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Tuesday 28 April 2015

A day in Leigh Woods; Burwalls cave, Luke Jerram's stranded boats and a wooden sofa

Leigh Woods runs along one side of the Avon Gorge near Bristol and is home to some very rare species of trees and plants. I went there a few days ago with a friend of mine, Duncan.

First we visited the legendary Burwalls Cave. This cave is quite a scramble to get to, but it's worth it. When we went, the ramsons (also called wild garlic) were covering the woodland floor, giving the mild garlicky smell that always means 'summer is coming' to me.

The cave itself is just under where Burwalls House now sits at one end of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Before the mansion and the bridge were built, there was an Iron Age hill fort there.

Although some of the cave looks natural, I'm sure that other parts were dug out, built up and remodelled to make the place more like a grotto when such things were fashionable. The Bristol area has a couple of other notable grottoes, including ones at Goldney House and Warmley. 

Unfortunately, the cave was a mess when we arrived, with old sleeping bags and rubbish all over the place.  There were no signs of any current occupants either.

We couldn't really leave it in such a state, so we bagged up the rubbish and piled away the camping gear (being very watchful for discarded needles, of which there didn't seem to be any luckily). It was a real shame to see such a great spot, that many people have enjoyed finding for the first time, left full of discarded junk. Often before there has been cooking equipment and similar useful items left there tidily for other visitors to use, but this was different.

It looked a lot better afterwards, and in one dark corner we were rewarded by coming across a roosting bat. We also let the rangers, who look after the cave, know what was there. Hopefully it will be in a more welcoming state now.

After a bit of a mad scramble to get back to the parapet of the Suspension Bridge, we walked up into Leigh Woods. It was good to be there again, especially at this time of year when everything is gearing into summer.  The visit also gave an opportunity to visit the Centenary Bench and see how it was doing, as well as getting some knife carving done.

Two of the National Trust rangers at Leigh Woods have carved a great-looking wooden sofa, from cedar which originally grew on the Tyntesfield estate.  It is where the car park used to be by the Trust's offices :

There was another new artwork to be visited in the trees nearby. Luke Jerram is a well-known artist and has made installation artworks around Bristol before. He has placed five fishing boats in the woods as a piece called 'Withdrawn'. It addresses the problem of overfishing and its effects on the environment.

It was interesting to see, although it was a shame that the boats weren't safe to climb onto. Even though it wasn't the point behind the artwork, some of Jerram's previous installation pieces have involved a lot of viewer participation (playing pianos left around the city or sliding down a huge water slide) and it made just standing and looking at the boats feel a bit like there was more that could be happening.  

The walk there was lovely though, with the bluebells in the hazel coppices starting to come into flower. I'm glad that the artwork is there and that it gives people who might not be visiting the woods otherwise a reason to see them when they're at (what I would consider) their most beautiful.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Buy local, buy social, learn to carve wood...

My friend Joe from Touchwood Enterprises surprised me yesterday by letting me know that I was now a figurehead for the 'buy local, buy social' website...

Well, not really. The first page of the site shows a photo that was taken when I taught woodcarving for Touchwood at a community project in Bradley Stoke, Bristol.

I'm very happy to be on this website, as it is trying to help promote giving work to small businesses and start-ups in the area around here and is supported by the local council for Bath and North East Somerset. Of course, if people in other areas want to offer me work too that is also fine!

Monday 13 April 2015

Teaching woodcarving at my studio in Bristol - spoon carving lessons in the sunshine

Yesterday, I spent a very pleasant day teaching two students spoon carving at my studio.

First, we discussed different kinds of tools that were available and the pros and cons of each. There were a selection of several different styles of axes, knives, hook knives and spoonbit gouges for them to try out and see which they preferred.

Both chose cherry wood to make their spoons, which I have to say is one of my favourite carving timbers. It's great for spoons as it carves well, is non-toxic and has nice colours and grain patterns throughout. Another good timber is sycamore (Acer pseudo-platanus), a tree that I have heard was introduced into Britain in ancient times for the purpose of making eating utensils .

First, we cleaved the logs using different kinds of axe and also discussed using a froe and mallet.

Then we chatted about different knife carving techniques that would be useful. I recommended a couple of books for further reading (Swedish Carving Techniques by Wille Sundqvist and Green Woodwork by Mike Abbott) and let them have a flick through each if they wanted to. There was also a spoon carved by Barn the Spoon to hand, for inspiration and to discuss the finer points of spoon design if it was required.

We then spent a few hours happily carving, with me on hand for advice if needed. We discussed regrinding the blades of the widely-available Frost hook knives so that they work better, although both of them preferred using the spoonbit gouges to hollow out the spoon bowl. To be honest, I prefer to use the gouges for this job and so, apparently, does Mike Abbott. There was also time for a chat after lunch about sharpening tools and honing them using a strop.

The spoons were coming on nicely by the end of the day and were taken home to be worked on until the next session. I'm looking forward to the next workshop in May, when we will discuss transferring images onto panels and carving them using traditional hand tools.

Saturday 11 April 2015

From a log to a carved plaque - making a carving from a cedar tree that had been cut down.

I recently completed an interesting carved plaque for the St Monica Trust in Bristol. The trust runs retirement homes and nursing homes around Bristol and wanted a gift for the chairman Gerald Lee, who is retiring from his post.

A much-loved Himalayan cedar (deodar) tree was recently felled in the grounds of the Cote Lane site and the Trust wanted to use some of the timber to create a gift for Mr Lee.

The tree surgeons took away most of the timber, so there were only sections of branches that they didn't want left behind with diameters of 18cm (7") or less. The tree was also felled a matter of months ago, so the timber was unseasoned and would not be seasoned by the deadline for the presentation of the piece. Two interesting challenges to think about. I obviously told the clients about these considerations before beginning work!

I decided to quarter-saw the timber so that the rings were at right angles to the widest flat faces of the 'boards'. This means that, when they are glued together, the wood of the plaque will shrink and expand sideways and will hopefully not warp as it seasons.

I was not so worried about the timber cracking, as cedar seems to be fairly stable and not too badly prone to that. Carving the logs in the round seemed risky though, as the tensions set up as the wood dried would make such a sculpture more likely to crack than a flat panel would be.

The quarter-sawn pieces were quite small, as the logs weren't big to begin with, however they glued well to make a board that was big enough. The smell of the cut cedar was very strong; I don't think my workshop will have moth problems for a long time to come. Let's hope the smell of cedar repels other insects too (like furniture beetles!)

After the glue had dried, the boards were trimmed and run over a planer thicknesser to get a nice, even thickness throughout.

The design was to be a sundial, which is the logo of the St Monica Trust,  together with the motto 'Tempus fugit, caritas manet' (which means 'time flies, love remains') and a short text. It was laid out on paper and then transferred onto the surface of the timber. The sundial was carved in relief using traditional hand tools and the lettering, in an informal 'Chancery' style, was carved using a Dremel multitool. The cedar proved to be lovely timber to carve.

And here's the finished plaque:

Woodcarving lessons for visitors to the Tree Life Centre in Bristol

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, as I headed back to the Tree Life Centre in Kingswood to teach visitors to their Open Day how to carve wood.

We were carving a sign from oak that once grew on the Quantock Hills in Somerset. Most of those having a go were aged between about 5 and 12 years old, although I'd say that one young carver was less than 3. As her mum watched, I carefully let her hold the carving mallet and V tool, then held her small hands inside mine to make sure that she was completely safe as she carved. Despite some initial shyness, she quite obviously loved it!

A couple of the grown-ups also took a mallet and V tool for a spin and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Altogether, I'd say around sixty people tried their hand at carving during the day.  I asked a couple of the young people whether it was harder to carve than it looks. After some thought, they said that it wasn't always too hard, although as they did more of it they found some parts harder to do than others. Sounds fair enough to me.

The finished sign was finished with tung oil and will be situated next to the Tree Trail at the centre, which means that many of the visitors who live locally will be able to see it whenever they like. The trail has native trees growing along a path and the centre also sells native British trees and plants.

Whilst walking around the site, I also saw one of my favourite British wildflowers (although I'm pretty sure these ones had been planted there). It's called the snake's head fritillary.

These drooping tulip-like flowers, with their chequerboard patterning, always seem strange and exotic even though they are native to this country. They grow in damp meadows in the wild but are quite local in their distribution, so aren't commonly seen in most of Britain which made it even nicer to see them yesterday.

Monday 6 April 2015

Saxon and modern stone carvings at the ancient church of St Laurence in Bradford-on-Avon

In the small town of Bradford-on-Avon, in the west of the county of Wiltshire, is one of the oldest churches in Britain. Despite evidence of subsequent alterations, some of them also ancient, it has been described as one of the most characteristic examples of a Saxon church in the country.

St Laurence's is certainly not a big building, but it contains some beautiful fragments of Saxon stone carving.
Image from
The church was mentioned as standing in 1120 CE (or AD, if you prefer) by the twelfth century historian William of Malmsbury. He thought that it was built in the time of St Adhelm (in 709 CE) although other evidence suggests that it dates to the early eleventh century. However, it may have replaced an earlier wooden structure.  It was surrounded by other buildings and used for other purposes, before being 'rediscovered' in the nineteenth century.

The space inside, containing three rooms linked by surprisingly narrow archways, is not large but it is high with small windows. It gives the stone-built chapel a distinctive feel, not showy but not humble either. The walls may have once been plastered and painted, perhaps also draped with hangings. In Saxon times, surrounded by timber buildings, a stone building of this size in a small town must have been pretty grand in itself.

Fragments of Saxon carved stone are dotted throughout. There are two carved angels high up on one wall, which may well have once been part of a larger sculptural frieze:

Image from
The altar is made up of several bits of Saxon stonecarving found in the area. The richness of the carvings found in its vicinity has led to the suggestion that the chapel may once have held relics of a saint. The church's website says that;

'A charter of King Æthelred granted Bradford to the nuns of Shaftesbury in 1001, and the church’s architecture suggests it was built for the nuns early in the eleventh century. St Laurence’s is a characteristic Anglo-Saxon building: tall and narrow with small windows. The extent and richness of its decoration, however, are rare, perhaps suggesting it was designed partly for the relics of Æthelred’s brother Edward the Martyr, which were housed with the nuns at Shaftesbury.'

saxon stone carvings

In 2012, the sculptor John Maine installed a three-part piece in the chapel above the altar. I think that it looks perfect in the setting and complements it well. At the top is a ring of Doulting stone carved by Maine. Below that is a piece of fossilised tree trunk thought to be about 150 million years old and below that is a fragment from a Saxon carved cross.

Bradford-on-Avon has several other interesting buildings, including a tithe barn and an interesting old town bridge with a building on it that was used as a cell for a while. Unfortunately I couldn't get photos of them during my visit but it's nice to be able to share this one with you.