We meet the Sus­sex ar­ti­sans keep­ing this tra­di­tional skill alive

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by caro­line stacey pho­to­graphs by polly wre­ford

Dete Marden sits astride his time­worn shav­ing horse. The crackle of the wood stove and the oc­ca­sional burst of bird­song from out­side are the only ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the rhyth­mic sound of his long, deft pulls of the draw knife. He is fash­ion­ing a tra­di­tional Sus­sex trug, the fa­mous hand­crafted containers that have been made here in The Trug­gery in Coop­ers Croft – a tiny ham­let just out­side the vil­lage of Her­st­mon­ceux in Sus­sex – al­most ev­ery day since 1899. An old hand, Pete knows that the warmer spring days will mean an in­crease in de­mand, which he’ll need to keep up with: “Some­times we work to or­der, but more of­ten we just know what’s re­quired – lit­tle ones for gifts in March, in the wed­ding sea­son they get big­ger, then, come har­vest time, they’re up an­other size.”

Trugs have been part of ru­ral life in Bri­tain since the 1500s. In­cred­i­bly light­weight and durable with a shal­low, el­lip­ti­cal shape, they were first used by farm­ers to har­vest and mea­sure crops, a prac­tice that con­tin­ued right up un­til the last cen­tury. Their link with the county of Sus­sex be­gan be­cause of the abun­dance of sweet chest­nut and wil­low in the area, which are both in­te­gral to the craft. But it was ce­mented in 1851 when Her­st­mon­ceux trug-maker Thomas Smith ex­hib­ited his wares at The Great Ex­hi­bi­tion, where they caught the eye of Queen Vic­to­ria. Such was Thomas’s ded­i­ca­tion, he de­liv­ered the Queen’s or­der in per­son, hav­ing pushed it all the way from Sus­sex to the Palace in a wheel­bar­row.

Mr Smith may have put Sus­sex trugs on the map, but the rea­son this time-hon­oured craft went on to sur­vive into the

Em­ploy­ing lo­cal peo­ple keeps skills in the area where they have been prac­tised for so long

21st cen­tury is down to a hand­ful of pas­sion­ate ar­ti­sans, most re­cently Sarah Page. Sarah took over The Trug­gery in 1995 and went on to breathe life back into the ail­ing skill – so much so that in 2008, Coun­try Liv­ing ded­i­cated an ar­ti­cle to her and the re­mark­able work she was do­ing. At the time she had con­cerns about the fu­ture of the busi­ness and of trug-mak­ing in gen­eral but, al­most ten years on, thanks to her hard work it is flour­ish­ing.

Grow­ing or­der num­bers, an ap­pear­ance as part of the set de­sign on the Harry Pot­ter films, a trug-themed gar­den at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and praise from Monty Don, no less, have all fea­tured as high points in the past ten years. How­ever, Sarah recog­nises that for a strug­gling craft it’s the skilled ap­pren­tices she’s taken on that have been the most im­por­tant devel­op­ment. Cen­tral among these is Pete Marden. When he joined The Trug­gery sev­eral years ago, he had no spe­cific car­pen­try ex­pe­ri­ence be­side the stan­dard school in­tro­duc­tion, al­though time spent work­ing as a clock re­pairer had made him

ABOVE The Trug­gery has been for the boards and feet is op­er­at­ing from the same ru­ral mainly a byprod­uct of site since 1899. The wil­low used mak­ing cricket bats adept with his hands. “Af­ter a year or two, you think, ‘I’m get­ting the hang of it’,” he ex­plains. “Then, a cou­ple of years later, you think, ‘No, now I’m get­ting the hang of it.’ It only re­ally fell into place per­haps five years af­ter that.”

To sup­port his train­ing at The Trug­gery, Pete also stud­ied wood­land con­ser­va­tion at nearby Mer­rist Wood Col­lege, which gave him a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als used. “I ideally like to start with not just the wood but the wood­land it comes from. I se­lect the tree and cut it down my­self – that way it feels as though I’m tak­ing it out of na­ture in its raw state. To go from that to some­thing us­able is re­ally in­ter­est­ing.” A bonus of this ap­proach is that Pete is of­ten paid for his labour ‘in sweet chest­nut’. This trad­ing of raw ma­te­ri­als, skills and prod­uct is a proudly up­held cus­tom that it­self dates back as far as the craft. “The one I’m fin­ish­ing here is for a farmer, in re­turn for a tree,” Pete ex­plains, hold­ing aloft a beau­ti­ful ‘num­ber eight’ trug (de­not­ing the size, the num­bers go from zero up to ten).

Sarah is par­tic­u­larly grate­ful for Pete’s help as she ad­mits that re­cruit­ing ap­pren­tices isn’t al­ways straight­for­ward. “It is dif­fi­cult to find young peo­ple who don’t mind be­ing in such a re­mote area who can drive and pos­sess de­cent knife skills,” she ex­plains. “Most teenagers to­day have never whit­tled wood.” Be­cause of

BE­LOW RIGHT Pete Marden works sliv­ers of wil­low that have been soaked to make them pli­able

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