Popular woodland courses give an insight in to the world of basket and furniture making, axe work, mask carving, polelathe work and iron smelting
Four years ago, Wes Hedge was working in the overheating world of IT finance. On Saturday, he was deep in Ecclesall Woods, carefully sculpting a stick into a wooden spoon.
“I’d decided it was time to get out of the rat race,” he said. Wes had been a hobbyist wood turner for more than 20 years, spurred on by a 40th birthday present of woodworking lessons from a turner who’d plied his trade in Norwich cathedral.
After taking early retirement in 2009, Wes focused on freelance wood turning and voluntary work in Ecclesall Woods, eventually becoming the voluntary co-ordinator of the craft courses held at the J G Graves Woodland Discovery Centre off Abbey Lane.
“We could see there wasn’t much in the city regarding green wood courses,” said Wes. “We thought, what can we do here?”
The courses in Ecclesall Woods are all woodland related, and include basket and furniture making, axe work, mask carving and for the more ambitious, pole lathe work and iron smelting.
The woodland link for the latter is that Ecclesall Woods still has the signs of hundreds of pits and hearths where wood was used for metalwork.
“The woods wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for these industrial practices,” said Wes.
From an initial 10 courses in 2009, the demand has grown until this year there will be nearly 30 courses, each with six to eight people paying around £50 to £80 for a day’s tuition. The scheme is financed by ‘bums on seats’ as Wes puts it.
The spoon carving course on Saturday included Hannah and Gil Threadgould, taking part as a wedding present to each other.
“It’s definitely worth it, I’ve learned the basics in a few hours, but the skills would probably take a lifetime to master,” said Hannah, who’d made the journey with her new husband from Leeds. And it’s gorgeous working here, it’s such a nice place to be. I’d be happy just sitting here.”
Gill added: “It’s OK to watch how to do these things on YouTube, but it’s not like having someone there working with you.”
Green wood working is using fresh wood, that’s only recently been cut. In the past cut wood was stored to air dry sometimes for months and years, now the same effect can often be achieved using a microwave on defrost setting, gradually removing moisture. Gil’s practice is to either recycle wood - such as mahogany - that might have been used for staircases or furniture in the past, or to use local wood, such as yew, beech or apple.
“People like the idea of learning to do something sustainable, that they can then do at home for relatively little cost,” said Wes.
“They also want to learn old skills that are potentially under threat. For example, they say they prefer to make a basket from locally grown willow rather than going out and buying one imported from China.”
In addition to the craft courses, the Discovery Centre hosts children’s events, conferences and even weddings. The recent wedding of volunteer Catherine Nuttgens even included an iron smelting session for guests.
Coun Isobel Bowler, cabinet member for culture, sport and leisure at Sheffield Council, said: “It feels like the Woodland Discovery Centre has really come of age this year. As the gateway to Ecclesall Woods, the centre is at the heart of some wonderful activities. Volunteers have picked up tools from the site to help look after Sheffield’s woodlands, and many beautiful objects have been fashioned out of sustainably sourced local wood from the local businesses based on site, or people learning ancient skills on our craft courses.”
The centre is now established thanks to a combination of visitor generated funding and volunteers. The future will see more wood themed courses, and before long, Wes hopes, a small kiosk selling food and drink. Nevertheless, he said, there are still many people who don’t know it’s there.
“We’ve waited too long for the Woodland Discovery Centre,” said Wes. “People had to go to Nottingham for this kind of thing in the past. So I’d say to Sheffielders - come and visit.”
This weekend’s course is on walking stick making. Log on to Ecclesall Wood Craft Courses for more details.