Backbone of Britain – Road Trip

May 2015

After two weeks on the road we headed back to Manchester. The Land Rover defender was full to bursting like a freshly packed holiday suitcase. The Spotify playlist hummed Paul Simon's Graceland and we all sat quietly reflecting.

It was the quietest we'd been for the whole trip - that was until the chorus kicked in and we all blared out "we're going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee," we all chuckled and then started to chat over the near 3000 mile trip that had taken us from the outer Hebrides in Scotland to the Southern most tip of the country in Cornwall.

The sun was beaming in through the windscreen which made a welcome change from a lot of the trip. Our first night in Uig, Skye saw the rain and hail coming in horizontal. Although the windscreen wipers were moving faster than Usain Bolts legs running the 100 meters we were still struggling to see. It continued as we pitched the tent, as we went to bed and as we drove onto the ferry the next morning at 5am. But after a full breakfast we went up on deck to witness a double rainbow straight out of a Lucky Charms advert. The clouds parted and the sun burst through. It felt like Harris was welcoming us in and we were officially starting our journey.

Our mission was to find people who produce things with a passion and a purpose and the first visit was to Sheila Rodderick, one of the only female linen producers on an island dominated by Harris Tweed. A few years earlier she had produced a number of costumes for the blockbuster film ‘The Hobbit’. I jumped out the landy to say hello, followed swiftly by Rob and then rather awkwardly by Matt who struggled to get out of the back of our 3 door bright white defender past the cases and kit packed to the ceiling. It wasn’t until Matt had suffered several hamstring strains and numerous bashes to the head trying to exit gracefully that we figured out the pain free, yoga free way to move the passenger seat to get out. By the end of trip we were a finely oiled machine, I would meet and greet all ready with my pen and pad, Rob would quickly unpack his camera to start shooting and Matty would be ready to start filming instantly. We wanted to capture as much as we could, not missing anything.

Working with your hands was important to everyone we met but working with your legs was equally important to Skye Weavers who have been producing woven and sewn products from their old croft house on Sky for three years now, weaving everything on their loom driven by a bicycle. They were just one of many people we met on the trip using fabrics in specific ways. There was the Scottish contingent – Jenifer from Edition Scotland who creates traditionally crafted cashmere accessories. Alec from Trakke producing a unique selection of bags from specialist durable fabrics. We slipped on the worlds best mountain shirt in Huddersfield made from the finest Merino wool when we met Natalie at McNair. We witnessed Iggy’s inspiration wall which was full of cuttings from various materials at Workhouse clothing in Bury St Edmunds and finally Tom from Finisterre showed us the wide selection of products his cold water surf brand in Cornwall produces.

It wasn’t just peoples use of fabric that interested us though, leather was on our list too. Not long into the trip we met Colin from Mcrostie a company based in Glasgow who specialise in premium leather belts and other fashion accessories. Then about half way down the country we stopped in Northampton, home to the finest shoe makers in the UK, our chosen producer was Alfred Sargent a fourth generation business based in Northampton, it was Paul Sargent who showed us around the factory and the wide range of shoes handmade there for decades.

When you take craft to a grander scale then each one becomes a stunning piece of work, for example Paul from Mears Boat builders whose family have been crafting, shaping and skilfully making wooden boats from their boat yard in Axmouth for three generations and further down the coast was James from Otter surfboards who is producing handcrafted hollow wooden surfboards in Devon. Also Mike from Rowland Wheelwrights was using traditional techniques passed down generations from as far back as 1300’s to engineer wooden products such as wheels and carriages for a variety of clients, notably the royal family. But our last visit of the trip to David from Coppice Pot gave us an insight into a way of life we knew very little about. He works with wood with no supply chain, straight out of the ground in the forest he looks after. He uses everything he cuts down, producing charcoal, kindling and traditional wood craft such as carved spoons or willow fences. He cuts enough wood to live off but never too much to damage the forest, working his way around the forest on a yearly basis until he comes back to the first area he started on, starting the process again.

David was typical of the type of person we met on the With Love Project, extremely welcoming, understandably passionate about the work he produced and willing to talk us through and educate us on the whole process. The great thing about this project is that it has a strict focus but is flexible enough to allow us to visit a wide variety of crafts people, producers and trades people. There’s not many projects which include a sign writer who has worked for the kings of Leon, next to a female blacksmith artist from Wiltshire or a fair trade coffee roaster next to a couple glass blowing their way into numerous collections and national museums. This trip took the total number of people we have met to date to nearly 40 inspiring individuals who we have found, heard about or been introduced too. We’ve been humbled by their openness and enthused by their work and attitude. Some days we have driven 10 hours to meet people, other days we’ve ventured out of the UK. Each and every journey is filled with excitement and anticipation of hearing another great story, an insight into someone’s thinking, their way of life and a chunk of knowledge and advice to hold onto. We have met traditional furniture makers at the top of their game, motorcycle manufacturers hand building by eye, wheelwrights who can trace the family trade back to the 1300’s and tailors who’ve produced suits for Pavarotti. Each one of these people has let us into their world after just a phone call or an email, understanding what we are trying to achieve and happy to share in what they are producing.

As we neared home with signs for Manchester and the M60 flying past my passenger window I knew that although this particular journey was shortly coming to an end, our journey to find people who are producing things with a passion and a purpose was only just beginning.

The book from our first trip is available on our shop here.

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