FORGOTTEN CRAFTS: THE TRUG MAKERS
We meet the Sussex artisans keeping this traditional skill alive
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