The perfect woodworking show
I am sitting in the lounge at Heathrow airport waiting for my flight home reflecting back on an amazing week in England. Where to begin!
A very good friend of mine, Mike Hancock, called me a year ago and asked if I would be interested in participating in an outdoor woodworking festival in southern England. One of the selling features was “camping”. Now I have done my fair share of camping in Northern Ontario… from weekend “car camping” adventures, to two week canoe trips in remote areas of Temagami. My only concern… England = rain. Mike was quick to add there was a “chef”…hmmmm an interesting twist on burnt spider dogs over the open fire.
I happily agreed.
Rob Cosman was also attending the show and we were able to coordinate our flights so we could travel together to and from Heathrow to the show. Much to my shock and amazement – customs was a snap… a 30 second adventure. We were picked up by David Thornton – a fantastic guy – thanks again David. We pulled up to the campsite and I immediately knew I was not in Kansas anymore… actually – I wasn’t even sure I was in England! The sun was shining, no humidity and it was hot.
After some unpacking and setting up, we went to the Classic Hand tool sleeping compound where we met “cheffie”. After a few introductions we were knee deep in “nibbles”. Prawns, onions and cheese on toothpicks, veggie platters and great English beer. Now this was camping!
“The Festival of the tree” was held at the Westonbirt Arboretum – a 600 acre sanctuary for all things good in the world. Trees, trees and more trees. It was amazing! And here is what made this the best woodworking show on earth. It was about the “wood” part of woodworking... not the tools. That may sound strange for a tool maker to say – but it is the truth. Tools are just that – tools. What matters in the end is what we do with them. The focus of this show was what people do with wood. There were pole lathes, chainsaw sculptors, chip carvers, furniture makers, turners, basket weavers and everything in between. What they were celebrating (and showing) was what they had made – not how they had made it. Case in point; I was doing a demonstration on using handplanes, and this wonderful woman came up to the bench and started picking up some of the shavings and gently draping them over her arm. She collected a few and asked what I wanted for them. Thankfully I had the sense not to laugh and invited her to try a plane and make some more for herself. She was not the only person collecting shavings either. That happened at least 5 times. I finally asked someone what they wanted them for. She said she ironed them and sandwiched them between thin plastic and made bookmarks. Perfect.
The classic handtool booth was a great mixture of tools, demonstrating and participation. The focus was to let people try things and talk to people. Everything was on ground level and very accessible. Chris Pye was there carving a huge slab of English Elm. I often looked over to see someone from the crowd working on it. There were a few turners and they often invited people to try their hand at it. Mick from Clifton (Clico) was right beside me demonstrating handplanes and scrapers. There was a fantastic bow maker there from Austria – Martin Kellermair. He was hand making ancient bows… and he is also very skilled at using them. We hit it off quite well and are both planning on building ourselves bamboo fly fishing rods.
One of the highlights was “Sculptree” – a one week competition between 12 renouned sculptors. The theme this year was “This precious Earth”. They started on Monday and finished the following Monday – the last day of the show. They were auctioned off on Monday to raise money for “Tree aid”. One of the sculptures broke the previous record – selling for £10,500. Here are a few of the sculptures;
Saturday night was a night to remember. I am not at all athletic – but the masses convinced me to play football (soccer to us North Americans). It was the English against the world. The English were heavily populated with Hancocks – Mike, his cleat wearing wife Mary, their two skilled kids Alex and Billy, Mike’s brother Ben, nephew and a few other hard hitting Hancocks. The international team consisted of three Austrians, three French, a Swede and two Canadians – Rob and myself. At the beginning of the match I confessed to a few people that I had never played football. There was an alarmed pause… but they let me in anyway. It was a riot. We had the perfect “pitch” between two very long tents – so despite our attempts – the ball stayed in play bouncing off the walls. We scored the first goal but the Brits quickly tied it up. We switched to a 5 minute sudden death match which ended in much huffing and puffing and a tie game. So we went to penalty kicks. England won by one goal. We returned back to the compound to Pimms, prawns and salmon steaks. Does it get any better than this?
And then there were the people at the show. What a fantastic bunch. It never ceases to amaze me - how people who work wood are the kindest, most generous honest people I have ever met. I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and made many, many new ones. Philly and Tony (aka Waka) from the UK woodworking forum stopped in for a few hours. We had a great time playing with planes and messing about. Philly has a few more photos posted here. I also had a chance to catch up with my friend Greg and his lovely wife. I first met Greg at one of the small David Stanley auctions two years ago and we have been in touch ever since. I met a few other planemakers as well. Christopher is an instrument maker and had a sweet little violin plane in his pocket.
On the last morning, Cheffie went into his tent and emerged in a suit and tie – a sharp reminder that our utopian camping trip was coming to a close. We all returned to our cars and parted company.
I bet you thought this was it… Ha! Tuesday morning we left for West Dean College. Mike had taken me here two years ago so I was quite excited to visit again. West Dean is one of those places you never forget – it is picture post card perfect – in every way. A 6,000 acre estate in south-east England, sheep in the front yard (a perfect football pitch we noted), magnificent trees everywhere, stunning architecture and courses offered in everything from woodworking, to painting, glass work, instrument making to pottery, to gardening. We arrived at the end of their Chili festival. I was thinking cool, a chili festival – must have been a fun little show. We then found out there were 15,000 visitors to the chili festival! Next up is “Totally Tomato” – if only my relatives in Leamington Ontario knew! We were given a wonderful tour of the classrooms and facilities – the workshops, the gallerys and the grounds. At lunch, we were joined by Mike Podmaniczky – one of the program tutors in the conservation of furniture department. And once again – the woodworking world shrunk a little bit more. Mike is from Maine… and is friends with Thomas Lie-Nielsen and Mark Swanson. There was an immediate connection there and after lunch we were given a great tour of the furniture restoration department. I wish I had another lifetime to pursue all these things!
From there we went back to Heathrow to wait for our flights home. All was not lost though – on the last night in England, I managed to have that first glorious pint of Guinness.
And to close, a few quick tips and helpful hints if you travel in England;
- a “jumper” is a warm long sleeve article of clothing – nothing to be alarmed about
- “spotted dick” is a food - it does not require medical attention
- having a pint on an incline can be more problematic than you might think
- there are 4 variations on Pimms – a great summer evening drink
- lamb prepared over an open fire is a religious experience
- having a chef while camping fully compensates for air filled mattresses
- it is possible to sleep through a tree that explodes at 5 am