part of the willow is without its uses. The trunk, branches,
root, bark, twigs, leaves and a few interior substances like
asprin - all have some use to man. The major timber product
is the cricket bat which is made from the variety Salix Coerulea
and then only from the female tree. Willow gives a soft but
light and tough wood with a resistance to splintering, well
suited to a diverse range of uses - polo balls, steamer paddles,
tool handles, boxes. milkmaids yokes and artificial limbs.
Some of theses uses are no more than historical interest but
the wood is still prized for the making of cricket bats.
it is the use of osiers in basket making that interests me
the most. Basket making is an ancient craft. Fragments of
basket in the lake villages at Meare and Glastonbury in Somerset,
dating back to 100 B.C. Woven material of some sort was known
to the most primitive of tribes. It was used to support the
medieval harbour wall at Dover, for carrying building materials
and even as part of the buildings themselves - Winchester
Cathedral was found to have been built entirely on a bed of
willow. The use of willow in baskets was infinite. Baskets
were used in agriculture, as seed containers, for gathering
and as winnowing fans. Baskets as containers for fruit and
vegetables - known by a host of different names - like flats,
rips, hampers, pickers, sieves, strikes or peck cobs. Fish
containers such as herring crans and cockle flats - skeps
for textiles, laundry and other delivery baskets and then
baskets for hoisting coal, rubble and minerals. These were
all sturdy and functionable and were probably made in the
area where they were needed from local willow. Fine willow
was used to make shopping baskets, clothes baskets, babies
cribs and sewing and knitting baskets. Livestock suck as poultry
and pigeons and small animals were all transported in a willow
container that was not only light and durable but very strong.
Each area would have produced specialized baskets - lobster
pots in coastal areas and the finely worked eel grigs used
in Sussex, the fens and along the River Severn. Sussex and
the fens still use a fish kiddle in the rivers there. Finally
there are the curious uses for basketwork; as a framework
for hides and skins. Boats such as the welsh coracle are still
being made in this way and at one time shields and guardsman's
hats both had a frame of willow. There didn't seem to be much
that was needed that couldn't be filled by willow in some
way or another.
number of craftsmen employed and the quantity of baskets produced
must have been huge yet today the evidence has all but disappeared.
In an age where "time is money" there was no place
for something that was labour intensive and long lasting.
the latter half of the 19th Century baskets from Poland, Spain
and the Far East started to dominate the market sales and
this decline continued throughout the 20th Century. Add this
to an increase in the use of plastics and it is no surprise
that between 1940 -1980 the number of basket makers fell from
7,000 to near 500.
day cultivation is concentrated almost entirely within the
flat lowland areas surrounding the rivers Parret, Tone and
Isle in the West Sedgemoor district of Somerset, although
in the past this was also centred in the Severn and Thames
valleys, Suffolk, Essex and Ormskirk in Lancashire. The range
of different willows grown was vast, several hundreds, with
wonderful names like "Swallowtail, Whissender, Brunette
Noire, Grisette, Brittany Green, Mealy Top, Russet, Lancashire
Light and Dark Dicks, Long Skins" and many more. Most
of these were the common osier "Salix viminalis"
and its crosses, but now the majority of basket willow grown
in Britain is the almond-leafed willow "Salix triandra",
most being the variety "Black Maul". "Salix
purpurea", the purple or bitter willow was cultivated
extensively in Lancashire where it was well suited to the
wet sands around the Rible estuary. The rods were slender
and prized in the making of high quality hampern and tea baskets.
In 1925 there were 6,000 acres under cultivation for basket
willows - by 1953 this had fallen to only 2,000.
likes fertile lowland sites with deep well drained soil and
under favorable conditions can grow as much as an inch a day.
Cuttings of 9-12" are taken from the butt ends of good
rods and pushed straight into the ground between 12"
and 18" apart. Willows are generally harvested annually
and cutting is carried out after leaf fall between November
and April while the sap is low. A good crop is produced after
three years with peak yields reached after seven. The rods
are then graded in foot lengths and bundled up. Brown rods
retain their bark and are rough to the touch while buff and
white willow requires more preparation.
willow is produced by boiling the rods for up to ten hours
and the bark is then stripped off while still soft. During
this process tannin from the bark stains the willow and produces
the characteristic reddish brown colour. To produce a pure
white willow the bark is stripped without boiling. After the
rods are cut during the winter they are placed standing up
in six inches of water and then stripped when the sap rises
and leaf buds appear in the spring. Both buf and white willows
are dried outside and bundled ready for sale.
love of willow and baskets has grown over the years into an
admiration for this versatile and adaptable material. I thought
that I'd heard about most of its uses but there was one more.
From some date before 1066 and up untill 1826 when a sum of
money was paid into the Exchequer the amount was recorded
on a stick of willow by cutting notches to represent pounds,
shillings and pence. This stick was then cut into two and
half given as a receipt. To be a valid record both the grain
and the pieces had to match; obviously a successful method
to have survived over 800 years. When this tally stick system
was abandoned in 1826, the fire lit to burn the sticks got
out of hand and damaged the Houses of Parliament. A magic