along the banks of the rivers and “rhines”. Their roots form a mesh which helps stabilise the banks and their pollarded branches are used by hurdlemakers. The cultivation of willows (Salix triandra and other varieties) for hurdlemaking and basketmaking continues, with many local families still growing and harvesting them as a crop as their fathers and grandfathers did before them.

The craft of willow weaving has hardly changed since the time of our Iron Age ancestors - the woven forms simply adapted by each generation to fulfil changing needs. In a computerised and technological age it is perhaps remarkable that willow growing and basketmaking continue to play such an important role in Somerset’s rural economy, maintaining an unbroken tradition begun thousands of years ago.

Words: Kate Lynch

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