Celebrating Britain’s calendar of colourful and often quirky customs is something we make a point of doing in each issue of Evergreen. Our autumn edition, which is published on 6th September (click here to arrange a subscription), finds us wending our way – or perhaps I should say jigging – to the Staffordshire village of Abbots Bromley, where we witness the Horn Dance, which takes place every September. As you will discover, this remarkable dance, complete with its cast of impressively costumed characters - including a hobby horse, Maid Marian and a jester- is many centuries old and, understandably, the villagers are deservedly proud of the tradition and its ancient history.
Safeguarding our heritage, countryside, industry and culture is something that I am passionate about. From buildings and customs to crafts and skills, all should be valued and celebrated for their place in our past, but equally for their role in shaping our progress and future. Time-honoured trades can provide essential skills and knowledge for the preservation of our historic buildings and magnificent countryside, and many notable British companies justifiably pride themselves on their exceptional British craftsmanship, and centuries of traditional skills, to create fine quality goods.
I have always had the greatest admiration for people who have the ability and talent to make something. But, how many people do you know who, as a profession, actually do that; produce something tangible in their working lives? So often today, the technology and mechanisation in our lives has robbed us of human input. While applauding on-going innovation, I do wonder if we have become economically and materialistically richer, but skilfully and culturally poorer? (I'll leave you to ponder on that!)
This came to mind when I saw a news item concerning the Heritage Crafts Association, an organisation of which Prince Charles is president. It has highlighted the traditional crafts and skills that have, in the last generation, become extinct or critically endangered. I was amazed to see that, in a nation that is the home of cricket, the practice of cricket ball making is now extinct with no existing practitioners. The same applies to gold beating, lacrosse stick making and sieve and riddle making (gardeners who like to buy British take note!). All these items are still being used, but the time-honoured, home grown skills that created them have been lost. Inevitably, much of this is due to cheaper imports, financial viability, a diminishing number of craftspeople and lack of training opportunities for any potential apprentices.
Among those trades regarded as critically endangered are: clog making; horse-collar making; hat-block making; metal-thread making; saw making and piano making. Mention of this last trade brought back childhood memories of practising (not altogether willingly or melodiously, I'll admit!) tunes, scales and arpeggios on our much-loved upright, proudly bearing the Bentley Piano name. This British company, established in London in 1906, subsequently made its home in the Stroud Valleys, here in Gloucestershire. In later years, I frequently drove past the factory and wondered about the highly skilled men and women, with decades of experience and knowledge, who worked there crafting these marvellous instruments, which were exported across the world. Sadly, though, the pianos have fallen silent in the Stroud Valleys as, following the sale of the company, production has now transferred to China. (Sounding a positive note for a specialised skill that survives in the Stroud area, is a wonderful rocking-horse company, which we will be featuring in the winter issue of This England - click here for subscriptions).
One trade on the critically endangered list did prompt a wry smile from me. It was the skill of tanning - in terms of leather. Of course, walk down many town or city-centre streets today and you'll probably see several examples of establishments where tanning is being practised and proving particularly popular! Mind you, that is something completely different and just goes to show how times, and trades, have changed!