Meet Kent craftspeople
PUBLISHED: 11:25 27 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:25 27 February 2014
The potter, blacksmith, thatcher, basket maker and woodturner
PULLQUOTE: I love spending time with traditional basket makers and recording their work
“Originally I was a Zoologist, probably as far away from what I’m doing now as it’s possible to be,” says Mary Butcher, basket maker.
“My family and I had moved to Kent and one day in Canterbury I met with a willow specialist with whom I’d arranged to buy a basket from. There’d been a slight miscommunication between us and he believed I’d wanted to learn more about basket making.
“Although initially I’d listened to what he had to say through politeness, I quickly became really interested and you can probably mark that moment as the point from which my new career began.”
Mary took several years to study her craft, beginning life as a willow specialist, learning local, traditional work from apprenticed makers. She then moved into basket making, undertaking a course at the London College of Furniture and ultimately obtaining a Fellowship in Basket Making at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“It took several years to go from my first interest in this craft to becoming a professional basket maker. For some time I had a young family to look after and I still taught,” she explains.
“Over time, however, more and more people began asking me to make things for them and so the next logical step it seemed was to start doing this for a living. By that point I was well trained in the necessary skills and so I felt confident to undertake the transition.”
Along with her professional work, Mary has also endeavoured to make a historical record of basket making.
“My research interests centre on our basket history, which until recently was little recorded. I love spending time with traditional makers and recording their work, both the technical details and the way in which practice changes in response to consumer demand.”
Mary is also keen to share the skills she has learned with other people. “These are skills that are in danger of dying out. Because of this, and my love of them, I am committed to the transmission of basket knowledge, technical, historical and contemporary.
“I enjoy teaching a range of skills based on those traditional techniques that I was so fortunate to learn all those years ago. I hope to pass on my fascination and enthusiasm to as wide an audience as possible.”
CAPTION: In 2009, Mark ‘Billy’ Byles, co-founder of Aylesford Pottery, became the Guinness World Record Holder for the most pots thrown in an hour
PULLQUOTE: I love the creativity involved with pottery, to use my imagination and create objects using traditional skills
“I fell in love with pottery pretty much from the first moment that I encountered it at school. We had a pottery department and I really enjoyed working in there,” says Alan Parris, who dropped out from A-levels and enrolled on a pottery course at Rochester College.
He adds: “That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I learned a great deal and eventually left and took up a job in London working as a potter. I got the chance to start a career in something that I’ve always found really enjoyable.
“I love the creativity involved with pottery, the chance to use my imagination and create objects using traditional skills.”
It was in London that Alan met his current business partner Mark (‘Billy’) Byles, with whom he would head to Kent and set up Aylesford Pottery.
“We’ve been working together for 20 years,” he says. “Today we’re based at The Friars, which has a long history of ceramics. Everything in our showroom here is created by hand, combining traditional methods with the occasional modern twist.
“Despite the years that have passed, I can honestly say that my love of what I do hasn’t ebbed one bit. Which is just as well, as this is certainly not a career to go into for the money!”
Like other craftspeople that feature here, Alan and his business partner always had a desire to share their skills with others.
“Crafts like ours are not as common as they once were. Aylesford Pottery is actually the last of two commercial potteries left in the county. So, we felt that if we could put on some courses then maybe this could nurture a new generation of potters.
“We’ve been running courses now for a while and so far we’ve had a good reaction. It’s always a pleasure to see the enthusiasm that you feel for something mirrored in someone else. It’s part of what makes teaching almost as enjoyable as pottery.”
PULLQUOTE: The more you learn about woodturning, the better this craft becomes
“I think part of what attracts me to woodturning is the fact that it’s the only ‘handy’ thing I’ve ever been good at. The sad truth is that I am so bad at handiwork that my family can’t believe that my woodturning has turned out to be such a success!” laughs Peter Martin, who fell into woodturning 15 years ago when he attended a dollhouse exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham.
“I’d gone there with my wife, who was a collector of dolls house furniture. There was a small lathe there, just a 14 inch one, and the idea struck me that I could probably use that to make my wife some furniture.”
Despite the lathe never yielding much success, Peter’s interest in woodturning was piqued. “A few years later I was at another exhibition with my wife (this time it was picture framing) and there was a woodturner showing off his skills there,” he says.
“I was absolutely enthralled. It really reinvigorated my interest and from that point on I haven’t looked back.”
Over the years that followed, Peter developed his craft and became involved with Kent Woodturners, a local organisation that aims to share turning skills, exchange ideas and experience and develop the abilities of woodturners at all levels.
“We have regular meetings, run courses and have about 130 members. It’s a very popular club.”
Despite the passage of time, Peter’s love for this ancient skill hasn’t diminished in any way. If anything, it’s blossomed.
“The more you learn about woodturning, the better this craft becomes. You can create so much and really let your imagination roam free. What I really enjoy though is the sense of surprise. The great thing about working with wood is the fact that no two pieces are the same.
“Yew, for example can be white and it can also have hints of purple. It’s that sense of surprise that make woodturning such an enjoyable thing to do.”
PULLQUOTE: As well as being more sustainable than normal roofing materials, thatch can be aesthetically pleasing too
“Thatching wasn’t something I’d ever considered but on leaving school I was offered two apprenticeships, one as an electrician and one as a thatcher,” admits Mark Padfield.
“I’d done a little try out for the thatching interview and there was just something about it that interested me, working with natural materials and the fact that it was so different to anything I’d done. It was that which tipped the balance in its favour.”
After working for 21 years for the firm that had originally hired him, in 2010, Mark made the decision to strike out on his own.
“And so far it’s been a success. I’ve worked all over the country, not just here in Kent, and even done some international work in California and Kiev.”
Over the years Mark has developed a wealth of experience using a number of different materials, from long straw, combed wheat reed to Norfolk (water) reed and heather (a product which is used extensively in Scotland).
All of the materials used are of the highest quality and importantly 90 per cent of them are grown organically making thatch an environmentally friendly product.
“The ‘green’ element within thatching has actually led to something of a renaissance in its use as a roofing material in recent years. Over the past decade I’ve found that in addition to the work that we’ve done on period buildings, we’ve also been working on new builds.
“I think there is a growing feeling that along with being more sustainable than normal roofing materials, thatch can be aesthetically pleasing too. Because of this, thatching could be one traditional skill that might make a comeback in the future.”
CAPTION: Owen Bush, from Welling, appears in the new Kettle Chips ‘Craft Party’ advert using his skills to craft a set of iron flowers
PULLQUOTE: Some of my best work is put into the blades I make
“If I’d known at school that becoming a blacksmith was something that you could actually do for a living then I’d have done it right away!” says Owen Bush.
“Probably along with most people, I’d always associated a job like this with a long-lost age, thinking that blacksmithing had almost died out. Because of this it took me a few years to realise this career was open to me and it wasn’t until my twenties that I actually got started.”
In the end, Owen has his parents to thank for his eventual career change. “Both my mum and dad independently pushed me towards blacksmithing; my dad in particular was instrumental in setting up my first taste of working in this field. I have to say that as soon as I got involved I was hooked.”
Over the past 20 years Owen has developed his craft and is one of the most accomplished blacksmiths working today. His skills are in high demand and he’s even worked for several television programmes, most notably as an engineer for Scrapheap Challenge, a steelsmith for Bang Goes The Theory, a sword maker for The Fight Book and a weapons expert for The Bone Detectives.
“I enjoy the many facets and challenges of working with metal in all its forms. My passion however is the forging of pattern-welded Damascus steel and the making of knives and swords,” he says.
“I forge multi-core pattern-welded blades in a ‘modern Viking style’ and find the challenges in making and using this material very rewarding. Some of my best work is put into the blades I make.”
Keen to share what he’s learned during his career with others, five years ago Owen opened the Bushfire Forge School of Smithing.
“I run classes in blacksmithing, bladesmithing, swordsmithing and pattern welding (Damascus steel) for both beginners and those with more experience,” he explains.
“The school is fully equipped for eight students, providing quality teaching and one-to-one tuition, to date.
“I’ve had a great response from my students and I feel a huge sense of privilege that these ancient skills are being passed on to a new generation.”