In our interview with Phil Bradley, he discusses his 23 year journey to becoming a full time willow worker.
So Phil, what was it that originally attracted you to working with willow?
Well, I had a background in forest cultivation, which I really enjoyed and through this, I came into contact with lots of crafty types, such as charcoal burners and greenwood workers and a good friend of mine, Owen Jones, who makes fabulous swill baskets. I guess it was through connections like these and seeing close-up the practical and creative ways of working with trees that influenced me at first. I think anyone would be tempted to be honest. So I took a slight sidestep from just planting them into also playing with them.
Was this an overnight shift or did the transition happen more gradually?
Oh definitely quite gradually. I had a chance meeting with a fantastic basket maker called David Drew, who lived in France and over the course of several years, between about 1992 – 2000, I would save up all my holidays and spend between a fortnight to a month a year grafting for him in exchange for tuition. I guess it was a sort of long-distance apprenticeship. Then I would come home and practice all the new skills I had learnt, until the next year. I did this until my courage and skills were sufficient enough to consider going solo. That happened in 2000. I had been working part-time for a while, using the rest of my time to make baskets, but when the millennium arrived, I think something shifted for me. We also moved house to where we are now, in Deanscales, which opened up the possibility of having my own designated workshop area.
And I guess it also allowed you to plant your first willow?
Well yes and no. I had actually planted my first willow bed in 1996 on a friend’s land. But certainly in 2000, with the move, I was able to buy a piece of land opposite my house and workshop, which I turned into another willow bed. I now have seven willow beds in all. Six of them are within a 5 mile radius of where we live, two of which are rented and the other three are on friend’s land. Then I have one outlying bed in Nottinghamshire at my mum’s place.
Wow, that must take quite some looking after!
It does take a bit of work to manage at certain times of year, most notably at harvesting time in the winter, but it is work that I really enjoy and then that sets me up with the materials I need for the more creative projects through the rest of the year. I have managed to minimise my workload by introducing chickens to the willow beds. They will happily scratch around the willow stumps, which keeps the grass down, keeps the chickens happy and provides me with eggs. It is a arrangement that we are all pretty happy with.
And how many varieties of willow do you presently have?
At present, I have forty-two varieties between all the plots. They are all suited to different tasks, so depending on what I am doing, I will always try to choose the most suitable variety. I have about twenty varieties that I use for basket making. These are the finer, more workable willow with slender, uniform, straight rods and a nice colour. Then there are another fifteen or so that are much longer in length, growing to between 3′-16′. I use these for the large scale sculptural work. Lastly there are about six varieties that I use for willow bank conservation. These tend to be extremely viable and chunky willow varieties. Willow comes in a whole range of colours, from browns, yellows and greens, through to maroons, purples and even blacks. These colours can be really vibrant when they are live, but will mute down and become more subtle as they dry. The colours also change up and down the rod, which can be used to create patterns in baskets. There can also be variations in colour depending on light exposure as they dry. This could be fun to play with at some stage.
So how many baskets do you make and sell each year?
Well I probably make about 500 baskets each year, at a rate of about 3-4 per day. I have a range of about 30-40 standard baskets available, but I can also do baskets to order if someone has something specific they want.
And I believe you sell these predominantly through word of mouth?
Yeah it has worked out that way. Certainly at first I used to take them to shops and galleries, but now, apart from the occasional craft fair, most of my sales come from word of mouth. I haven’t even gone down the route of getting a website, which is a blessing in many ways. But I am toying with the idea.
How about the willow bank conservation work you do, how did that come about?
Yeah, that was an odd one. I think it all started when I spotted an article in the Dalesman magazine, about an old technique of preventing erosion using willow. I was obviously intrigued and when I got the chance, I tried it on a twenty yard stretch of river in Keekle Country Park, where I was planting some native woodland. It worked brilliantly and when the National Park found out, they asked me to do more. I think they were keen on utilising a softer more environmentally friendly technique, rather than the gabion blocks that they were used to using.
So how does it work?
Well basically it involves weaving a continuous wall of willow along a bank that is eroding. You start by putting a row of long vertical rods in, about 1’ apart. Then you weave horizontals in between to create a mesh that lays back slightly against the bank. This is then back- filled with soil and stones and rubble. The back of the willow that is in contact with the earth sends out fangs of white roots into the soil that create a mat of fibrous willow roots and hold it all tight.
That sounds amazing, but presumably to do this you have to be in the river!
Yes and in winter! I’m probably not paid enough am I?! Certainly it isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Depending on the water level, I will either be wearing wellies or chest waders, because the willow needs to go in when it is dormant, so certainly before May. Ideally, I wait for the river water to be about 8” deep in bright winter sunshine and blue sky, but it doesn’t always work out that way! I will either do this on my own, slowly but surely, or if there is a sudden rush, which tends to happen at the end of the financial year, when the local authorities realise they have money left in the budget, then I’ll try to get a small team together. This often involves friends, who will happily help if they’re available. I might then help them with some fencing of something at another time, thereby exchanging each others time, rather than money. I think it is nicer that way.
And how about the willow sculptures, how did that come about?
Funnily enough it all started with a chicken…well 40 of them to be precise. I got asked if I could make 40 chickens for a shop in Harrogate and I didn’t have too much on at the time, so I said I’d have a go. I’d never done anything similar before and it took a while to figure out how to make them, but they came out okay and this led to a few more orders. I then got asked to make some larger animals for the RHS, such as herons, deer and boxing hares, which they displayed in their gardens. This was a great showpiece and it all went from there. I have now made all sorts of things from greyhounds, sheep and pigs through to whales, dolphins and leaping salmon. I have also made some more fantastical creatures, such as dragons and unicorns, which has led to workshops like the one we are doing this weekend at your place in the Duddon Valley.
Which brings us lastly to teaching. How did this come about?
I guess this just developed naturally, as people came and saw what I was doing, there would always be one or two who would be more interested in learning how to do it than buying a ready-made product. So after a while of people asking, I started to put on a few workshops, teaching people the skills that I have learnt over the years. Willow is such a benign, friendly material to play with that it makes teaching and learning a really enjoyable experience for people of all ages and experience.