A novel fac­tory

SUE CADE takes a step back in time at the last re­main­ing oak bark tan­nery in the coun­try

Devon Life - - Colyton Tannery -

Pro­duc­tion sites th­ese days are mostly shiny, ster­ile places with mech­a­nised pro­cesses. By con­trast, the J&FJ Baker tan­nery in Coly­ton is like some­thing from a Dick­ens novel – dark, mildly mal­odor­ous and ooz­ing with char­ac­ter.

I’m shown around by An­drew Parr, the fifth gen­er­a­tion Parr in the busi­ness. An­drew tells me the tan­nery busi­ness goes way back be­fore his fam­ily bought it in 1862; it’s been in same lo­ca­tion for longer than any­one can re­mem­ber, most likely since the Ro­mans were in oc­cu­pa­tion.

He ex­plains: “When my great, great grand­fa­ther, who was a baker in Ex­eter, mar­ried into a tan­ning fam­ily, he and his wife de­cided this was the per­fect spot for their busi­ness.” Back then it was not just a tan­nery, but a mill, too. The site abuts the River Coly, with the mill pond con­ve­niently on site for the wa­ter needed for the tan­ning process.

This is the last oak bark tan­nery in the coun­try, though years ago when there was an abun­dance of oak trees in Eng­land it was the most com­mon method of tan­ning leather. “It’s the same story in other coun­tries,” An­drew ex­plains. “In the South of France and Italy, chest­nut was tra­di­tion­ally used for tan­ning, and nearer the Equa­tor, mi­mosa.”

The process uses oak bark that has been stripped in spring. Oak strip­ping was once a thriv­ing lo­cal in­dus­try, but the bark is now im­ported from other parts of the coun­try. Sim­i­larly, lime used in the fac­tory once came from Lyme Regis, but An­drew says it is now ob­tained from Der­byshire.

Hides are sourced lo­cally from beef cat­tle in Devon such as Here­ford, Charo­lais, Bel­gian Blues and Limousins, col­lected daily and quickly cooled and salted by hide mer­chants be­fore ar­riv­ing at the tan­nery for the start of the lim­ing process. This is when hides are de­haired by im­mer­sion in lime pits.

As I climb the steps to take a close look at the pits An­drew half-jok­ingly warns me not to fall in. I sud­denly feel like I’m in an episode of Mid­somer Mur­ders; the deep pits would be a per­fect hid­ing place for a body!

Over in the tan yard, an­other murky shed that An­drew says is ex­actly as it has been for cen­turies, are more pits – 72 of them con­tain­ing vary­ing strengths of oak bark tan liquor. The hides are moved weekly for three months from weak tan to stronger mix­tures be­fore re­main­ing in the last pit for nine months. It’s an in­ten­sive process de­vel­oped over cen­turies to cre­ate ex­cep­tional leather.

The qual­ity of the leather de­pends on the qual­ity of the orig­i­nal hide. The finest hides are kept for har­ness leathers, whilst those with scratches and tears are used for shoe leather, as any de­fects can be cut around. The tan­nery’s leather is an in­te­gral, tra­di­tional part of the Bri­tish shoe mak­ing in­dus­try, sent to Sav­ile Row and Jermyn Street for hand­made shoes (think Colin Firth in the film Kings­man), or to Northamp­ton, the shoe-mak­ing cen­tre of the coun­try. An­drew be­lieves the bench-made shoes from Northamp­ton are “the best in the world”.

He points out leather be­ing pre­pared for har­nesses, and I re­mem­ber from my child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences in the eques­trian world how English leather was al­ways hyped as far su­pe­rior to In­dian leather for qual­ity and dura­bil­ity. Har­ness leather

‘I sud­denly feel like I’m in an episode of Mid­somer Mur­ders; the deep pits would be a per­fect hid­ing place for a body!’

un­der­goes ad­di­tional pro­ce­dures: an­other shave and hand dress­ing with oils and grease - in­clud­ing a dip in mut­ton tal­low. While there’s not a lot of glam­our in tan­ning hides, the end re­sult reeks of class.

I won­der aloud what the most ex­pen­sive leather pro­duced here is, and An­drew shows me a piece of Rus­sian Calf, a copy the tan­nery makes of a renowned Rus­sian leather last pro­duced dur­ing the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion. “It’s used for lux­ury leather goods; we sup­ply bag and wal­let mak­ers, and shoe­mak­ers Crock­ett & Jones.”

That prompts me to ask whether any celebri­ties en­dorse J&FJ Baker leather, some­what id­i­ot­i­cally imag­in­ing Johnny Depp’s dis­tinc­tive Pi­rates tri­corn (it strikes me that Jack Spar­row would feel at home in the murk­i­ness of the tan­nery). An­drew won’t be drawn but is happy to men­tion sup­ply­ing shoe­mak­ers with a Royal War­rant, mean­ing Prince Charles and the Duke of Ed­in­burgh may well step out in top qual­ity Devon leather.


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