The willow has a history as long as any plant. Stretching back to before the Ice-Age, apart from a hand full of regions around the equator, it can be found all over the world. In its wild state willow was amongst the first vegetation to appear on land that had been cleared or charred in some way - during World War Two it thrived in this country on bomb sites and disused gravel pits. Without a doubt this tenacity to hold on to life under severe conditions makes it difficult to destroy by any means other than fire.

No 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.

But 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Present 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.

Willow 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.

Buff 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.

My 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 wand indeed!

Lois Grindey

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