How it all began :: Interview with Project co-ordinator Sarah Thomas

me photographing

Photo by Dayve Ward

Interview by Bill Gilson

How did you get started with this project?

I met Walter last summer by chance. I was doing a project for Penguin Books – I was a “wayfarer,” which is somebody who walks without a specific destination. The idea was that I would walk around Britain encountering tales and characters and would make a blog about it. This was was a project to promote a book by the prominent nature writer, Robert Macfarlane called The Old Ways, which is about walking paths and keeping them open, and the connectedness of everything. And my involvement in this Walter’s Tools project was an extension of that connectedness. In my walking I came across Walter, a very interesting character, and I had a great afternoon with him here, listening to him with all his stories. And I also met a lady named Grace Holland, of the Woodmanship Trust – the charity that is running this project. She had recently successfully acquired a Heritage Lottery grant to do the Walter’s Tools project – to renovate and catalogue a significant chunk of Walter’s collection – for it to be made into a public tool library for free use by the public. And having met me and realising that I was going to be moving up to this part of the country, she rang and asked if I would run the project. I loved the way that it came about though two people that I met on my journey having something to do with each other. For me it was like an extension of those stories. Although in a coordinator role you end up spending a lot of time with spread sheets – alas.

I had already seen Walter’s barn when I first came here, and I was rather impressed with how he could go in and access a couple of Neolithic hand axes, which was what I he and I were talking about at the time. He went straight to a certain corner and got out this carrier bag containing these hand axes. But he has his own order in there, and it isn’t particularly accessible to anybody else. The barn needed a whole lot of pre-cleaning before the project could begin.

When was this?

Back in January. There was a lot that happened before the volunteers came on board.

The first volunteers came when?

April.

How did the money work out?

It’s A Heritage Lottery funded scheme called “Sharing Heritage” – these are small community-grant-based projects. The idea is that there’s some kind of learning aspect in it. So as part of this project we weren’t just renovating and cataloguing the tools, we also ran a series of five weekend workshops in these trades, such as haymaking, basket making, tool-handle making, blacksmithing. And also charcoal burning, since Walter used to be a charcoal burner. We did that in collaboration with an event that was happening at Stott Park Bobbin Mill on the west side of Windermere. There was a bunch of people from the coppicing world doing an “earth burn,” and we ran a course in kiln charcoal burning.

How much money did the grant provide?

Ten thousand pounds. Which sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t that much.

Yes, I imagine you’d go through that pretty quickly, considering all you’ve done.

Yes. For a start we had to build this shelter to do the work under. We tried to build one for nothing, to start with, and then another –but they absolutely didn’t stand up against the wind and weather. So this very sturdy shelter is “Model Mark III” – and big tarps don’t come cheap.

You’ve done a nice job on it.

This static caravan, where we’re sitting now, used to be under a rotten old Dutch barn. The danger was that it would fall on people’s heads. Also it didn’t let enough light in. We pulled that down, dragged out the caravan – which didn’t fall apart. So we thought, we’ll use it as an office. Orri Hjaltason, a volunteer from northwest Iceland – Icelanders can do anything – and Paul Girling, who’s a furniture maker, came together and built this structure, which is based on a cruck barn.

Where are you from, Sarah? What’s your background?

I was born in Buckinghamshire and both my uncle and my cousin (who is here today) – Martin Foley – are furniture makers, carpenters. And I’ve always been quite interested in artisanship, and I’ve gone to craft fairs and been surrounded by that sort of thing. My educational background is in anthropology. I’m really interested in people’s stories and different ways of doing things. I’ve also lived abroad for a lot of my life. I grew up in Kenya, and I recently lived in Iceland. And now that I’m back in Britain I’m very interested in getting to know its culture. I’m very into learning how to be resourceful as a human. And I think Walter is resourcefulness incarnate. It’s good to learn how to fix things. It’s good to know how to work without the need for fossil fuels because that’s the only way to go now. So I think this is really a very progressive project. Re-educating ourselves in the old ways because they make sense. This project makes possible a new generation of people having shared resources, to continue in a way that’s sustainable. I hope it will have a very long lifetime, this tool collection.

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One thought on “How it all began :: Interview with Project co-ordinator Sarah Thomas

  1. Hi Sarah A great description of you and the project. I was given a copy of “The Old Ways” at Christmas but have to confess – I got so many books, I have still not read it, although I previously enjoyed “The Wild Places”. I look forward to the Launch on 12th April. Many thanks for this,

    Roger PS I meant to tell you that Dayve gave me permission to use one of his photos of the tool display preparation for my my website – still a work in progress: http://www.rogercartwright.com

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