Yesterday I finished a new walking stick, proudly photographed this morning leaning nonchalantly against the shed from where it was created.
That sounds very grand doesn’t it; I’ve made a walking stick! In reality it is only the second walking stick I’ve ever made. It is a very comfortable to hold and use, but not what some may call attractive. It is a plain every day sort of stick, sometimes is called a hiking stick and the sort I like the carry with me when I’m out and about in the countryside; walking without a stick feels like cycling without a bicycle.
I made my first walking stick in 1982, which I still have. It is made of alder and was made in the green, in other words it was cut down and used immediately. It is a thumb stick which is a stick with a Y shaped top which allows the thumb to nest in the V and the hand to grasp the shaft. These Y shapes are naturally occurring where 2 branches divide at 70 to 90 degrees from the main trunk of a tree. It is a great stick for security and stability and finding growing wood that can be turned into a thumb stick is much prized for by stick dressing craftsmen. My thumb stick however is not crafted, it is quite utilitarian.
Friends of mine were supervising a Boys Brigade Summer Camp that year at West Woodburn in Northumberland and having a few days free I joined them (in the days before CRP checks made ad-hoc helping of school aged children problematic). It was an awful week weather-wise, the rain never stopped, it was cold; a typical Northumbrian summer in fact. Adjacent to where we’d erected the tents the River Rede slowly meandered on its way to the North Tyne. Mr Churchman the camp leader was a keen trout fisherman and so in the evenings we’d head off and he’d catch a fish or two for our supper. It was on one of those trips while we sat on the bank waiting for the fish to bite that I cut down this piece of alder and fashioned it into a stick using Swiss Army knife. I can still remember sitting ‘whittling’ the bark off the shaft, watching the blade cleanly removing thin but 1 foot long shards of bark, then watching these float away in the river. Every time I use this stick it transports me back to that relaxing evening watching the river go by.
However much as I value this stick for sentimental reasons, it has a flaw. It was only ever roughly shaped with my knife and about 8 inches from the bottom it has a kink in it. A good craftsman worked walking stick should be ram-rod straight. And so it was in December 2010 I found myself in Bedwyn Brail woods. Earlier in the month timber operations had been on the go, and scattered around the woodland there was a lot of brash timber. Much of this was 10 foot long, ram-rod straight hazel shafts; the ideal wood for a walking stick. Some had been snapped and split by forestry vehicles, so after rejecting about 10 shafts I finally picked on one which while having a slight kink in it did feel good in the hand. I brought it home.
Ideally I should have steamed this stick while it was still green, to straighten out any minor bends and turns. That would be of course if I knew how to do this. I know in theory, not practice. I decided however to keep its character, leave the minor bends in place, and let it slowly air dry for 12 months before working on it. In hazel this not only strengthens (seasons) the wood before it is used, but allows the bark to mature prior to preparation and varnishing.
In the modern world, the art of stick dressing is in decline, although courses have recently revived this craft to the general public. For centuries shepherds and farmers have made sticks. Initially an essential working tool, over the year’s specific styles of stick developed with horn, antler or maybe a contrasting wood being used to embellish the top of the stick.
The style of stick developed too.
A Shepherd’s crook is what is traditionally seen as a worked stick. Usually this has a bent horn top to it used for catching sheep (from my experience an aluminium shepherds crook is far better, and lighter, to use). The Mart stick is a development of this with a wider horn arc, designed for use in the market, or for leaning against at a Show. Many of these sticks are so exquisitely carved, it would be impossible to use them for work. Great rivalry develops between stick craftsmen who could, just maybe, be awarded the ‘Best stick in the Show’ at the various agricultural shows which take place in the North.
Even as a child I’ve long been fascinated by old traditions, and I remember being given a book “The Art of Stick Dressing” by Norman Tulip who shepherded at various places around the North Tyne and Coquet Valley in the last Century. However it wasn’t until the mid 1950’s that Norman began to seriously carve sticks, partly as a result of the re-forming of the Border Stick Dressing Association after World War Two. At that time another Northumbrian George Snaith was widely recognised as the master of this ancient craft and George took Norman under his tutor’s wing. Norman Tulip then went on to produce some of the best worked sticks ever made.
And so as I lightly sanded and varnished my walking stick, in a way I am paying homage to a centuries old craft. There is no way I could ever be associated with the Norman Tulip’s or George Snaith’s of this world, but having a piece of history in my hand as I walk about is, something I find most comforting.