Coates English Willow

Keeping the tradition of basket making alive in Somerset

Keeping the tradition of basket making alive in Somerset - Credit: Sarah Ford

Bee hives and bath chairs, push chairs and post office sorting baskets – the charming museum at the Willows & Wetlands Visitor Centre displays a fascinating collection of willow items reminding us how reliant we once were on an ancient craft.

A giant watering can at the entrance in Stoke st Gregory

A giant watering can at the entrance in Stoke st Gregory - Credit: Sarah Ford

As synonymous with Somerset as cheese and cider, willow growing and weaving is a skill which has evolved and adapted to keep up with the times.

The visitor centre in Stoke St Gregory is home to Coates English Willow where they produce homeware, hurdles and garden accessories, as well as an extraordinary variety of bespoke items – including commissions from the sporting and film worlds. They made an ingenious chess board jump for the cross-country equestrian event at Greenwich Park for instance, and World War Two style shell baskets for the War Horse movie. They also made chairs for Johnny Depp’s Sweeny Todd and masks for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In their workshop on the Somerset Levels, Coates have just produced a batch of 600 hamper baskets for Fortnum and Mason and willow coffins are regularly made for the trade as well as for individuals who buy their own.

But the most important item to be produced here is Coate’s Willow Charcoal, something which is used by artists around the world.

Director Nicola Coate explains: “Half of the crop goes into artist charcoal. It’s a well established brand and something we’ve worked hard on and are very proud of.”

Nicola is married to Jonathan Coate whose family have been growing willow on the Somerset Levels since 1819. In the 1970s Jonathan’s grandparents added to their existing business and bought a basket making business.

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The family grows withies on about 70 acres on Curry Moor, Hay Moor, Stathe and West Sedgemoor. It’s an annual crop, growing from ground level to about eight feet tall in one season from around May to September, says Nicola.

“It grows really quickly and is harvested in the winter after the leaves have fallen; the leaves are returning the nutrients to the ground - that’s one of the reasons the plants go on for long. They can last for 20 or 25 years.

“Last winter’s floods set us back for a while; 90 per cent of the fields were submerged in water. When you looked across the fields all you could see of the eight feet tall withies were little sticks sticking up through the water.

“We are used to the water, it’s part of the character of the area, but this was exceptional.”

The visitor centre opened here in 1984 and people can watch the talented team of basket makers weaving products that can be found in the shop. And there’s a chance for the public to have a go themselves at various workshops held throughout the year. The centre also includes The Lemon Tree Coffee House and the latest additions to the site are craft studios run by other businesses.

If they wish, visitors can take the Willow Walk, where the top of Windmill Hill offers some splendid views.

Nicola explains: “People can go on a tour of the centre where they hear the whole story of willow, then see it growing or being cut and get a real sense of the levels and moors.”

*See some fabulous crane models at the Willows & Wetlands Visitor Centre on 22 November as part of the Christmas Craft and Food Fayre incorporating the Celebration of Cranes procession.