Full article from edition 5
By Geoffrey Stubbs
Triangulated above the ancient mine-pocked cliffs of Winspit and Seacombe stands an old chicken shed. It looks a little flimsy for this side of the ridge, being all wooden, wind-battered and leaning ever so slightly, but it’s been there a while and looks comfortably settled. The erstwhile coop is now a workshop, spilling over with the kind of paraphernalia that naturally gravitates to empty nooks in the often vain expectation of being ‘needed one day’. For five or six weeks over the bleak mid winter, these walls also play host to an extraordinary living link with Purbeck’s heritage.
To nothing other than the occasional cackle of a marine radio, with no firebox or heating of any kind in the hardest of the winter, Alan Lander and Roger Brown are making withy lobster pots. Their gnarled digits twist and thread to rhythms laid down sixty years or so ago when they first learned this craft from their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. Weathering all in open topped clinkers, they lowered the traps onto the shifting seabed and hauled them back in the next day, day after day, month after month. Families relied on these hand-made traps as the means to a vital stream of income – to pay tithes, to feed and clothe. Manufacturing them was not a task taken lightly.
They were fishermen, lobstermen, crabbers and stonemasons too, who got up ‘before sparrow-fart’ to greet a hard day on the water, landing the catch by lunchtime and working another six hours or so in the quarries – often underground in those days. Not much has changed. Around one o’clock, the radio suddenly entertains us with a conversation between fishermen with an unmistakably Purbeckian drawl. One of the interlocutors is Alan’s son, Jeff, making the most of a calm spell having been on the water since five that morning. Eight hours on the water on a bitterly cold morning! He’ll spend the remaining daylight on maintenance and other work.
‘Withy’ is a term for willow. A withy-bed is usually a small stand of willow trees cultivated specifically for the purpose of pot-making. The trees undergo pollarding as they are harvested each year, and are kept to a manageable height. Purbeck was once liberally dotted with these beds, tended by families through generations. The withy is harvested in winter, a sight that will become increasingly rarer. The branches are cropped close to the trunks, gathered into bundles and carted off for shredding – removing the remaining leaf spikes and nibs with a knife. For reasons known best by themselves, this part of the operation begins on Boxing day, every year, depending on frost conditions. It’s a customs dating back several generations which Roger elucidates in his typically concise manner – ‘It’s tradition!’
Withy was superceded long ago by hardier materials; plastic, alloys and other synthetics, and few in the industry these days are interested in keeping the ancient craft alive. To be fair, you don’t see too many writers restoring old typewriters or harking back to the days of ink in pots, either.
Various counties developed their own style of pot and over the generations, they have become standardised. Even so, individual pot makers can vary markedly in their methods. It would take a trained eye to see the difference, Alan and Roger use different approaches to making what appear to be the same pots. Conversely, ‘I go down to Brixham’ says Alan, ‘and demonstrate pot making. They make Devon pots, there, and they are completely different. They do the same job, but it’s a completely different process’. He also admires Isle of Wight pot-makers; ‘Incredibly neat and tight. We don’t have anything like it here. Their prawn pots are beautiful.’
Allan is keen to pass on his knowledge to anyone interested in learning it. He’s been on more committees than he’d care to remember and makes regular appearances at fishing festivals and charity events. The Dorset Wildlife Trust has made an instructional booklet featuring Alan as the tutor.
A lifetime of friendship means the two men need only speak occasionally, swapping notes on their progress, the quality of the withy, peppered by the odd burst of gossip about scandals past and new. It’s startling what these old salts come out with… Roger reckons he has slowed down this year and grumbles that this might be his last season making pots. Despite there being no discernible change in his visage for fifteen winters or more, he is getting on a bit – and the cold gets into his fingers a little deeper these days (the gauge was struggling to reach five degrees Celsius during four days it took to compile this story). Alan is older by a few years but still feels up to the task, though he admits that the degree of strength required in the fingers is taking its toll, too. The day Allan and Roger hang up their paring knives will be a poignant one not just for Purbeck, but for fishing communities around the UK.
Post script. Sadly, this proved to be the last with lobster pot Roger Brown would make. He saw in another boxing day, gathering the withy that Alan had cut, but his fingers gave out their strength soon after the winter these photographs were taken. His paring knife stayed on its final hook in 2014.
1 The Start
In a concession to modern technology, the mouth is further reinforced with nylon ties.
Starting a new withy. The now-narrow end of the original piece runs alongside the thicker end of the new withy.
Tapping the mouth down with a marlin spike.
‘Short ribs’ are added as the pot progresses at a ratio of three to one, one on either side of the long ribs. Twelve ribs become thirtysix.
2 The Turn
Roger prepares a short rib for insertion beside an original long rib, making space for the new piece beforehand with a spike. Keen eyes will notice he is employing the ever-dependable Opinel knife.
Alan completes a circuit of bonding before ‘turning it down’, tying the withies into a globe which will inform the final shape, whereas Roger prefers to tie them immediately having finished the mouth. Each to their own, they agree.
The long ribs inside the former are trimmed while they’re still accessible. Note the sharpened ends of the first round of short ribs, tensioned against the mouth.
The ‘globe’ is secured to the former and the ribs kept out of harm’s way till the pot is two thirds complete.
Alan with his pot now two thirds finished. The ‘globe’ will be untied and shaped into the bottom of the pot.
Bonding-withies graduate from narrow, single-strands to two and finally three much thicker strands, which will form the base of the pot, called ‘bottoming withies’. A hardy bottom is best; ‘You need a heavier withy to take the wear and tear of the sea floor,’ says Alan. ‘The original ribs extend all the way in though the pot.’ The matchstick-thick tips of both ribs and bonding will combine at the finish.
3 The Mid Weave and Finish
(L) With the basic shape established and the ribs uniformly arranged, they are untied in readiness for the final few circuits of bonding before the base is begun. Free standing ribs are easier to weave, too. (R) Roger demonstrates the fine art of knocking your block off… i.e. removing the mouth former.
‘Although we’ve had to put a lot of withies in for the top of the pot to get it to come out, now we’re putting the bottom in, we’ve got to go the opposite way round and get rid of some of the withies.’
By the time the centre is reached, three groups of six strands remain. These are plaited into three ‘tails’, which are threaded back inside the pot – called ‘tucking the tail’.
View from the mouth of the pot – note the ‘tail’ emerging from the centre of the pot bottom.