Sue and her husband Kirk have been growing basket willows organically in and around King’s Cliffe since 1998. Here, Kirk explains what they get up to.
We planted our first bed of basket willows in King’s Cliffe back in 1998 in the corner of a field at Spa Farm, Apethorpe. Sue had just finished a short career as a teacher in Peterborough and was embarking on a new career as a willow basketmaker.
On that first quarter acre plot we planted 25 varieties of basket willow and, over many years and a few different plots, we have whittled it down to growing just seven of Sue’s preferred varieties. Qualities such as bark colour and sheen, hardness of wood and general flexibility are what we look for in a good willow. Most of our varieties are of the species Salix purpurea.
Large asymmetric basket by Sue Kirk
The two plots we currently manage could not be less alike. Our older plot on the Stamford Road, just outside King’s Cliffe is dry, stony and gets battered by the wind. Far from ideal for willows but, at the time, it was all the land we could get. So in 2007 we re-mortgaged the house and gave it a go. The field is 2 acres with a quarter acre planted with willows. The rest is put down to sheds, work areas, wildflower meadow, Hawthorn scrub and trees planted for firewood. We are finally starting to see Oak, Field Maple and Birch emerge from the scrub. One day it will be a proper wood.
The willow bed at Stamford Road half way through the yearly coppicing
Over the last 15 years we have seen a big increase in bird and insect life. Our best friends are the lizards. We had a terrible 2 seasons where our willow bed was infested with poplar beetles which really hammered the crop. I spent two hours every single day walking the rows, beetle squidging. Then the lizards moved in. We are convinced that they gorged on the beetles. We now have lizards under every stone and the beetles are hardly an issue. Next year we plan to dig a pond to be filled from the run-off from our willow shed. This should increase the biodiversity further.
Pyramidal Orchids in the meadow in early summer
Due to the conditions, the willow produced here is very slender and hard and over the years Sue has evolved her basketry to suit the materials that the land provides. That said, we always dreamed of a picture- book willow bed - damp, fertile and sheltered. But we should always be careful what we wish for...
In January 2019 I finished my job as a gardener to work full time with Sue as a basketmaker. During my first week, I was sat at my lap board in a proper tangle and the phone rang. It was the local water mill owner replying to a request I’d put out the previous summer to rent a small patch of land down by the Willow Brook. By the end of that February we had a lovely tenth of an acre plot all fenced, planted up and ready to grow.
Vigorous willow growth alongside the Willow Brook
That first year we couldn’t believe our eyes! The willow grew like stink. We had never seen anything like it. Many of the rods produced were very big. Almost too big. So, again we have had to modify what we make to suit what the land provides. The larger material is ideal for log baskets, base stakes and handle bows. It also makes great uprights for plant climbers which we sell a lot of each spring.
Willow propagates very easily from hardwood cuttings planted during winter. We sell these cuttings to other basketmakers who want to grow their own materials. It’s nice to think of how many willow beds we have helped to create over the years. I’m afraid to say, that after years of flapping about with old carpets and scraps of cardboard, our current two willow beds are initially planted through woven plastic landscape membrane. This membrane can be removed and re-purposed at year 5 or 6 by which time the willow is able to compete well with the weeds. Until it is removed, the membrane eliminates the need for weeding but it does create a very unnatural barrier between the leaf litter and the soil. When the membrane is removed, you can hear the soil sigh with relief as the old leaves drop onto the surface and all the micro-organisms are allowed to properly get on with their business. I have never found anyone who can supply cardboard in massive sheets but I do know of a basketmaker in Cambridge who is experimenting with a biodegradable woven mulch which is supposed to last five years before rotting away. So there is hope of improvement on that front.
After planting, the initial cuttings eventually grow into low gnarly stools producing the many rods we use in our basketry. We harvest the willow by hand each winter using a small slender hook. Each stool is coppiced low to the ground and that season’s growth is then roughly bundled and stored in a shed until early summer when it will be graded for basketry.
I grade the willow by dropping these rough bundles into a sunken barrel. Beside the barrel is a measuring stick. I grab the tips of the bundles within the different height marks on the stick - starting with the tallest - and bundle them separately. Damaged rods and tall weed debris is removed at this stage. So we end up with bundles of willow of different lengths – 3ft, 4ft, 5ft and so on. These bundles are then labelled and stored to further dry out until late summer when they will be ready to be soaked and made into baskets.
Harvesting the new growth with a small slender hook
You could make a basket with green willow straight from the stool. However, when the resulting basket dries it will be loose and weak. So we have to thoroughly dry the willow before it is soaked for basketry. We soak our willow in two 10ft cattle troughs. Soaking is a mysterious art that I feel I will never fully grasp. Under-soaked willow will snap. Over-soaked willow will shred and go mushy. That sounds straight forward enough but each variety has a different soaking time and each variety’s soaking time changes year-on-year. The ambient temperature is also a factor, so as the seasons progress, soaking times fluctuate. We are constantly testing the willows in soak, trying to remove them at just the right time.
Until 2019 Sue always worked from home. Our lounge was her workshop for many years and our garden sheds were always bursting with willow. She ran her basketry classes in King’s Cliffe Village Hall and travelled all over the country teaching the craft.
When I finished gardening at the Manor House on West St, King’s Cliffe to work with Sue, the owners approached us to see if we would be interested in renting their adjacent art studio because they were winding down their operation there. What an opportunity! So we decided to go for it. Having the workshop space means we can now run all our courses from one place and students get to work in a functioning basketry workshop. It is also good to take the work out of our home. If you are interested in coming on a class or finding out more about basketmaking go to our website here suekirkwillowbaskets.co.uk
Kirk basketmaking in the studio at King's Cliffe
We are opening our workshop on 7th and 8th April from 9am -5pm and will be selling baskets, garden structures and basketry tools and books. We will also have work by Justin Capp for sale and locally grown flowers from Foxtail Lilly.
Visit our Stamford Road willow bed
On 12th June there will be a chance to look around the field that we bought in 2007 as Rockingham Forest Vision are organising a group visit. Sue and I will be showing the group the willow bed, the coppiced woodland and the wildflower meadow. Lots of chance to chat and ask questions over a cuppa - it will be good to meet you. Details and booking are on the events page of this website.