My son and i like to regularly visit Blists Hill Victorian Village in Ironbridge, Shropshire. There is a certain something about living history that educates and entertains both of us, despite the thirty-two years between us.
Blists Hills has a number of actors there: the policeman is also the pianist in the lunchtime pub singalong, the candlemaker has also been seen in the bakery.
Alongside these talented actors, there are a few artisans who use the tools and techniques of Victorian Britain to make things of great beauty.
The elderly lady in the seamstresses was turning a Singer sewing machine with her right hand whilst deftly sewing, pleating and shaping a girls school bonnet in a matter of minutes. The leathersmith was hand shaping and hand sewing a saddle.
After afternoon tea and a few rides on the Victorian fun fair, we were heading up the hill and towards the exit when we decided to pop in to the woodcarvers. The air was heavy with sawdust and with smoke from the stove in the shed.
The shed was quiet except for my son and I and another father and his daughter. The woodcarver started a game of “can you tell what it is ?”. He picked up a piece of scrap wood and in a matter of minutes had spun it in to what looked like a small square rolling pin with round handles. Neither of the children could guess what it was, as he sawed it diagonally, and gifted them a door wedge each.
Scrap wood to cherished gift made before their eyes in under five minutes, and accompanied by the jokes, tales, tips and lessons of a learned craftsman.
We left the woodcarvers and were half way to the exit when i stopped and turned round again. I went back to the woodcarvers.
I enquired if he did commissions, and asked if he had ever made a quaich.
Many of my finest memories are centred on the remote Highlands of North West Scotland, and accompanied by a dram. I had toyed with the idea of getting some sort of quaich made for my fortieth birthday, and of drinking from it, on top of a hill somewhere, with a few friends in November.
I ended up in a conversation for about forty five minutes with Malcolm E. Gladwell, Master Woodcarver. Thirtienth direct descendent of Grinling Gibbons, woodcarver to George II and Christopher Wren.
(I know very little about wood carving but ten minutes on Google assures me that Grinling Gibbons was one of, if not the, finest woodcarver ever, and that his thirtienth direct descendent is as good as it gets.
Blists Hill allow Malcolm to work in the shed on the High Street there, and he also runs a rocking horse carving business from the shed. He recounted stories, as his Grinling Gibbons undoubtedly would, of having carved wood for, and repaired furniture in, the most important palaces and stately homes on this island. Having to have insurance for one days work, many decades ago, that made the eyes water, but gave some idea of the many millions of pounds value of the individual items of furniture he was working on.
He had never made a quaich before, and whilst i think it was hardly a challenge, the idea of carving a piece of wood in to a new shape intrigued him.
On the back of a Gibbons Woodcarvers brown paper bag he sketched a quaich. He then went to the back of his shed and rummaged through some boxes of wood. Producing a half metre length of old rough oak, he held it in his hands and looked at it for a few seconds.
A few minutes later he produced a beautiful circle of oak. He had sawn the edges of the square, then sawn it in to an octagon, then fixed it on his lathe and caressed it with a constantly changing array of planes and sandpapers. The circle was beautiful to me. To him the minor fault line in a few centimetres of the wood resigned it to the scrap bin.
He sketched a few ideas for the handles, and said “come back on Saturday”.
The price would be less than about four pints of ale.
“I’m doing something i absolutely love”, he said, “money is irrelevant”.
Now i just need to find a dram to do it justice !